Any connoisseur of socialist realist art would appreciate the National Museum of China’s new art exhibition, which hymns the battle against coronavirus with sculptures of masked medics mobilised in collective effort. The show is designed to “unite the people” and “spread positive energy”. This was to be expected: the Communist party has always preferred the heroic mould of history (early in the crisis, Xi Jinping declared “a people’s war” against the virus) and finds it all the more useful when there are awkward issues to skirt over. Nor is it surprising that there are no pictures of Li Wenliang, the whistleblowing doctor who subsequently died from Covid-19, on display.
What is striking is that the leader of a democracy should adopt a strategy with distinct echoes of China’s. In Britain, Boris Johnson lauded “our modern army of doctors and nurses” and ministers picked up the rhetoric of patriotic sacrifice. While medical and social care staff were courageous, they didn’t set out to be heroes, let alone martyrs. Some expressed their discomfort, feeling in part that such talk was a cost-free substitute for real support, and in part that battlefield language normalised what should have been abhorrent: the idea of healthcare workers dying because of their exposure to Covid-19. As the bereaved son of one nurse, Josiane Ekoli, told the Guardian: “Even soldiers who do go out to battle are given helmets and protection.”
Why does this still matter? First, at least 540 NHS and social care workers have died in England and Wales, and their families are struggling both emotionally and practically. The government should ensure that they will not be stripped of eligibility for welfare benefits if they receive a payout from the Covid-19 compensation scheme, as is currently the case.
Second, the search for scapegoats – exemplified by the reckless abolition of Public Health England in the middle of a pandemic – is the flipside of the panegyrics. According to a survey of 14 leading democracies by the Pew Research Center, British voters assessed their country’s performance in handling the coronavirus outbreak more negatively than any other electorate. Just 46% thought it had done well, compared with 88% in Germany. The solution to the government’s political woes should not be to distract with tales of heroes and villains, but to do its job better.
Third, the government’s failure went far beyond its inability to provide adequate protective equipment. One former scientific adviser has suggested that locking down one week earlier could have saved 20,000 lives. In England, the subsequent rush to reopen, and Mr Johnson’s boosterism, sent entirely the wrong message to the public. The return to school next week is necessary, and the economy must get back on its feet, but the utmost caution is needed. With the R rate in France jumping to 1.4, the director of the Wellcome Trust, Jeremy Farrar, has warned that the UK and continental Europe are on the brink of a new phase in the pandemic, and that decisions made in the next month will affect how serious matters become over the next six months to a year. Healthcare workers will pick up the pieces if there are further mistakes; some may pay the highest price.
Already, England’s test-and-trace system has been hit by fresh problems. The government has flip-flopped over masks in schools, and may have drawn back from stronger measures because of lobbying from Tory MPs. After weeks of pressure, it has offered cash support to low-paid people who need to self-isolate, but the measly rate of £13 a day surely means that many will continue to struggle and some will continue to work, spreading the infection. Each day, the inadequacies of Mr Johnson and his ministers are highlighted anew.
Medical staff and others deserved every second of applause they received from the public. But they deserve better than cheap sentiment from No 10. We don’t need lions led by donkeys. We, and frontline workers most of all, need competent governance.
Source: The Guardian