Toby Young is right! But…

Trickle down economicsTejvan Pettinger

Looking for a representative example of a left-wing commentator’s response to Toby Young’s treatise on the dispensability of old people to which I might refer I lighted upon Kevin McKenna’s column in The National. I could hardly have chosen better. I could hardly have chosen worse. Better, if what was wanted was a heartfelt polemic on the heartlessness of a socio-economic system which supposing itself entirely rational blithely embraces the unreasonable. Worse, if what was required was an even vaguely rational critique of that system’s unreasonableness.

Don’t get me wrong! I gladly accept – nay insist! – that there is a place for emotion in politics. Politics is about people, essentially. People have emotions. They function on the basis of their emotions as well as their intellect. We may not always get the balance right, but we tend to recognise it when we do. The point at which heart and head find a semblance of balance we call ‘reasonable’. The effort to find that point we call ‘reasonableness’. It stands to reason, therefore, that a political philosophy which seeks to exclude intuition in favour of calculation must forfeit some part of it’s reasonableness. Its relevance to real people in the real world must be questionable at best.

To my mind, attempts to purge our politics of human feelings and instincts have diminished it and us. Ironically, it has left us with a politics of fear – the most powerful of all emotions. Subtract from the sum of what makes us human that which we dream of and you are left only with what we’re afraid of. Every great social reform began with a dream. All social progress has historically been driven by aspiration and hope. No great or positive change was ever born of fear. If progressive politics has slowed, stopped or been reversed – as might well be argued – it is because we have disconnected our politics from our dreams. We have descended into a politics in which to be called a dreamer is to be degraded, diminished and dismissed.

When Alex Salmond referred to the restoration of Scotland’s independence as the dream that will never die he triggered ridicule and revulsion in those disposed to regard dreams as a political disease. But his words touched something in the hearts and minds of people who, consciously of otherwise, long for a society which has a place for dreamers and a politics which has space for dreams. I suspect Toby Young falls into the former category and Kevin McKenna the latter. I am more likely to be found in Mr McKenna’s virtual company than Mr Young’s. But I might not be entirely comfortable in either.

I haven’t read the article in which Toby Young argues inter alia that “Spending £350 billion to prolong the lives of a few hundred thousand mostly elderly people is an irresponsible use of taxpayers’ money”. But I certainly recognise the ideology which informs such sentiments – if that word can be applied other than sardonically. I have to say that I agree with the sentiment, even as I deplore the lack of sentimentality. Toby Young’s statement is essentially correct. But, taken literally, it is quite unreasonable.

Before I explain my own response to Toby Young’s remark I have to comment on the way Kevin McKenna has reacted as, unfortunately, I suspect it will be fairly typical of the reaction of those on the left of Scottish politics. Where Toby Young’s attitude – as exemplified by that one remark – is unreasonable because it eschews emotion, Kevin McKenna’s response is unreasonable because it abandon’s reason almost entirely in favour of something approaching hysterical mawkishness.

Let’s start with the claim that “it’s possible, even at this stage, to divine two distinct currents of thought emerging amid our attempts to extract meaning from this apocalypse”. Well, maybe it is possible to simplify “currents of thought” in this way. But it is inevitably an oversimplification such as must make analysis suspect. To his credit, Kevin McKenna acknowledges that the abstraction may misrepresent Toby Young’s full argument.

I’ve probably rendered Young a disservice here by selectively quoting from what is actually a well-argued essay on why we should apply pure market forces to the care dilemma at the heart of coronavirus. Later, for instance, he goes on to say the economic downturn which is certain to follow coronavirus will also claim a great many lives and that we can mitigate this by taking hard decisions about the worth of human beings right now. Predictably, he has been condemned as inhuman for holding such views. Yet they are merely the distillation of pure, neoliberalism and, as such, have already found a home in this Conservative administration.

But having acknowledged that a less rigorously pragmatic approach to the “care dilemma” would also be likely to cause suffering and cost lives, Kevin McKenna glosses over this to focus exclusively on the human cost of what he characterises as “the distillation of pure, neoliberalism” implied by his selected quotes from Toby Young’s article. Apparently, that cost is inherently less if it is the consequence of an approach which can hold its head high as it proclaims its humanity.

I am also perplexed, and not a little irked, by Kevin McKenna’s claim that we are all striving to “extract meaning from this apocalypse”. By which I suppose him to mean that we are trying to understand the Covid-19 in something more than a strictly scientific, epidemiological sense. However, no understanding of this pandemic in any sense is aided by applying the term “apocalypse”. A term which means complete and final destruction of the world, but which may through usage be taken to imply something slightly less… well… apocalyptic. The reality is that, while extremely serious, the coronavirus pandemic is very, very far short of being an “apocalypse”. The word is not remotely appropriate. The virus is not threatening to eliminate anything close to a significant part of the world’s population. The pandemic is necessarily massively disruptive. But it is not massively lethal. Every avoidable early death is a tragedy. But we surely have to keep a sense of proportion.

Has Kevin never watched any disaster movies? Is he unaware of the likely reaction to news of the impending Armageddon? As a rule, it starts raining men, women and children as people jump off tall buildings to escape what the anticipate will be a more protracted and painful doom. Start an apocalypse panic and it’s highly likely that more people will be kill by falling bodies than could ever be killed by either the pandemic or its aftermath.

And what the hell does he mean by “this apocalypse”? There can be only one! You can’t send it back because it doesn’t come up to expectations raised by watching the movie ‘2012’ eighteen times. “We were promised continents crumbling into the ocean and what do we get? A dry cough and a runny nose!”.

Hands up everybody who’s trying to “extract meaning” from all of this. Not you, Archbishop! Sorry, Your Holiness, but no you don’t get 1.3 billion votes. Nobody’s sitting around philosophising about the pandemic. They’re too busy whining about being deprived of their football and their Saturday nights down the club. Or standing in the middle of their own 4-metre section of the queue at Asda hoping their’s some milk left by the time they’re allowed in as the 12 litres they panic-bought has gone off and they just can’t drink tea without milk.

