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It takes effort to imagine how the government could have mishandled the pandemic more disastrously than it has, yet people are blaming the crisis on themselves. For those who wish to hold our authorities to account for one of the worst death tolls in the world, polls offer bleak reading. According to a recent YouGov survey, over half of people think the public are “most responsible for the rise in coronavirus cases over the last month”, with just 31% blaming the people running the country .
It is doubtful that the respondents are blaming themselves as individuals. Most would argue they have made huge sacrifices to avoid the spread of Covid-19, which is true. No, they are blaming a nefarious “other”, the ne’er-do-wells down the road, for an imagined failure of personal responsibility. Without stirring the pot of generational warfare, it is worth noting that, while the young tend to blame the government, pensioners overwhelmingly blame the “public”, by which they are likely to mean their grandchildren’s cohort, who are in reality sacrificing some of the best moments of their lives to keep their elders safe.
Philosophically, the findings suggest many people hold a dim view of their fellow citizens. Those who support the Conservatives – the party most likely to wrap itself in the flag and denounce the left for doing Britain down – are most likely to damn the public for the steep rise in Covid cases. Presumably they believe that Germans, South Koreans, Australians and New Zealanders have a superior national character to the reckless Brits, rather than governments that did not lock down too late, prematurely reopen the economy without a functioning test-and-trace system and allow the constant re-importing of the virus through a lack of border checks.
But why have so many come to this conclusion, when government mismanagement is a far more evidenced explanation for Britain’s startling death rate? Undoubtedly, four decades of prevailing dogma that attributes everything wrong in society – poverty, unemployment – to failures of personal responsibility, rather than structural injustices fuelled by government inaction, is partly to blame. This idea has allowed the Conservative government and the rightwing press to shift responsibility on to the public. There has been no effective strategy to push back on “Operation Blame the Public” – indeed, the broadcast media has largely amplified it – and so it has settled as a consensus among swathes of the electorate.
This week, the home secretary, Priti Patel, told Radio 4’s Today programme: “The government has consistently this year been ahead of the curve in terms of proactive decisions on coronavirus.” This was such a profound inversion of reality that the interviewer should have treated it as a barefaced lie and shot back with some of the many examples of government delays and ineptitude we’ve seen during the pandemic. That Patel felt able to make such a wantonly dishonest statement in the first place underlines how confident she is that the government can get away with it, just as the justice secretary, Robert Buckland, got away with blaming the public for the second national lockdown in November, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, got away with blaming the public for Covid test shortages, and Johnson got away with reprimanding the public for “too many breaches” of the restrictions.
The press has often amplified these efforts to shame the public, by publishing photographs of a crowded park during the first lockdown, for example, often deceptively shot to disguise social distancing. Rather than serially documenting government failures, BBC political correspondents sympathetically highlight that the “crisis is unprecedented as an administrative nightmare for every government around the world”, adding “it hasn’t happened before, so no one can be sure of the right thing to do”. Poor old ministers, is the not-so-subtle line of argument.
But the official opposition must also accept some responsibility. Labour wasn’t in an easy situation: when a national crisis takes hold, many people adopt a mentality of “don’t attack the pilot when the plane is crashing”. The party deserves credit for forcing the government to U-turn on the NHS surcharge, and calling for a second lockdown. But Labour’s early failure to vigorously challenge the government’s numerous mistakes was a missed opportunity that allowed a feeling of exemption to take hold, as if any government would make similar mistakes given the circumstances. This explains why, even though the government has quite literally cancelled Christmas for millions at the last minute, one new poll shows the Tories still ahead.
The truth is the public have abided by restrictions far better than they were predicted to do by behavioural scientists, who initially argued against imposing harsh restrictions on the grounds that most would not be able to observe such authoritarian rules for long periods. Yet people’s sacrifices prevented a far worse national calamity, and polling has consistently shown that the public were ahead of the curve in demanding tough new controls before the government implemented them.
But with a formidable rightwing machine deflecting responsibility from our rulers to the general populace, and no determined effort to challenge it, the public continue to blame each other, and our government is set to get away with causing the biggest peacetime catastrophe in modern history.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Blaming the public for a rise in Covid lets the government off the hook | Coronavirus