How’s it been so far?

Because I am taking a break from the blog I’ve been reviewing at some of the first posts in this series. Early on I drew historical comparisons with the impact of cholera in the 19th century and the different nature of an infection crisis from other crises. And I referenced an A level question in my Economic History exam which asked, “‘Cholera Kills all classes. How does this explain social reform in the 19th century”.

I think the cholera analogy was correct because the last 5 months have been an all-encompassing experience for our society. A very high proportion of what we had believed was essential human interaction just stopped. Millions of people hugged each other every day, and millions went to work on public transport. All that stopped.

I remembered that cholera became a problem for richer people in the 1840s because whilst cholera started in the poorer areas and killed higher proportions of the population there, their servants also came from those areas – and when they came to make their beds they carried the infection in with them.

Covid, like cholera, affected everything.

And much of the political debate over the last few months has centred around that old exam question. For many the answer must be that Covid has identified so many important issues that social reform must now come. Those workers called ‘key’ by the government must surely now be recognised with higher pay and greater status. Mustn’t they?

Throughout I have been sceptical. I think there will be changes but only where there is sufficient political strength to force them. But will a bus driver be paid more because our society has discovered they are key to our society? I think not. That will take more politics than this virus has unleashed.

But that is not to say that it will have no impact. It will, but the extent will depend upon the ability to turn learning into the big politics needed for change.

Take one major example about the nature of our society – and a lesson which will be very hard for many to learn.

Across the world the virus has sought out and found weaknesses in all societies. China would have been quicker with its lockdown and countermeasures if its society had been sufficiently open to hear bad news and act upon it – rather than suppressing it. Time was lost by denial.

The second wave in Melbourne has uncovered a weakness in Australian society that is familiar to us here. Apparently the outbreak originated with security personnel guarding the hotels where people were being quarantined. The guards are sub-contracted by sub-contractors. They had very little training and had probably never worked in a public health capacity. So they spent time with the people in quarantine. They went out as a group and had a party, where the most likely culprit for infection was passing around a cigarette lighter…

I had thought, as I am sure they did, the Australians had a decent public health infrastructure. But the virus found the very weakest part of that system and break through it into the rest of society.

This has led to some very big questions being asked about different societies and cultures about why some seem to be so much better at defending themselves than others.

I’ve been reading a very interesting commentary about South East Asian societies and why they had done so well. It starts by noting the differential death rates,

“Death tolls don’t lie. The most striking disparity in COVID-19 fatalities to date is between East Asian countries, where the total number of deaths per million inhabitants is consistently below ten, and much of the West, where the numbers are in the hundreds. For example, Japan has so far reported 7.8 deaths per million, followed by South Korea (5.8), Singapore (4.6), China (3.2), and, most remarkably of all, Vietnam, with zero deaths. By contrast, Belgium now has 846 confirmed deaths per million.”

These are very striking differences and the explanation is equally striking

“What accounts for this extraordinary difference? The answers are complicated, but three possible explanations stand out. First, none of the East Asian states believe that they have “arrived,” much less achieved the “end of history” at which they regard their societies as being the apotheosis of human possibility. Second, East Asian countries have long invested in strengthening government institutions instead of trying to weaken them, and this is now paying off. And, third, China’s spectacular rise is presenting its regional neighbours with opportunities as well as challenges.”

It’s the first of these three issues that I want to concentrate on and contrast with the English experience. Our Government is steeped in the idea of English Exceptionalism. Those English people who believe in it don’t think the English are exceptional – they know they are.

Three days after the first case of Covid virus was discovered in England the Prime Minister gave a speech in the painted hall at Greenwich about the future of the country and how we were going to recreate Global Britain. In the terms of the quote cited above he is absolutely certain that our society has ‘arrived’ historically. We have reached the apotheosis of human possibility.

Throughout the Covid crisis he has been declaring that our response to Covid is ‘world beating’. For those of us who do not share this world view, this constant claim was a weird hostage to fortune. Why on earth set yourself so frequently up to fail?

The answer is that he really believes it. There is no doubt in his mind that the English are exceptional. And therefore everything we do is inevitably exceptional. And accepting this is true means you don’t have to do what the East Asian countries have done and long invest  in strengthening government institutions instead of trying to weaken them.

If you’re exceptional you don’t have to spend time and resources thinking through in detail the strength of your public health infrastructure.

Let us hope that over the next month less time is spent trying to beat the world and more time spent searching for competence.