The ‘ordinary people’ Kevin McKenna purports to be defending against the heartless Toby Youngs of this world don’t “extract meaning” from disasters, they build conspiracy theories around them. Or they just get on with their lives as best they can.

Kevin McKenna condemns a “market forces” solution to the care dilemma because it is “lacking in humanity”. But rather than outline a more humane solution he attacks neoliberal orthodoxy using reductio ad absurdum and a caricature involving exploding wheelchairs. He is undoubtedly right about the “arrogance and complacency of unearned privilege” But it is not only market-obsessives who treat life like a commodity. More always being better but, at a push, tradeable. His reaction to the suggestion that some life may be jettisoned in order to keep the economic system ticking over implies that he sees life much in the same way. Maybe it’s not the jettisoning of life that’s the issue. Maybe its the transaction that’s the problem. Perhaps it’s not more humanity that’s wanted, but a better deal.

Which brings me to my explanation of why I think Toby Young is right – at least to some extent. Supposing we take Kevin McKenna’s preferred approach and sacrifice cold calculation for warm and fuzzy sentiment. With one difference. We take account of how the old people themselves feel about it. We put their emotions into the equation. We see it from their perspective.

Trickle down economicsTejvan Pettinger

I am not particularly old. But hoping to see my 70th birthday this year, I could be said to be more old than young – by a significant margin. Kevin introduces his mother in support of his case so I’m assuming he’ll be OK with others personalising the debate in a similar way. Let’s suppose the virus was as deadly as hysterical sensationalists want it to be. Not apocalyptic. Because then the care dilemma becomes all but meaningless as everybody ends up just as dead as everybody else. (Yes! |I know there could still be a care dilemma relating to the manner of the dying. But gimme a break, eh!) Now suppose that there is a vaccine. But that the vaccine is in short supply. Suppose it came down to a choice between me and my son. Do you imagine I would hesitate to trade whatever years I might have remaining to save my child’s life? Put like that, the calculation is easy. And it is a calculation. It is a trade. It is not significantly different from what Toby Young seemed to suggest.

We might deck out this calculation in all the finery of noble sacrifice and what have you, but under it all will remain the calculation that my son’s life is worth more than mine. What is wrong with Toby Young’s point is not that it is lacking in humanity but that it is made in an unreasonable way. By discounting human emotions it forfeits reasonableness. Make the same argument in a way which takes account of human emotion and it starts to seem reasonable.

The problem with neoliberal orthodoxy and market forces-obsession is not that they are inhumane but that they are unreasonable. It is unreasonable to imagine human emotion can be excluded from our politics. It is unreasonable to suppose a socio-economic system that takes no account of human emotions can possibly be stable. It is unreasonable to rely on the willingness of people to subordinate their feelings to market forces. It is unreasonable to mistake those market forces for a natural phenomenon which left to its own devices will optimally regulate human society. It is unreasonable to think market forces are or ever can be left to their own devices.

It is unreasonable to present the care dilemma as a false choice between two options defined by market forces. It is unreasonable to insist that care my only be given or withheld. It is unreasonable to dismiss without thought the possibility that care might be shared. It is unreasonable to present the care dilemma solely as a matter of supply and demand rather than a question of distribution.

It is, for reasons which I hope would be apparent even to Toby Young, unreasonable to champion a system which prioritises exponential accumulation over equitable distribution. It is unreasonable to the point of insanity to suppose that such a system might be sustainable.

That’s a lot of unreasonableness for an ideology which claims superiority on the basis of its rationality. It is the unreasonableness of that ideology that is its weakness. The inhumanity is a a product or a symptom of the unreasonableness. Toby Young is right. But let’s be reasonable.

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Everybody doing the same thing differently together on their own

Countless millions of words have been written and spoken about Covid-19. I’ve written a few myself despite having resolved not to – because countless millions of words had already been written on the subject. It’s a mono-crisis! By definition, they’re difficult to avoid. As I write this I look back and am surprised to find that I’ve written half a dozen articles around the coronavirus pandemic. Seems I’ve made a very poor job of steering clear. And here I am, doing it again. Because out of those millions of words there’s a couple of things that have caught my attention.

We are told that the Covid-19 pandemic is unprecedented. And we are told that it will change our lives forever. Inevitably, I have questions.

Is it really unprecedented? Is the Covid-19 pandemic sufficiently different from previous pandemics to justify the claim that it is totally novel? If it is unprecedented what differentiates it from those previous outbreaks?

Will Covid-19 really change the way we live our lives? In what ways will it change our lives? Who will decide how our lives are changed?

Viruses are not new. Neither are pandemics. For as long as there have been people, there have been things trying to kill people. More accurately, there have been things trying to live and using people as part of that process. The big things use us as food. We’ve killed most of them. The ones we haven’t killed tend not to regard us as an easy meal. It’s as if they remember how many of them we’ve killed. They tend to give people a wide berth. Although they’ll still snack opportunistically on people who have forgotten how to think of themselves as food. Or who rely too heavily on the species memory of predators. Or who are just stupid enough to put themselves on the menu.

The little things – microbes – use us as hosts or just happen to share our environment. Sometimes, them using us as hosts or sharing our environment disrupts our life process. They make us ill. Sometimes, they disrupt our life process to the extent that it ceases to be viable. We then experience the ultimate adaptation to the environment we have unsuccessfully shared with the microbes. We die. Not surprisingly or wholly without justification we then tend to think of those microbes as being killers. Although there is no malice aforethought. There is no intent. The microbes aren’t trying to kill us; they are just trying to live. We are the killers. We try to kill them. Not that they’re offended at all. They don’t care. They’re microbes.

We cohabit fairly well with bacteria. We have to. They were here first – about 3.5 billion years ago – so we grew up together. We also have to live with them because they’re tough little buggers. They can survive extremes of heat and cold and pressure and exist in radioactive environments and the vacuum of space as well as in human bodies.

