COVID-19: Britain as a Basket Case.
Great Britain is a rich country and the sixth-largest economy on the planet. It has long had a national health service paid for by taxpayers and envied by most nations in the world. Its science is probably second only to that of the United States, and it has been foremost in developing the COVID-19 vaccine. It is now in lockdown in response to a new strain of COVID-19. The four nations of the UK apply different policies but in the main, they are pursuing very similar lockdown policies as the new year unfolds.
The British boast one of the oldest developed civil societies, whose democratic urges towards heated discussion and away from the point of a sword was identified by Jürgen Habermas back in the 1960s as arising in its urbane culture, coffee societies, and clubs of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. In all, it is often represented as a civilized place, democratic and sensible, polite but not over-formal, suffering from only a cold climate and some of the penalties that arise from being such an early industrial nation – old roads and buildings and libraries and police stations, and attitudes that are fixed enough to belie the lyrics of its thriving popular music scene.
Of course, this latter list of burdens does point to another side of the nation. Its industrial precocity was engineered by a mixture of ingenuity – all sneers at old white men cannot really convincingly deny the fresh vitality of David Hume, or Isaac Newton, Adam Smith, James Watt, and Charles Darwin – together with the determined utilization of advanced techniques and naval and military strength to exploit the best parts of whole continents in the years prior to 1945. The United States has claimed successor status to the old, disgruntled British Lion but it still cannot overcome the consistent, infuriating presence of Greenwich Meantime. It is true that the harassed workers of the great British industrial towns at times identified themselves as white slaves, but the truly powerful force at work was the strength of Britain abroad, through massive investments, gunboat diplomacy, and outright warfare, the flack of which was Black slavery, subjected governments and a rush of modernity that overwhelmed and subverted the authority of traditional elites and the skills of workers, farmers, and peasants throughout the world.
But in our present COVID world, Britain has become a basket case under most understandings of that emotive term. We in Britain may delight in referring to banana republics, but the small nations that today rely on banana-like trade and simple tourism have maintained COVID levels that are but a small fraction of those of Britain. Oh to be in Vanuatu, Samoa, the Marshall Islands, or the Solomon Islands right now, where there is no COVID mortality at all! Fingers crossed for them.
The sharpest measures of the British COVID-19 position relate to cases per million, deaths per million, and deaths per cases from the beginning of the pandemic until January 8, 2021, almost a full year of comparative data. The United States is out on a limb, the leader of a continental nightmare, with cases of 22.5 million, around 25% of the world’s total. In terms per million, of the top ten COVID nations, the UK ranks 3rd in cases (43,446) and 2nd in terms of mortality (1,173), with a mortality rate (deaths over cases as a percentage) of 2.7%, compared to a world figure of 2.1%. This may be compared to India, which has many more total cases because of its huge population, but in per million terms has only 7,521 cases and a mortality of 109. The crude per million mortality rate in Britain is over 10 times that of India.
But of even more concern is the British acceleration of the last few weeks. In the last 2 days of full figures (06-07 January), new British cases amounted to 120,671, just higher than the total for the three comparable European nations; France, Italy, and Spain (119,372). Again, for the same days, British COVID mortality was 2,487, significantly higher than the total of 2,111 for the combined three European nations. When senior British scientists talk of the uncontrolled virus, they really mean just that. With 0.8% of the world’s population, Britain accounts for over 8% of total new deaths from COVID-19.
Yet we had all the advantages listed above, they were not illusions. We were also isolated physically from Europe and had time enough to learn something of what had happened in East Asia during those early weeks of 2020. We could look at the disaster of northern Italy just as it happened. Yet, that other island nation, fast but late industrializer, novice democracy, Taiwan, with plenty of problems of its own, showed from the start that it was living in a different world to that inhabited by the UK. High levels of urbanism, worrying pollution, and unfettered proximity to what was probably the epicentre of the pandemic in China, did not preclude startling low COVID levels.
So, what explains the conundrum of Britain’s position amongst the comity of nations? Firstly, we might suggest the original tardiness of government response especially in terms of isolating inward travelers, tracing their movements, and monitoring cases for quarantine, treatment, etc. Associated with this was the failure to recognize or even count the number of elderly folk in care homes, with a monopoly of focus on the NHS. This early abject performance laid the statistical basis for the continuing high COVID levels to this date. Second – as illustrated once more in the present crisis – was the failure of officialdom to carefully and consistently define lockdown and social distancing – at present supposed total lockdown actually allows a huge variety of indoor mixing across areas and communities whilst forbidding entirely such things as meeting in parks, driving or walking too far away from home, and outdoor sports that are quite easily socially distanced. The clear illogicality of most government pronouncements has exacerbated a more important national failure, this relating to the behavior of civil society.
Although much has been claimed concerning British compliance, in fact, this is extremely varied and confused by the above-mentioned vagueness of guidance – when is an action to be avoided, when allowed? There are two elements – failure of compliance related to specific regulations on the one hand, versus the actual underlying character of British social practices and relationship to authorities on the other. In many societies, democratic and otherwise, there is a general regard for cooperative community behavior of all sorts (a strong feature of East Asia, where COVID levels are much lower than in Europe or the United States), respect for private spaces in otherwise very crowded city settings, and a commonality of outdoor gatherings. In poor nations, there is also a far greater tendency to travel short distances by foot or bike or scooter, and far less use of crowded public transport systems.
Britain is a place where hesitant and vague government policy meets a rather blasé social base in a cold climate, and the conjuncture has not worked under the regime of COVID. Any other conclusion seems to borrow from mysticism – we are too liberal, somehow too democratic, we are too kind to strangers and to open to foreigners, our governance is loath to instruct and happier to guide (vaguely). All of this is well-nigh immeasurable nonsense, it has little or nothing to do with the extraordinarily high levels of British COVID. British performance in the last year has not been any more inhibited by overcrowding or high urbanity, high air pollution, high levels of migration (legal or otherwise), uncontrollable connectivity with other trading nations, etc. than many other high-income nations. Hugely successful economies, highly urban and definitely polluted, and with the shared advantage of island status, have constantly recorded low COVID measures – Japan and Taiwan are outstanding. Nations surrounded by other high-COVID countries, Italy and France amongst them, have now brought their numbers down from the earlier highs, Germany has succeeded well with a relatively low mortality. Truly poor nations have survived principally through their age structures – low proportions of the old, very high numbers of the very young.
It really does seem that the high-COVID record of the UK can only be explained by failures of government policy or a disjunction between policy and civil society and its mores. Given our present state of knowledge, the other possible more distant or ‘objective’ elements seem not to work as explanans in the British case. It is a sorry final statement, but even under the mismanagement of the Donald Trump regime, the terrible quarrels between its peoples, and the inconsistency between its states, the United States has maintained a COVID-19 mortality rate that is a fraction below that of the UK. This is a sorry tale.