Friday 10 April 2020

Epidem-ideology: how political dogma affected the response to Covid-19

According to an opinion poll published on 15 March by NBC/Wall Street Journal

I just looked up the data: worldwide, the number of deaths caused by Covid-19 is fast approaching 100,000.  It will probably run past that heart-breaking milestone, by the time I finish writing this.

Italy is (still) the country most affected: with a population of 60 million, it registered more than 18,000 Coronavirus deaths – that’s 300 per million inhabitants.  Italians have already spent weeks in lockdown.  The Italian economy – not very healthy to start with – is in intensive care and may never completely recover.

South Korea has a somewhat smaller population: 51 million.  But its death toll currently stands at just 208 – 4 deaths per million inhabitants.

Why this huge difference – no less than two orders of magnitude in mortality rates?  I could tell you that there are many reasons, that they are complex, that we are studying them carefully…  But I’m not a politician and – even more so under the current circumstances – am disinclined to muddy the waters.

We find a hint about the reasons for the Italian-Korean disparity in a recent interview with Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.  Asked whether his government’s response had not been ‘too little, too late’, Mr. Conte doubled down:
"We have a completely different system to China. For us to severely limit constitutional freedoms was a critical decision that we had to consider very carefully.  If I had suggested a lockdown or limits on constitutional rights at the start, when there were the first clusters, people would have taken me for a madman."
Mr. Conte is probably right: some people, perhaps many people, would have taken him for a power-grabbing madman, had he imposed “limits on constitutional rights” too early in the process.  But then, isn’t this what a leader is expected to do – make unpopular, but timely and efficacious decisions in an emergency?  Spot the iceberg ahead before it becomes obvious to the naked eye – and veer hard to avoid it, even if it rocks the boat and nauseates the passengers?  Otherwise, Mr. Conte, nobody needs you: let’s have governance by opinion poll!

The cruel, brutal, heart-wrenching irony is that Giuseppe Conte has not protected constitutional rights: his government ended up imposing a tougher, longer and more painful lockdown than the South Koreans ever experienced.  In the process, he trampled the most important constitutional right of all: the right to live.

In South Korea, legislation allows the government – in times of emergency only – to access essential information, such as the telemeter data from mobile phones, the location of credit card transactions, etc.  Some may see it as a ‘Big Brother’ invasion of privacy.  But that information is collected anyway – in the databanks of telecom companies and financial firms.  And access to it is crucial to containing the pandemics, by locating and isolating early people who came in contact with already identified virus carriers.  In Israel, there is even an app for that: one can register on that app and check for him/herself whether they have been in the immediate proximity of a known virus carrier.

Of course, this does not provide full-proof (or even fool-proof) protection; it does not kill the infection – but it prevents it from killing too many people.  Would you suspend for a while – just for a while – your oh-so-dear right to perfect privacy, if you knew it may save one life?  Or 10?  Or thousands?  I know I would!

Of course, I know the dangers: ‘it’s a slippery slope…’, ‘once there’s a precedent…’, ‘ give them one finger…’, etc. etc.  But hey: as Mr. Conte said, we do not live in China.  We are lucky enough to live in countries with a tradition of democracy, with governments that are elected and accountable.  The risks are there, yes, but so are the solutions; we can deal with those risks after we save those old and vulnerable (or just unlucky) among us.  Denying ourselves the means to save people’s lives in an emergency, just because those means may be misused later?  That’s like not calling armed officers during a terrorist attack – to pre-empt the risk of future police brutality against peaceful protesters.

But it’s not just about accessing data – there is more misplaced ideological ballast that should have been thrown overboard, once that iceberg first appeared onto the radar screens.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and
President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen.
No, they do not congratulate each other for their response to Covid-19. 
For a certain tinge of politicians, political activists and just loud-mouthed scatter-brains, ‘freedom of movement’ has morphed from a desideratum to be considered and adopted where beneficial – into the be-all and end-all of ‘progressiveness’ and political correctness.  To the point where they now see it as an immovable principle – circumstances be damned.