In fact, they are part of us. We are not entirely made of stardust. There’s a lot of bacteria in the recipe for a person. Roughly half of the collection of cells that make a person are bacterial cells. They’re on you and in you. Mostly, we get on fine. But sometimes we get bacterial intruders that break in and start vandalising stuff causing our other cells to react in a way that we call ill. That’s why you should never eat the peanuts on the bar which come with free faecal matter donated by strangers who think hand-washing is a poor use of their valuable time.

More commonly, it’s our own bacterial cells that cause the trouble by getting out of place. The bacteria that live quite happily in your digestive tract tend to start a riot if they get into your blood stream. If you’re going to be a doctor one of the first things you have to learn is that shite and blood are not a great double-act. If you see them together, one or other of them is up to no good. I don’t think it’s showing undue prejudice to say that it’s almost always the shite that’s the culprit. There’s a reason why the phrase ‘stirring the blood’ has positive connotations while saying the same of shite conjures entirely negative associations.

The verdict on bacteria is that they’re mostly OK, but they’re worth watching. Viruses are a different kettle of fish. Actually, science has now established that viruses are not kettles. Nor do they contain fish. Or evil spirits. But they’re very different from bacteria in other ways. They are smaller, for a start. And they’re less complex. But the most significant difference is that while bacteria can reproduce themselves – sometimes a bit too efficiently – viruses need a host. They latch onto other cells. Different viruses go for different cells in your body. Some attack blood cells. Some attack liver cells. Some, as we’re finding out, attack cells in the respiratory system. In doing so they almost always cause disease. They invade a healthy cell and reprogram it to make more viruses; killing the formerly healthy cell in the process. Or they turn the healthy cell into a malignant cell. A bit like being bitten by a zombie. Neither of which is a good thing. But being bitten by a zombie is less of a worry because they don’t exist, while viruses certainly do.

Viruses aren’t new. And they’re always new. Because they mutate. Like every other organism, they try to adapt to their environment. (Humans are different in that rather than adapting to our environment, we try to adapt the environment to us. This is not a viable strategy for species survival in the longer term.) Viruses are very good at mutating because they are very good at reproducing – so long as they have a supply of host cells. With evolution it’s not time that matters so much as the number of generations that the organism can pack into a given period. Each new generation is an opportunity for coding errors – some of which will be adaptive. If you are a creature that produces only one generation every 25 years then it will take a great many years to produce enough errors for the odds to tilt far enough towards the adaptive to result in a useful mutation. Which is tough luck if the environment changes at a more rapid pace.

Viruses mutate at a very rapid rate relative to humans. Which makes them very dangerous. Or not. Because some of the mutations make the virus less aggressive while some make it more aggressive. Evolution is always random. It’s only the products of the process which look as if they were manufactured according to a plan. Because the virus mutates so rapidly it can be difficult to produce a vaccine to combat it before it has done significant harm to populations. The best way by far of dealing with viruses is to cut off their supply of healthy cells susceptible to serving as hosts. Basically, this means maintaining strict separation between the people who are hosting a population of the virus and people who are potential hosts for new populations. That means everybody.

Not everybody may be infected. Not everybody may be a viable host – some people are naturally immune. But absolutely everybody is either potentially infected or potentially a host for infection. So the only way to stop a viral infection becoming a pandemic is to create and maintain a minimum amount of space between individuals. All of them! All of the time! Which is problematic – because humans are social animals. Because we’re social, and because for a relatively brief period of the planet’s history we’ve been uncommonly good at manipulating our environment to serve our purposes as well as uncommonly bad at predicting and managing the consequences, there’s a lot of us. An awful lot. In at least two senses of the term.

As an alternative to separation by distance, we can introduce physical barriers with a view to preventing transfer of viruses between host and potential hosts. But this comes up against the human proclivity for rubbing up against each other’s naked bodies for pleasure and procreation – and not infrequently for profit. We’re not very good at resisting this temptation. And not very reliable when it comes to maintaining the integrity of those barriers. If you think hat-hair’s bad then try gas-mask-hair!

The viruses take full advantage of our human folly. They’ll probably win in the end. But there’s no reason we shouldn’t put up a fight. Which we should be able to do. Because viruses aren’t new. We’ve been fighting them for a long time. We should start getting good at it any time now. They have genetic mutation. But we have science. They can only do what they’ve always done. We can develop new weapons to use against them.

Pandemics aren’t new either. There are two examples of viral pandemics which spring immediately to mind. A strain of influenza called ‘Spanish Flu’ killed around 30 million people worldwide in 1918/19. And the ongoing HIV/AIDS epidemic is another mass killer. We are constantly under threat of a lethal viral pandemic. But, like people who live on geological fault-lines or the slopes of volcanoes, we somehow manage to disregard the risk. We ignore the threat; usually until it’s too late. As a species, we are like adolescents. We imagine ourselves invulnerable and immortal. Nature tends to remind us we’re not. But we’ve yet to grow up enough to heed the warnings.

Strictly speaking, then, it is not true to say that the Covid-19 crisis is “unprecedented”. There may be some sense in which it is true. But this is less to do with the virus and the pandemic and more to do with the way we have responded.

First off, there’s the fact that we did respond. And the fact that we responded relatively quickly and at a level which if not quite global was at least a messy approximation of a global response. In the past, there may have been viral epidemics to which we didn’t respond at all. Because we couldn’t. As a species, we had neither the knowledge to recognise a viral disease or how it functioned and we had no tools with which to fight it even if we’d been aware of what it was. That viral infections didn’t wipe us out long before now isn’t down to our intervention but to the fact that for most of our history we lived in small, nomadic groups that avoided contact with other groups even if by chance they happened to cross paths. (Actually, if they were avoiding each other then they would tend not to cross paths in any literal sense. But you know what I mean.) With a global population numbering single digit millions, group-isolation was the norm even if self-isolation wasn’t practised or possible. A virus could wipe out an entire kin-group or tribe. But it would then run out of hosts and die. There may be lessons to be learned from this.

Those were conditions in which herd immunity might actually work. Natural immunity could leave a few members of the kin-group alive and able to rebuild the tribe with some of that naked body rubbing I mentioned earlier. Herd immunity can’t work when the herd numbers the entire species. Which is pretty much the case in our massively connected world. There may be lessons to be learned from this.

