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The Machine Stops

May 27, 2020 - 00:35 -- Admin

The government
knowingly and deliberately de-prepared the UK, even as the pandemic began to
bite.

By George
Monbiot, published in the Guardian 20th May 2020

We are
trapped in a long dark tunnel, all of whose known exits are blocked. There is
no plausible route out of the UK’s coronavirus crisis that does not involve
mass suffering and death. If, as some newspapers and Conservative MPs insist,
the government eases the lockdown while the pandemic is still raging, the
eventual death toll could be several times greater than today’s. If it doesn’t,
and we spend all the warm months of the year in confinement, the impacts on our
mental and physical health, jobs and relationships, could be catastrophic.

We have
been told repeatedly that the UK was unprepared for this pandemic. This is
untrue. The UK was prepared, but then it de-prepared. Last year, the Global
Health Security Index ranked this nation second in the
world for pandemic readiness, while the US was first. Broadly speaking, in both
nations the necessary systems were in place. Our governments chose not to use
them.

The
climate modeller James Annan has used his analytical methods to show what would
have happened if the UK government had imposed its lockdown a week earlier. Starting
the lockdown on March 16, rather than March 23, his modelling suggests, would
by now have saved around 30,000 lives, reducing the rate of illness and death
from coronavirus roughly by a factor of five.

But even
March 16 would have been extraordinarily late. We now know that government
ministers were told on February 11 that the
virus could be catastrophic, and decisive action was urgently required.
Instead, Boris Johnson told us to wash our hands and “go about our normal daily lives”.

Had the
government acted in February, we can hazard a guess about what the result would
have been, as the world has conducted a clear controlled experiment: weighing
South Korea, Taiwan and New Zealand against the UK, the US and Brazil. South
Korea did everything the UK government could have done, but refused to
implement. Its death toll so far? 263. It
still has an occasional cluster of infection, which it promptly contains. By
contrast, the entire UK is now a cluster of infection.

While
other countries either closed their borders or quarantined all arrivals, in the
three months between the emergence of the virus and the UK’s lockdown, 18
million people arrived on these shores, of whom only 273 were quarantined. Even
after the lockdown was announced, 95,000 people entered the UK, without additional restrictions. In fact,
on March 13, the UK stood down even its guidance, gently requesting travellers
from Italy and China to self-isolate. This decision, taken as other nations
were stepping up their controls, seems baffling.

Similarly,
on March 12, Boris Johnson abandoned both containment and nationwide testing
and tracking. A week later, the status of the pandemic was lowered, which meant that the government could reduce
the standard of personal protective equipment required in hospitals, and could
shift infectious patients into non-specialist care. Again, there was no medical
or scientific justification for this decision.

Exercise Cygnus, a pandemic simulation conducted in 2016, found
that the impacts in care homes would be catastrophic, unless new measures were put in place. The government insists
that it heeded the findings of this exercise, and changed its approach
accordingly. If this is correct, by allowing untested patients to be shifted
from hospitals to care homes, while failing to provide the extra support and equipment
the homes needed and allowing agency workers to move freely within and between them, it knowingly breached its own protocols.
Tens of thousands of highly vulnerable people were exposed to infection.

In other words, none of these are failures of knowledge or
capacity. They are de-preparations, conscious decisions not to act. They start
to become explicable only when we recognise what they have in common: a refusal
to frontload the costs. This refusal is common in countries whose governments
fetishise what we call “the
market”: the euphemism we use for the power of money.

Boris
Johnson’s government, like that of Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, represents
a particular kind of economic interest. For years politicians of their stripe
have been in conflict with people who perform useful services: nurses,
teachers, care workers and the other low paid people who keep our lives ticking,
whose attempts to organise and secure better pay and conditions are demonised
by ministers and in the media.

This
political conflict is always fought on behalf of the same group: those who
extract wealth. The war against utility is necessary if you want to privatise
public services, granting lucrative monopolies or firesales of public assets to
friends in the private sector. It’s necessary if you want to hold down public sector
pay and the minimum wage, cutting taxes and bills for the same funders and
lobbyists. It is necessary if corporations are to be allowed to outsource and
offshore their workforces, and wealthy people can offshore their income and assets.

The
interests of wealth extractors are, by definition, short-term. They divert
money which might otherwise have been used for investment into dividends and
share buybacks. They dump costs that corporations should legitimately bear onto
society in general, in the form of pollution (the car and roads lobbies) or
public health disasters (soft drinks and junk food producers). They siphon
money out of an enterprise or a nation as quickly as possible, before the tax
authorities, regulators or legislators catch up.

Years of
experience have shown that it is much cheaper to make political donations,
employ lobbyists and invest in public relations than to change their lucrative
but harmful commercial policies. Working through the billionaire press and
political systems that are highly vulnerable to capture by money, in the
UK, US and Brazil they have helped ensure that cavalier and reckless people are
elected. Their chosen representatives have an almost instinctive aversion to
investment, to carrying a cost today that could be deferred, delayed, or dumped
on someone else.

It’s not
that any of these interests – whether the Daily Mail to the US oil companies –
want the coronavirus to spread. It’s that the approach which has proved so
disastrous in addressing the pandemic has been highly effective, from the
lobbyists’ point of view, when applied to other issues: delaying and
frustrating action to prevent climate breakdown, pollution, the obesity crisis,
inequality, unaffordable rent and the many other plagues spread by corporate
and billionaire power.

Thanks in
large part to their influence, we have governments that fail to protect the
public interest, by design. This is the tunnel. This is
why the exits are closed. This is why we will struggle to emerge.

www.monbiot.com