As early as 24 January 2020, France had identified three cases of Covid-19 on its territory – all three imported from China.  A month later, Italy had announced its third Covid-19 death.  Yet on 29 February, as the infection was expanding like fire in a pile of dead wood, the pompously named – but poorly led – World Health Organisation was issuing the following ‘wise’ recommendation:
“WHO continues to advise against the application of travel or trade restrictions to countries experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks.”
Needless to say, the European Union bureaucrats were only too happy to comply with – and reinforce – that mind-boggling advice.  As late as 2 March 2020, as no less than 66 countries were reporting Covid-19 cases, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control was serenely assessing:
“The risk of acquiring the disease for people from the EU/EEA and the UK travelling/resident in areas with no cases, or multiple imported cases, or limited local transmission, is currently considered low to moderate.”
In blissful accordance with the EU ‘multilateral’ and legalistic approach, ECDC also advised that
“Travel and trade restrictions during a public health event of international concern (PHEIC) are regulated under the International Health Regulations (IHR), part III.”
Well, this is what ‘the experts’ said, but what about the politicians?  The ones elected to keep us all safe?  The captains charged with steering us away from death and misery?

On 22 January 2020, the annual World Economic Forum was taking place, as usual, in the beautiful, tranquil ski resort of Davos.  Defying that tranquility, some experts chose that posh gathering of international figures to ring the alarm bells about a strange pandemic that was already devastating Wuhan.  A former US disease control czar named Dr. Richard Hatchett was among the first to spot the approaching iceberg:
“China was unfortunate in that that’s where the epidemic started, but it is now a global problem.”
Few of the politicians paid attention.  The newly-elected (appointed?) European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen did not even mention the pandemics in her hour-long speech.  The address was, instead, laden with all the formulaic niceties politicians use when they have nothing particularly interesting to say.

Of course, European politicians are not stupid enough to rely on EU Commission’s clairvoyance at the best of times – let alone when flying excrement hits the proverbial fan.  Give it a bit of strain (let alone a global pandemic) and the ‘Union’ dis-unites into national governments driven by the good ol’ ‘each man for himself’ attitude.

So on 31 January, the Italian government banned flights to and from China.  Of course, to describe this as ‘closing the stable door after the horse has bolted’ would be charitable.  In fact, while people could no longer fly directly from Beijing to Milan, they could still fly there via Berlin, Paris or Vienna; they could even drive or train it across the beautiful Alps – and the Schengen Area’s non-borders.  No, this was definitely a case of closing the door of a stable that had no walls.  If you, dear reader, think that this is particularly stupid… well… I can’t really blame you.  But then, you must remember that the Italian prime minister’s main concern was not keeping his people healthy – but keeping them from doubting his own mental health.  He needed to accomplish that difficult task – while also being seen as ‘doing something’.

On 25 February, a gaggle of European health ministers met in… Rome.  Where they sagely decided that imposing a travel ban within the EU would be “disproportionate and ineffective”.

It’s not that the EU Commission was oblivious; no, they were widely awake to the danger posed by Covid-19… to Africa’s weak healthcare facilities.  On 13 February, they attended a presentation by World Health Organisation officials, who warned that the entire African continent had only two laboratories able to test for Coronavirus.  Consequently, on 24 February, EU commissioners announced a donation of 114 million to WHO and €15 million earmarked for African lab facilities.  An ample Commission delegation flew to Addis Ababa on 26 February, for a series of meetings with African Union officials.  (The only thing that the European Union and the African Union have in common is the word ‘Union’; but hey: it’s such a powerful word!)

At the time (and still today) Africa was the least affected continent.  No, not because of the abundance of testing labs and ventilators – far from it; just because… most Africans don’t travel that much, and not that many people travel to Africa.

Why, then, you may ask – the focus on Africa?  Well, it’s just another instance of ideological – rather than logical – decision-making: a large part of the European political class is constantly on the look for ‘weak and oppressed’ to save; even when they don’t particularly need saving.  That admirable attitude comes with quite a pinch of racism: Africans are seen as the eternal victims, the world’s quintessential ‘weak and oppressed’.  It’s the new ‘white man’s burden’; but also a well-tried way for a ‘privileged white person’ to feel good about him/herself.

And it’s not just career politicians – the same frame of mind has infected the layer of professional political activists who like to – rather pompously – refer to themselves as ‘civil society’ or ‘human rights organisations’.  By the beginning of April, the number of Covid-19 deaths in the UK was edging towards 3,000; the country had already spent a week under lockdown.  An even tougher (and earlier) lockdown had been declared in Israel, where there were already dozens of deaths.