In the ‘Spanish Flu’ pandemic the response was poorly informed and piecemeal. In the case of HIV/AIDS the response was disastrously slow and in many ways reluctant; with a lot of denial. There are definitely lessons to be learned from both of these precedents.

What makes Covid-19 “unprecedented” is the fact that it was identified so quickly and its behaviour understood and its spread predicted. We were ready for it. Almost!

This ability to predict, not necessarily the appearance of a deadly virus in humans, but what happens next is what’s unprecedented. What you can predict, you can manage. And what you can manage, you must. How we manage viral pandemics in future is what will change the way we live our lives. Maybe.

When a politician – or a scientist, for that matter – declares that the world will be different due to some event or development, the first question must be “Will it?”. We are not that great at learning lessons. And quite outstanding at forgetting them once they have been learned. We still build communities on flood-plains beneath volcanoes and on top of bits of the planet’s surface which are likely to open up and swallow an entire city, or shake it to rubble. How many bloody wars did it take before the people of Europe learned the lesson and took steps to prevent any more? How long was it before enough people forgot that lesson so completely as to allow the tragicomic fiasco that is Brexit? Will we learn the lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic? There’s reason to be sceptical. Will the lessons stick sufficiently to be effective on an ongoing basis? There’s cause for doubt.

If the way we live our lives is to be changed by Covid-19, what will these changes look like? How will the changes be implemented or enforced? Who will decide? These are all valid and urgent questions. Needless to say, they are questions left unanswered by our political leaders. “Life will be different!” makes for a nice bit of rhetoric. After that, it gets controversial. And controversy is to be avoided… like the plague. That doesn’t stop us speculating. Indeed, it makes speculation essential. I’m sure the politicians would much rather we weren’t talking about long-terms plans. I’m certain they’d rather we settle for the well-worn mantra of ‘now is not the time’. If now is not the time, then when? When they have decided for us? When their ‘solution’ is a fait accompli and the mantra changes to ‘there’s no going back’? I don’t think so!

One thing that is going to have to change is the relationship between the government and the governed. There will have to be greater mutuality and cooperation. People are going to have to be able to trust their government with extraordinary powers. Governments are going to have to win that trust and in turn put trust in communities and individuals. What is true within nations also holds for relationships between and among nations. If I tend to think and speak in terms of Scotland this is not due to any narrow nationalism as the shallow-minded will undoubtedly insist. It is simply that Scotland is where I live. It’s the place and the politics with which I am familiar. While the measures necessary to develop the means to defend against viral pandemics may be the same for everybody and every place, the manner of their implementation will differ according to local circumstances. Each legislature; each national community of communities will have to produce similar outcomes in their own way.

What has to happen? What has to happen to enable that to happen or to make it happen? These are the key questions. And the answers are not hard to find. The answers are staring us in the face. We are living in the middle of the answers.

As I was writing this, I heard a news bulletin on the radio which included a report of some British politician talking about the need to step-up measures to deal with the pandemic. Whoever said this is, of course, the kind of turdwit who must immediately be denied any influence over public policy. The notion of an escalating response to a viral pandemic is triple-distilled idiocy. If you’re responding, the virus is ahead. If the virus is ahead, you’re losing. If you’re losing, you’re dying. The idea of escalating measures is the witless offspring of an unspeakable liaison between political cowardice and administrative incompetence. It is a plan for doing too little too late. It is madness!

What the lessons teach us is that it is essential to get ahead of the virus. If developments are allowed to dictate the response then ‘control’ is handed to to the virus. Because the virus dictates developments. It proceeds in a fixed way. It does all the escalating. Why would we wait to see what the virus does when we know precisely what it will do if we wait? And what it will do is become more lethal and more difficult to stop. Perhaps unstoppable! Or only stoppable at the kind of cost we cannot contemplate without ourselves becoming as heartless and deadly as the disease. At the first mention of militarily ‘sanitising’ swathes of territory, it’s over for us.

We know what stops the virus. Separation. Isolation. Quarantine. We need to develop ways of doing this without creating fire-blasted wastelands between communities. Because if we don’t develop the civilised alternative then we can be certain that the barbaric one will be deployed. Or it will be planned for. It will become a contingency. At which point it becomes a question not of whether or when it is deployed but how do we stop it.

If the very moment the existence of the virus was announced the entire world had gone into complete lockdown, the virus would have disappeared in a relatively short time. How quickly would be a function of factors such as incubation period, detection delay and much else. How effectively the virus would be eradicated is entirely a function of how complete the lockdown is. If we are serious about developing the means to prevent a future viral pandemic, we must steel ourselves to the task of setting up systems whereby lockdown on a global scale happens in a matter of hours, not days or weeks. And certainly not on any kind of escalating basis. Every nation must be able to physically isolate itself from all other nations in four hours or less. Every community withing the nation must have the capacity to seal itself off from other communities. Every household and workplace within the community must be able to cut itself off from contact with the rest of the community. Every individual must be educated in ways to secure their own isolation to the greatest extent possible. There can be no compromise on this. Every compromise is a crack in the armour which the virus will exploit.

Some will claim that this would require a world government. Possibly a global dictatorship. The opposite is true. It requires a more cellular organisation with decision-making distributed throughout. A global dictatorship would be impractical and quite possibly lethal, quite apart from the political considerations. The more centralised the decision-making and direction the more general – and therefore deadly – the consequences of any failure. And there will be failure. The trick is to succeed big while failing small. This is achieved by cellular organisation.

If drastic military measures are unthinkable then draconian political measures are at least unacceptable. The aim – the challenge – must be to create the capacity to respond appropriately to an outbreak of viral disease anywhere in the world without destroying the best of what we have.

