I was on my way to Plymouth Hoe after finishing work for my proverbial cappuccino, feeling down on account of my wife leaving for Lithuania tomorrow. I noticed how the daffodils along the way had given way to the blossom, which is also beginning to give way to the bluebells – each following the other as though designed to keep our spirits up: a challenge for me at this time . A line of verse came into my head linking the two. Over my cappo, it developed into something more. I’d like to share it with you.
You went away at blossom time, The daffs had had their day, But blossom comes to fill the void, Though, briefly does it stay. And then the bluebells swarm about, Its trillions fill the land, Their fragrant scent in woodland parts, Completes this godlike hand. But I am sad beyond recall, For you are gone from me, With no set date for your return, To help me in my grief. I will endure and wait for you, To do what you must do, But beg you in that far off land, To think on me and you.
Recent events still playing out across the distant steppes of Europe are bringing about seismic changes in the geo-political landscape.
Russia, today, stands friendless in a way it has never before. Its leader has unleashed a war that has appalled the whole world and from which there is no easy way to row back without massive loss of face.
Vladimir Putin is a man riven with hatred for what he sees as Russia’s treatment by the West. Too long now in power, he sees enemies in every quarter and has undoubtedly developed a personality disorder which prevents him from acting rationally. So out of touch with reality is he that he actually believed his forces would be greeted as liberators, with flowers tossed on his tanks and armoured carriers. He has convinced himself that a country ruled by a Jewish prime minister and a Jewish president is a fascist state and he calls them Nazis. He invites his countrymen and women to share this outlook.
Galling to him the extreme is that his plans for a quick victory are unravelling and the Western allies uniting to funnel in weapons to enable a protracted struggle to develop.
His choices are stark. Only the application of overwhelming force stands a chance of breaking the logjam. But his soldiers – mainly conscripts – are unhappy. The people they are being asked to kill are what they have always called their little brothers. Unlike in the ‘Great Patriotic War’ Putin’s soldiers are not fighting for their homeland, but to gain possession of another’s. The people they are being asked to despoil are not the brutal, merciless, sadistic Nazis, who regarded them as a lower form of humanity (Untermensch), but fellow Slavs who speak their own language and share a common history.
This time it is not the Russians who are motivated, but their invaded brother nation who, like them in 1941, face an existential struggle for national survival.
Shockwaves have swept across the entire planet which had nurtured the fond belief that a no-holds war of this kind had been consigned to the annals of history. There is a very real risk that million-plus cities will be reduced to rubble. Remembered with melancholy is the fate of Aleppo in Syria and what these same Russians did to the world’s oldest inhabited city.
The entire enterprise has become very personal. Even Hitler did not dispatch death squads to take out his implacable, eventual nemesis, Stalin, as Putin has done with the Ukrainian leader. He is well versed in taking out anyone who seriously offends him, no matter what foreign capital they may live in. The single exception to this is Washington.
Putin’s mindset is one that cannot contemplate defeat, nor tolerate a protracted struggle in which he gets bogged down, nor see his economy wreaked by Western sanctions.
Also, he has unusually sinister plans for the disposal of the dead bodies of his young conscripts. In Afghanistan, even the Soviets returned them to their loved ones which, unfortunately for them, brought home the bitter and melancholy cost of war. Putin is reported to have arranged for mobile crematoriums to be sent to the battlefield. But unlike even the Japanese in WWII, who returned the ashes of their fallen to Tokyo, Putin’s incinerators are designed to vaporise the remains. This is a truly awful man we are talking about.
Notwithstanding the fearful range of weaponry that the Russian tyrant is prepared to use – much of which is banned under international law – this may yet be a war that he cannot win. But if he does, he will need a huge army of occupation since the Western third of Ukraine is ideal partisan country, and Ukraine is Europe’s largest nation – substantially larger in land than France.
Part of Putin’s problem, after twenty-two years in power, is that he is beyond listening to anyone. But there is one power in a position to impose mediation on him and force him to the conference table. That power is China. Apart from a handful of rogue regimes which can offer him nothing, China is the only one which can mitigate, to a degree, the effects of sanctions. It comes to something that he does not even enjoy the support of the mullahs in Tehran.
Such is Putin’s isolation, and so crippling the range of sanctions now deployed against him, that only China can keep him afloat. Putin cannot do without it. As a result, that country is the only one that can twist his arm into a climbdown that may magic up some sort of fig leaf to cover the humiliation involved. It could, perhaps, involve the United Nations.
It may well be that China asserts its power, for the very first time, on the continent which, two centuries ago, began the process of humbling it and bringing it into the modern world. It may broker a conference to bring a halt to the violence presently engulfing the cities and towns of Ukraine.
The truth is that China is appalled at the situation which Putin has brought about. It has an obsession, dating back millennia, in stability. Harmony is in its DNA (providing due respect is shown to its ancient lineage). That doesn’t stop it, however, gloating over the West’s recent disarray with its armies of naval-gazing bleeding hearts bemoaning its perceived sins of the past, as well as the present, and its legions of Woke social justice warriors. These are the kind of warriors that China would like to see more of. It couldn’t believe its luck when it saw the ignominious scuttle from Afghanistan, and the European half of the Western alliance question Uncle Sam’s commitment to Europe. It has revelled even at how its own home-grown virus has laid the Western world low and plunged it into unimaginable debt.
