When writing about something like the coronavirus epidemic it’s vital to take care that any information you give is correct and accurate. It’s no hyperbole to say that in an epidemic, incorrect or false information can literally make the difference between life and death. It is incumbent upon all of us to ensure that we are measured and thoughtful in our words and language. This is not a time for panic or hysteria.
Yet it has to be said, the response of the British government so far does not inspire confidence. It is not scaremongering to ask why it is that other European countries – countries where the spread of the epidemic is no greater than it is in the UK – have adopted more stringent measures to prevent the spread of the virus than the UK has. The response from the British government to this crisis has been chaotic, ad hoc, and confused. We are led by a bumbling and mumbling oaf who lies and lies again, a man who has never considered anything except his own selfish interest, whose childish petulance at Nicola Sturgeon couldn’t even be kept in check while he told the nations of the UK what measures his government was going to take. None of this inspires confidence.
When I was a child, a long long time ago, there was a widespread grudging acceptance that ‘they’ knew what they were doing. They might have been selfish and greedy, but they were smarter than us, better educated, better informed. And then in the 1980s the British government tried to tell us that we could protect ourselves from a nuclear explosion by hiding under the kitchen table and any pretence that ‘they’ were competent went up in a mushroom cloud. There’s been a long slow decline in public faith in British institutions ever since. And now we have Boris Johnson, lying his way into power, smirking and smug, mumbling and stumbling, venal and vain. No one with a functioning set of neurones can believe that this creature has our best interests at heart. It is reasonable to ask whether Boris Johnson and his cronies, who are motivated solely by money and greed, have taken the decision to protect the economy at the expense of the people. Because if that’s the case, it is unforgivable.
We’re hearing a lot about herd immunity. Boris Johnson and the Conservative government have no doubt thought about the rest of us as a herd for quite a while. The phrase means that immunity within a population prevents an infection from spreading as most people are resistant. Most estimates that I’ve been able to find suggest that herd immunity is only effective once around 60% of a population have an immune system which is resistant to the infective agent. The worrying thing however is that most people are not currently immune to the covid-19 virus. Since there is as yet no vaccine and won’t be for at least a year, currently the only way that anyone can develop immunity is to contract the infection and allow their immune system to build up antibodies against the virus. It is true, and it cannot be stressed enough, that the overwhelming majority of people who contract the virus will experience mild symptoms or even no symptoms at all. However the issue here is that the disease appears to have a mortality rate of 1%. Allowing 60% of 66 million people to contract a virus and then 1% of them will die … well you do the maths. Yet these aren’t just numbers, they’re human lives.
Other countries are trying to protect their citizens from the outbreak and to minimise the number who contract the infection. This will have a dire effect on the economies of those countries. The strategy of the UK government is to allow the infection to happen, but to try and make it happen slowly enough that the NHS will not be overwhelmed and to minimise the damage to the UK economy. The only way to allow herd immunity to build up is to allow the infection to spread, with entirely predictable consequences. People will die as a result of Conservative policy. It won’t be the fit, the economically active, the better fed, the well sheltered. It will be the old, the chronically ill, the homeless, the poor. It will be those whom the Conservatives with their price of everything and value of nothing philosophy will consider expendable.
What makes this worse is that the NHS is reeling from the effects of a decade of austerity and, in England, creeping privatisation. It is a system which is creaking and straining at the best of times. We like to pride ourselves in Scotland that our NHS is performing better than the NHS in the nations of the UK, because the Scottish government has done its utmost to protect NHS Scotland from the malign effects of Conservative policies and budget cuts, and this would be true. Unfortunately the Scottish government is forced to operate within a political, budgetary, and economic regime which is determined by that very same Conservative party. Our NHS and our public services are reeling too, not as much as England’s, but that’s cold comfort.
Meanwhile the Scottish government is heavily constrained in how it can tackle one of the most serious threats to public health in a generation. It lacks the full powers of Westminster, and it cannot diverge significantly from the policies adopted by Boris Johnson as it would immediately be accused by the British nationalist media of attempting undermine the British government, spread panic, and politicise the outbreak. When Nicola Sturgeon even dared to make an announcement before Boris Johnson there was a howl of outrage from the usual suspects. Imagine what they’d say and do if Scotland dared to adopt a radically different strategy to deal with the epidemic. Our lives are being held hostage to the ire of the Daily Mail.
There is however already an important lesson to be learned from this crisis. That is that Scotland needs to be able to take its own decisions in the interests of its own people. We need a government that is accountable to us, and which knows that it is accountable. We should perhaps be thankful that we didn’t rush into a referendum, otherwise we’d now be trying to campaign for our independence in the middle of a major health crisis. Yet the need for independence, as soon as we can get it, is greater now than it has ever been.
We are all Jock Tamson’s bairns. We will get through this, with love, compassion, care, and kindness. We will get through this if we respect each other, and above all if we adopt common sense measures. Avoid large public gatherings. Wash your hands thoroughly and regularly. Don’t hoard or panic buy. Stay at home if you think you have symptoms. Minimise contact with those who are at high risk – the elderly, the chronically sick, and those with compromised immune systems. And this will pass. There is life on the other side of the fear, there is dawn on the other side of the darkness.
When it does pass, that is the time for putting into effect the lessons that we have learned, lessons about the venality of the British government and the Conservative party, lessons about a government that’s unaccountable to the people of Scotland, lessons about surrendering our destiny to people who do not have our best interests at heart. Then we will teach Boris Johnson that we are not a herd, we are the unheard and we have had enough. We will teach him that we are a people in movement, and we will not be stopped.
There’s no dugcast today because The National is short staffed. We were delighted to discover this week that the dugcast is on the shortlist for a Scottish Press Award for the Best Scottish Politics Podcast. Normal service should be resumed next week.
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