I know that what I suggest is technically possible. Whether it is politically feasible very much depends on all of us. The people. For sure, if it’s left to the professional politicians and technocrats and hidebound bureaucrats it won’t happen. They can be relied upon to create a system with as many loopholes as the tax system. If we don’t demand better, we’ll get only what’s on offer. And what’s on offer is nowhere near good enough. I said earlier that if life post-pandemic is to be different, and if we hope the difference will be something that we can live with as well as survive by, then it will need a wholesale redrafting of the relationship between the governed and their government. It just happens that this wouldn’t be such a bad idea even if there wasn’t the looming threat of a global killer plague.

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There are two things we know with absolute certainty about the Covid-19 pandemic. Firstly, it will be exploited by politicians and sensationalised by the media. Secondly, anybody who says it’s being exploited by politicians and sensationalised by the media will be denounced as a heretic.

We know that it will be exploited by politicians and sensationalised by the media because that is what they do. Politicians can no more resist the urge to exploit a crisis than a hungry lion can resist the urge to eat that tasty looking chap who took the thorn from its paw. The media can no more resist an opportunity to manipulate public perceptions than a fly can resist a glistening fresh dog turd on the pavement. It’s what they do. It’s how things work.

It stands to reason that for the exploitation and sensationalisation to be fully effective it is essential to silence as far as possible the voices who would make public observations on the matter. It’s not that many or any of these voices are likely to significant;y impede the exploitation or impair the sensationalisation. It’s just that any system set up for the purpose of exploitation and sensationalisation of crises would tend to develop alongside its ability to exploit and sensationalise a capacity for defending its ability to exploit and sensationalise. It’s adaptive.

None of this is controversial. At an intuitive level, people expect politicians to exploit a crisis. People simply assume the media will mediate their perceptions of a crisis. The clue’s in the name. Except when there is a crisis. Then people generally baulk at the idea their politicians would exploit THIS crisis. Largely because the politicians and the media are telling them that THIS crisis is different from all the other crises that have been exploited and sensationalised.

When there is a crisis, people tend to suspend much of their scepticism about the media. Mainly because the media and the politicians are telling them that THIS crisis is not the same as previously sensationalised and exploited crises.

Because THIS crisis is both different and not the same there is no scope for any nuanced opinion about any aspect of THIS crisis. It is exceptional. Therefore, exception is taken to any observation, commentary or analysis which strays from the official line that THIS crisis is exceptional. No observation, comment or analysis may suggest that any aspect of THIS crisis might be less exceptional than the politicians and the media say it is in terms of its exploitation and sensationalisation. To suggest that THIS crisis might be exploited and sensationalised to any degree is to suggest that THIS crisis is similar in some regards to previous crises and therefore not exceptional. Or at least, not as exceptional as the politicians and media say it is.

To suggest that THIS crisis may not be entirely exceptional is to claim that it is not a crisis at all and that people should resume their normal lives – including their customary cynicism about politicians and scepticism about the media. Or that is how the suggestion will be interpreted by those who have an interested in maintaining the perception of THIS crisis as entirely exceptional. Including the politicians who seek to exploit the crisis and the media which want to manipulate public perceptions of the crisis.

And so the wheel turns.

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What, me worry?

“This is a terrifying time for us all…!”

How many emails have you received which open with a phrase such as the above? More than a few, I’ll wager. I’d also bet that most of them were looking for money or support for some cause or both. The charity and single-issue campaign industries didn’t take long to latch onto the Covid-19 pandemic as a useful marketing device. Which is fine. That’s their job. It’s a job I used to do myself, and I never felt bad about it. Public attention is a commodity and there is fierce competition for a share of it. If your job is to sell a business or a product or an event or an idea, and you’re serious about it, you use whatever hooks and pulleys are available to help pull your campaign into the public’s eye line and throw a spotlight on it.

I don’t mind people trying to sell me stuff. Why would I? It’s a perfectly benign practice. There are rogues and villains out there, I grant you. But it’s not that difficult to identify and deal with them without putting up barricades that block the good with the bad. I recall an incident that occurred some years ago when email was still relatively novel and ‘spam’ was rife. I had been trying to contact a particular business with a view to putting some work their way but my emails were being bounced by the recipient’s spam filters. Eventually, I had to phone and after a few attempts finally managed to speak to the proprietor. In the course of the ensuing brief conversation, I mentioned to him that I had been trying to contact his company by email and suggested that he might want to have his IT people ease up on the anti-spam measures. He immediately rejected the suggestion saying that spam was a real nuisance and, besides, they didn’t get much business via email anyway. “But…”, I started before realising that this was one of those situations where if you have to explain you’re almost certainly wasting your time doing so.

I got a lot of business by email contact. I also got a lot of spam. Filters took care of some. The remainder I reckon I spent no more than five minutes a day dealing with. It was not a big deal. Certainly not the big deal the media made it out to be. And I feel much the same way about marketing emails in general. Every once in a while, one of them turns out to be useful. And there is not a huge cost to dealing with the rest. One of my first tasks each day is to open Gmail and select all unread items. I then go through them unticking the ones I think deserve attention before smiting the rest with the delete button. It’s a two-minute task. Admittedly, I’m retired now and don’t receive anything like the same volume of email – at one time I was dealing with as many as 500 a day – but the principal is the same. Spam is no longer an issue. filters have become so sophisticated it’s rare for anything that could be called spam to make it into your inbox. But I still regard marketing emails as the price we pay for this amazing means of communication. Just as junk mail is part of the price we pay for having a postal service. You’d have to be a bit eccentric to nail up your letter-box just to keep out the junk mail.

Nor do I concern myself unduly about modern data harvesting and targeted marketing methods. My attitude is that my contact information exists so that people can contact me. If it has value to marketers it’s because it’s difficult to obtain. Mine isn’t. All my contact information is out there for anyone to use. That, as I say, is it’s purpose. If Amazon wants to take a stab at selling me something on the basis of my recent purchases or browsing habits, let them! In the odd idle moment I Google nonsense things like ‘chocolate chip-pan’ just to confuse the algorithms. Despite that, every so often they call to my attention something genuinely useful or an ‘unmissable’ bargain. I have tracker blockers in place but only because they come with the browser or malware protection software and are on by default. The point is that as much as is possible or reasonable of my personal information is stripped of its value to data harvesters by being made freely available. I take sensible precautions, then deal with whatever arises.