Yet two ‘pro-Israel’ outfits decided to convene a (virtual, because of the lockdown) ‘emergency briefing’ on… the dire Coronavirus situation in the Gaza Strip (which, ironically thanks to the Israeli-Egyptian blockade, had 9 already isolated cases and – fortunately – no deaths).  I read their advert twice, to make sure this was no April Fools joke.

It wasn’t – it was dead serious.  Yachad UK and New Israel Fund UK had entrusted the ‘emergency briefing’ to a couple of ‘civil society’ representatives from Israel and Gaza, chaired by Donald Mcintyre – a journalist/political activist with The Independent with a history of very harsh anti-Israel ‘criticism’.  Mr. Mcintyre had also in the past blamed the failures of British foreign policy (revoltingly pro-Israel in his opinion) on “Jewish party donors”.  But hey: why should valiant builders of the ‘New Israel’ disqualify someone for chairing their briefing, merely because he is suspect of harbouring antisemitic prejudice?

Anyway, I was interested to learn from that most absorbing briefing that, according to international law, Israel is responsible for everything that happens (or might happen, or could conceivably happen) in Gaza.  I must admit that my knowledge of international law cannot compete with the expertise of those civil society luminaries.  Still, I was wondering how exactly was Israel supposed to discharge that clear responsibility – given that any Israeli who ventures onto the Strip is imprisoned – if not immediately killed?

By the way, I tend to focus on the failures of European leaders and ‘civil society’ simply because I happen to live in what is – only arguably by now – Europe.

Not that the US administration – which comes from a rather different ideological neck of the woods – did much better.  Trump started by dismissing the whole thing as leftist exaggeration – if not outright fake news designed to hurt the great American economy and his own chances of re-election as President.  After all, no sensible virus would take on the might of the United States – now would it?  

But, by 12 March, with South-Western Europe claiming a rather inglorious leadership in Coronavirus pandemics, the US imposed a 30-day travel ban on the entire European Schengen Area.  With hindsight, this was a modest and very, very belated step in the right direction.  But one that immediately attracted the bitter ire of European freedom-of-movement ideologues.  Indeed, EU officials condemned the new Trumpian heresy in the strongest terms.  A prominent Belgian MEP (from the Green Party) called Trump’s decision “irresponsible”.  A physician by training, she delivered that sage verdict in a TV studio, while sitting face-to-face with her interviewer.  Then she turned her attention to more burning issues: the (harsh, in her opinion) EU asylum policy; and the bloc’s far-from-sufficient cuts in carbon emissions.

But only 5 days later (17 March) the EU chiefs were imposing a ban on travel into the Schengen Area.  By then, however, they were just desperately trying to board a train that was already moving away – as several Schengen countries had already re-instituted border checks…

On 23 March, Italy reported 602 Coronavirus deaths in just 24 hours; the total number had exceeded 6,000.  On the same day, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borell announced that the bloc would send 20 million in humanitarian aid to I… no, not I-taly, but I-ran!  Which had just announced 127 new deaths in 24 hours, bringing the official count to 1,812.

No doubt, the Italian prime minister (whose mental sanity must by now be well-established with his co-nationals) had that little Iran detail in mind when he bitterly declared, in a recent interview, that the “European project” might fail over its response to the pandemic.  But I’m positive Mr. Borell will reassure him that it’s nothing personal: helping Iran, rather than Italy, is just deep-seated EU ideological impulse.

As for myself, I'd like to reassure Mr. Giuseppe Conte that he is not alone: I, too, am most concerned about our “constitutional rights”.  I think we have the right to be led by people endowed with leadership qualities and a sense of civic responsibility.  We have the right to demand that those leaders (politicians, civil servants and ‘experts’) wean themselves from the intoxicating political dogma; that they check their ideological baggage in at the gate – before they start making decisions about our life and death.  Because, if they keep betraying their oaths of office; if they get it wrong by placing ideology before epidemiology – I say we have the right to demand a reckoning.


  1. Noru, you write that "An even tougher (and earlier) lockdown had been declared in Israel, where there were already thousands of deaths." Israel has, in fact, suffered a total of 95 deaths thus far - although there are 10,000 diagnosed cases.

    1. Hi Geoff, absolutely right -- well spotted. My mistake, I wanted to say "dozens of deaths". I've corrected it, thanks for letting me know.

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