I am not terrified of Covid-19! Why would I be? I have taken the issue seriously. I have informed myself about it. I have taken sensible precautions. For the most part these precautions are simple, involve little or no effort and have negligible or no cost. With only the exceptions too obvious to mention without succumbing to pedantry, anybody can take these precautions. Most of those who can’t do any or all for themselves have someone who can help. There is no reason for anyone to be terrified!

Not only am I not terrified, I’m not even worried. I am barely concerned. At a personal level, Covid-19 is merely a minor inconvenience. The best information I have found to date is that the infection rate across the UK is 1 in 10,000. I’m guessing it’s a bit lower in Scotland. With odds starting at 10,000:1 there’s plenty leeway for wrong guesses. I take those sensible precautions. Moreover, many of the things that are precautions against coronavirus infection are things that I’ve always done. Using hand sanitiser, for example. I never go anywhere without a bottle of hand sanitiser in my pocket. It’s been that way for as long as I can remember. So, I’m taking all reasonable measures to avoid infection – including near-perfect social distancing. I’ve only been out of the house once in more than two weeks and then only had contact with or came in close proximity to one person – my chiropodist. My wife is working from home and does go out each day for shopping etc., but she too takes all reasonable precautions. Which is pretty easy because everybody else is doing the same. There’s hardly anyone around and those there are choose to keep their distance.

Taking all of this into account, I reckon my chances of being infected are getting into the territory of being struck by lightning while holding a winning lottery ticket. I have no reason to be terrified!

Suppose I do get infected. Should I be worried then? It’s early days. But available statistics suggest that around 80% of those infected by Covid-19 will experience only mild symptoms. Some will experience no symptoms at all. Around 15% of those infected will become seriously or critically ill. Around 2% will die. The odds are really stacking up in my favour.

Of course, some demographic groups are more at risk than others. At 69, I’m borderline for an age group with elevated risk. But I have no underlying medical conditions which would aggravate or be aggravated by the disease. To say that the risk to me is negligible would be to exaggerate it considerably. I have no reason to be terrified!

Of course, this is all about me. It’s about the risk to me. It’s about my chances of catching Covid-19 and becoming seriously ill or dying. But the statement in that email was that we are all terrified. That statement encompasses me and a great many people not so very dissimilar to me. It includes all those who are at even lower risk than myself. People such as children, who are only very rarely affected even when exposed to the disease. People who have even less reason to be terrified. We are all individuals. While we may do what we can to help and support others, ultimately each of us is only responsible for oneself. We are responsible for our own actions and our own choices. So how something like this pandemic affects us as individuals – personally – is as important in it’s way as the epidemiological data.

Besides which, all the measures to bring the pandemic under control depend to a great extent on how we respond as individuals. The choices we make. The actions we take. We have to think of ourselves first. Because what we think matters. How we perceive the threat matters. It must do, because it influences our decisions. So, its a good idea to start with a rational assessment of one’s own status. For the vast majority of us that assessment can only lead to one conclusion – there is no reason to be terrified!

None of this means that we shouldn’t take the pandemic seriously. Because the pandemic affects populations as well as individuals. The status of your community or country or, indeed, the world cannot sensibly be assumed from that personal assessment. They are two separate things not related in any way that is of interest to anyone other than the most obsessive statistician.

The truth of the matter is that we are not all terrified. And most, by far, of those who are terrified have no more rational reason to be terrified than have I. It is false to assume that everybody is terrified. It is irresponsible and contemptible to try and make people terrified. If we are to get a grip of the situation, everybody needs to first get a grip of themselves.

What we should be afraid of are those who want us to be afraid – those who would exploit our fear.

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Living or surviving

I was reading a magazine article the other day about Covid-19. Lots of information. Lots of statistics. Lots of warnings. But the bit that struck me most was a remark towards the end of the piece pointing out that at some point we will have to reconcile the demands of combating the pandemic with the need to get our lives back to something approaching normal. Isn’t this always true? For all of us all of the time our existence is a compromise between living and surviving. Obviously, we must try to survive. It’s a basic instinct. But we make trade-offs between this survival instinct and what we consider to be ‘living life to the full’. Humans are probably the only organisms to do this. No other creature chooses risk. We can’t say they’re risk-averse because the very concept of gambling with life is unknown to them. We do it all the time and often without consciously considering it.

People tend to have a conceit of themselves as rational beings. They like to suppose they are in control and that as they make the decisions and choices existing requires they do so on the basis of some calculation or reasoning process. In reality, people are pish-poor at risk-assessment. The obvious example being fear of flying while being totally relaxed about road travel despite the latter being statistically much more hazardous than the former. There’s a curious contradiction here. The human mind is basically just a massively powerful pattern-detecting device. It’s a machine for constructing and constantly updating the maps by which we navigate a route for our physical and social lives. But despite it being the nature and importance of this task, and despite it being such an extraordinarily powerful device, the mind lacks a reliable calculator or any accurate measuring instruments or any dependable way of recording information. The maps which guide our lives are all based on guesswork. Educated guesswork, perhaps. Informed guesswork, to a variable extent. But all just guesswork, nonetheless. Even our memories – where we record information for later use – are notoriously unreliable because the information is so often not recalled intact but reconstructed from fragments pieced together with a degree of guesswork.

We have this hugely powerful computing machine in our heads, and we use it for making guesses. Our mental maps are not based on precise measurements, but on best guesses – at best.

There’s a reason for this. It’s adaptive. Like everything else about human behaviour, this apparent contradiction has an explanation in the science of evolutionary psychology. Our minds are as as much a product of evolution as our bodies. And we know that from an engineering perspective evolution has been pretty sloppy. No engineer would design the human eye the way evolution has. It’s a mess! But it works. To evolution, that’s all that matters. No engineer would design a woman’s hips as nature has, making childbirth both painful and dangerous. Evolution doesn’t care. A woman’s hips are a shoddy but functional compromise between giving birth and walking upright. A human engineer might well have designed women to walk on all fours. But let’s not go there!

Nothing is perfect because nothing is designed from scratch for a specific and fixed purpose. Everything about our bodies is adapted from something else by a process of trial and error which settles for the first thing that works with the least efficiency it can get away with and regardless how inelegant the ‘solution’ may appear to us. And the same applies to our minds. It may be either or both amusing and frightening to reflect that evolution has messily built a messy mind which is nonetheless able to recognise how messy it is. Evolution has bequeathed us a mind which would never design a mind in such a way.

But underlying this randomness there is reason. Captivity! One word having two senses which introduce just enough logic to hold the whole scheme together. There has to be a rule. There must be some constraint which guides the process and prevents change flying off in all directions at once. The rule is that to be preserved change must be adaptive in the sense of serving life. Which means we need a definition of life. Here goes!

Life is a process or set of processes whereby and wherein an organism or assemblage of organisms detects assesses and responds to stimuli in its external and internal environment in such a way as to maintain its capacity for detecting, assessing and responding to stimuli in its external and internal environment at a level which ensures its capacity for detecting, assessing and responding to internal and external stimuli.

It all works by getting it wrong. The whole process works by making huge numbers of mistakes over immense span of time and sorting them according to adaptivity – how well they serve the continuation of the process of making mistakes. Happy mistakes stay. The rest fall away. Unless they’re things that once served the process and now don’t but neither do they hinder it. They are not maladaptive. So they just hang about. Like men’s nipples.

What does this have to do with our rough-‘n’-ready mind maps and our propensity to treat survival as option at times and to some extent? Be patient! I was just getting to that!

We must now reach for that second sense of the term ‘adaptivity’. The sense of having a capacity for adaptation. It seems obvious that for biological evolution to work our physical selves must be able to adapt. That’s pretty much all our stripped-down definition of life is. But it is not only bodies which evolve. Minds also evolve. Society evolves. Language evolves. processes analogous to biological evolution are to be found everywhere. And they all depend on mistakes. In biology these mistakes are called mutations. If our minds also evolve – and they do – they too must have a capacity for error. And that is why our mental maps are built on guesswork. It is why we aren’t as good as we might be at assessing risk. Our mental maps are only as good as life requires them to be. Our risk assessment calculations are only as accurate as they need to be. We need to be able to make mistakes in order that the evolutionary process can explore the universe of possibilities.

At some point, we must find a viable compromise between surviving Covid-19 and living with it. Or with its myriad cousins. Needless to say, officialdom is entirely focused on survival. Even if they are aware of the need to find this compromise they can never acknowledge it. They can never admit that mistakes must be made as part of the process of evolving the necessary societal coping mechanisms.

Life is treated like a commodity. More is always better. It is something to be grasped and hoarded, like wealth. But surviving must always come at some cost to living. Frightening as the prospect of Covid-19 infection may be (for some), it may not be as scary as the thought of life designed by a committee charged only with ensuring the longest survival of the greatest number. And provided with the authority to impose its ‘solutions’. Surviving or living?

But that’s a false choice. Isn’t it?

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COVID-19 Advice

The COVID-19 virus (coronavirus) infection is characterised by obstruction of respiratory pathways with thick mucus which solidifies and clogs the airways and lungs. The virus enters the body by way of the mouth and nose and remains for three or four days within the throat before it passes into the lungs.

There are several recommendations for what you can do to safeguard yourself against COVID-19 infection. The following is based on information from numerous sources, including advice from doctors in China. If anyone has further suggestions or amendments to existing suggestions, please use the comment facility.

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  • Drink lots of hot liquids, coffee, soup, tea, warm water. In addition, take a sip of warm water every 20 minutes. This keeps your mouth moist and washes any of the virus that’s entered your mouth into your stomach where the gastric juices will neutralise it before it can get to the lungs. Try to avoid eating and drinking cold things.
  • Gargle with an antiseptic in warm water like vinegar or salt or lemon every day if possible.
  • If you feel any discomfort in your throat treat immediately and aggressively using the above methods.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly every 20 minutes using any soap that foams.
  • Transmission of the virus is person to person. Avoid contact with other people. Especially avoid large gatherings. Practice social distancing. No hugging, kissing or handshaking.
  • The virus attaches itself to hair and clothes. Any detergent or soap kills it. It is advisable to take a bath or a shower immediately on returning home after being outdoors and to launder clothing. If it is not possible to launder clothing, hang in direct sunlight. This can be effective in neutralising the virus.
  • The virus can remain viable on metallic surfaces for up to 9 days. Try to avoid touching handrails, door handles, etc. If this is unavoidable, use hand sanitiser immediately and wash hands as soon as possible. Clean all metallic surfaces frequently and thoroughly.
  • Eat plenty fresh fruit and vegetables. Consider vitamin and mineral supplements, particularly with a view to elevating zinc levels.
  • Take precautions against flu and the common cold as these may make you more vulnerable to COVID-19 infection.

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Won't somebody think of the millions

One of things about writing a blog that is the source of much fun and often a deal of frustration is the process of deciding what to write about. Obviously, when you’re a politics anorak like myself there are the major political topics of the day. Occasionally, however, there’s just nothing that pokes your imagination with a sharp stick. You look at the news web sites and it’s wall-to-wall scandal involving some celebrity or royal or politician. If the streets are littered with journalists writhing in the throes of orgasmic ecstasy you can assume a particularly salacious story has broken involving one or more individuals combining the essential attributes of substantial wealth, unearned privilege, elected office and an uncommon (preferably unnameable) sexual peccadillo. That sort of stuff leaves me cold.

Then there’s the situation we have just now, What I call a mono-crisis. As the term suggests, and as is illustrated by the COVID-19 megafuss, this refers to the sort of incident or development that comes to occupy all the top spots on the news pages. The sort of thing that quickly becomes a hook on which to hang any and every piece of reporting and writing. When you scroll down a bit from Coronavirus death toll and find Coronavirus recipes you know you’ve got a mono-crisis.

Somewhere between these extremes you get the single-issue campaigns and hobby-horse issues trying to piggy-back on the mono-crisis frenzy while it lasts as well as the well-meaning advice and the ‘Lovejoys’ – collectively known a the colon pieces. (I hasten to point out that this refers to the punctuation mark and not the lower intestine.) Here’s an example from today’s Sunday National – Coronavirus: ‘We need new ways to protect women from violence’. This is not to diminish the issue of domestic violence. It is merely to illustrate a piggy-backing colon piece headline. No judgement on the article itself is implied or, indeed, possible given that I haven’t yet read it. There’s bound to be an article somewhere in today’s papers that brings together coronavirus and climate change and/or coronavirus and nuclear disarmament and/or coronavirus and some other hobby-horse issue. Often involving an appeal for charitable giving. Again, no judgement.

The Sunday National also provides an example of the advice variety of colon piece, although this time the colon is implied. How can you take care of your emotional well-being during COVID-19? In a lesser publication, this might well be a quick rewrite of a piece that appeared last November or early December under the headline How can you take care of your emotional well-being during the Festive Season?

What about the ‘Lovejoys’? Named for the character in The Simpsons this refers to the appeals to consider a particular demographic or special interest group. The line ‘Won’t somebody please think of the children!’ has passed into everyday language, often replacing ‘children’ with some other specific category of people. Recently, for instance, we’ve heard ‘Won’t somebody please think of the self-employed!’. You can probably think of your own examples. Again, I am obliged to state that these may well be deserving groups of individuals. I’m talking here about media, not people.

The point is that a mono-crisis breeds predictable offshoots of various sorts which pack the media and push everything else out of sight. Which may suit some people just fine.

One last mention of a particular type of offshoot – the gesture. This is the pieces urging people to make a common gesture to mark, celebrate or memorialise a date event or person. You know the sort of thing – ‘Put a candle in your window as an expression of the nation’s gratitude for the work done by candle manufacturers!’. That sort of thing.

The focus of the mono-crisis becomes almost like a commodity or a brand. Or even a celebrity. It is attached to all manner of things either to pique he interest of browsers or to fill the spaces between advertising material. Coronavirus/COVID-19 is no different. It gets used. It gets exploited in diverse ways. That’s neither necessarily a good thing nor a bad thing. It’s just the way people work. And the way the media work. It can be a good thing if it leads to people being better informed and more aware. It can be a bad thing if it trivialises a serious issue or misleads people.

The latter is an aspect of the mono-crisis phenomenon which is a significant concern. The mono-crisis can drag on for weeks or months or years. People being what they are, interest wanes. So there is always the temptation to embellish mono-crisis-related stories to make them more titillating. Just yesterday, I encountered some buffoon on Facebook talking about the population being “wiped out”. We may dismiss this as being of no consequence both because it is such an obvious and ludicrous exaggeration and because it’s on Facebook – where stupid goes to get a lobotomy. Research that I’ve just made up has shown that your IQ drops by one point for every hour spent on Facebook. The guy ranting about coronavirus wiping out populations had obviously been on Facebook for several days.

Early estimates put the case mortality rate no higher than 1%. That’s a much smaller percentage of all infections, around 80% of which will result in only mild symptoms and may not even be noticed. At population level the impact is negligible.*

It would be good if we could dismiss such nonsense. But how often have we found that today’s social media drivel is tomorrow’s Herald headline? One Facebook reference is enough foundation for some ‘journalist’ to author a piece ‘asking the question’ as to whether there is growing panic about mass deaths. The sort of article that offers solemn warnings about irresponsible exaggeration spiced with lurid language of the kind it purports to be condemning. MILLIONS WILL DIE! has the same effect as WILL MILLIONS DIE? when shouted from headlines.

I was thinking all this as I perused the papers looking for inspiration. The train of thought was prompted, in part, by Mike Russell’s comment piece in the Sunday National, the gist of which may be gathered from the headline – Politicians are solely focused on Covid-19 fight. That headline caught my attention. It is interesting, not so much for what it says, but for the reaction it is likely to prompt. It’s surely safe to assume that most people seeing that statement would feel reassured. They’d think it a good thing and a proper thing that politicians should be exclusively focused on the public health emergency. It is a mono-crisis, after all. We all know what ‘mono’ implies from common expressions such as ‘monotonous’, monosyllabic and ‘monomaniacal’. And we all know what a crisis is because there is never a time when we aren’t in the midst of a crisis, just recovering from a crisis or preparing for an imminent crisis. It’s appropriate that our politicians should be “solely focused” on the current mono-crisis. Isn’t it?

A few people – probably very few – would look at that headline and think to themselves that this exclusive focus on a single matter was extremely irresponsible. No matter how serious the issue, there are always other issues. Some of these are chronic and will deteriorate rapidly if not properly managed and overseen. We don’t elect politicians to deal with a single issue. We elect them to manage all the nation’s affairs. ALL the nation’s affairs! Either Mike Russell is indulging in a bit of rhetorical micturation or our elected representatives are being derelict in their duty.

Context is essential to a proper understanding of any situation. It allows us to bring to bear a sense of proportion. Of course, it is right that there should be concern for those affected by COVID-19. But what about the 99.997% of the population who will not die from coronavirus-related causes? Do they not deserve some consideration also? Should our politicians not be focusing at least partially on the future beyond this mono-crisis?

Another thing that nudged my neurons when considering what to write about today was a comment on a previous blog article. The individual posting the comment gave the impression of being incandescent with indignant out rage calling me “inhumane” and suggesting that articles such as mine should be the target of some kind of official censorship. My offence? Apparently, I am a monster because I wrote about the pandemic from the perspective of a political commentator rather than from the point of view of someone actually witnessing the suffering of the afflicted. It seems that this is the only perspective that is permissible. To even entertain in one’s private thoughts, never mind one’s published writing, the wider implications of the pandemic equates to some kind of heresy. Context is prohibited. A sense of proportion is forbidden. Proper understanding is improper. It all lends a new and ominous meaning to the term mono-crisis. Not only must we focus solely on the one issue, we must see it in only one way.

This comment had a profound effect on me. I decided not to write about coronavirus.


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