Now, overnight, its erstwhile neighbour, Russia, has inadvertently awoken the sleeping giant of the Free World and both NATO and the European Union are re-energised with the US beathing fire and smoke, and pledging to “defend every inch of NATO territory”. Even pacific Germany has seen the light. It has thrown its mighty engine into rearmament – a terrifying prospect for the Russians – and proposes to take its nuclear plants out of mothballs, fire up its coal-fired plants and free itself from dependency on Russian oil and gas. Nord Stream 2, with its £8 billion dollars of spent investment – much of it Russian – is now for the birds. The formerly proud neutrals of Sweden and Finland are also suddenly keen to join the alliance.
Whatever Putin’s game plan was it cannot have been any of this.
All this means for the Chinese that the long-sought-for seizure of Taiwan is once again off the agenda, for China now believes that it can longer be certain that Uncle Sam will scuttle a second time. Indeed, the landscape has so changed that it seems the entire democratic world is now on the march and its growing dream of a quiescent West standing by while it advances to world domination is now just that: a dream.
Sales of Christmas lights have quadrupled this festive season. A message is being sent to Johnson and his coterie of doom-laden cohorts.
We are a happy, positive people, and we will not allow you to depress our spirits for another Christmas. We will illuminate the darkness with our message of hope and optimism. We are content to shield behind the ramparts of our brilliant scientists who, with their vaccines, have done what you are not doing: give us hope and inspiration to see this through.
Between 1939 and 1945, one went to prison for “spreading alarm and despondency” – exactly what our current leaders have been doing for almost two years now. Such activity was regarded as one step short of treason. Imagine if Churchill had gone on air predicting hundreds of thousands of deaths due to Nazi bombs, as he might very have done had he been lily-livered and flanked by the likes of Messrs Whitty, Vallance and the boffins of Sage. Instead, he raised the spirit of the nation into a can-do crusade.
I only give the prime minister credit by default for the ordering of massive doses of the Covid vaccines then under development. His mantra for all things is to spend, spend and spend again. Remember the Thames estuary Airport, the bridge to Ireland, the new Royal yacht, the long-forgotten water cannons to control protesters when he was mayor of London? These he had failed to clear with the Home Secretary, so had to be sold at a loss when she declared their use to be un-British.
The massive vaccine order was one project in which his normal financial incontinence and recklessness actually paid off. The truth of the matter is that the real heroes were the scientists and the woman put in charge of the rollout, Kate Bingham.
For almost two years now, we have been assailed and bludgeoned into a mindset of misery and despair and the nation has had enough. Hence the nationwide illuminations; a finger up to the doom-mongers if ever I saw one.
The trail of carnage which the handling of the pandemic has left ranges from suicides and child and domestic abuse to fatally late diagnoses of cancers, mental breakdowns and lost businesses. It is beyond quantifying and we will never know its full extent. Books will be written, but the collateral damage – and let’s not forget the horrifying debts we have incurred – may turn out to be worse than the disease itself. It has reached into every corner of life.
And this accounts for our brilliantly lit cities. It is a message of defiance and the belief that better times are coming. In the light of the spectacularly wrong stream of forecasts of deaths, you would have thought that the government would have shown a degree of caution about the latest 75k forecast and hold back from moving to fresh restrictions until firm evidence emerged to justify it. But, true to form, ministers panicked once again and lost their nerve. Not only did they move us to so-called Plan B, but they started leaking about a Plan C.
All the while, we are finding that all the evidence is pointing in the opposite direction and that the latest, more infectious variant in fact makes you much less ill and in the great majority of cases can be handled at home. Where hospitalisation is required, oxygen is rarely needed and patients are released much quicker. Much more is understood now about the disease and more effective treatments are being delivered.
In the end, this new variant may be doing us a favour by being more transmissible as it may quickly achieve that long-sought-after end, herd immunity, without killing us in the process or even making us seriously ill like the Alpha and Delta strains before it.
Basically, all we needed to do is protect the vulnerable, which we now have the means to do, and life can resume a more normal pattern. Of course, the truth is that the virus never did have an interest in killing us. It was only keen to spread as since killing its host defeats that end.
So where are we now? The government is getting ready to ruin another Christmas by moving to Plan C – which it has hurriedly cobble together – but lo, the angel of the Lord has intervened in the form of the ninety-nine MPs who said no. By their rebellion in the Commons, they have sent the most alarming of shots across the prime minister’s bows. They have made it virtually impossible for him to move beyond the restrictions he has already imposed. Those ninety-nine MPs who put principle before their careers are the true heroes of recent events.
Not only have they said thus far but no farther, but they have extracted a promise that no further measures will be enacted without parliament’s approval. Johnson knows that although he has got his panicky way yet again, it has only been achieved with the embarrassing support of the official opposition. Such a rebellion has made it next to impossible for him to pull off such a stunt again. If he got a bloody nose from his own side this time, he would receive a knockout uppercut if he tried it again. Those fifty-four disgruntled MPs needed to trigger a vote of no confidence in his leadership would become an avalanche.
Pity the new incumbent of Number 10 who would have to live with Carrie’s choice of bizarre furnishings and wallpaper. We might even forgive him or her in spending yet more money in reinstating John Lewis.
As Afghanistan suffers and slips back into darkness, America licks its entirely self-inflicted wounds and Europe stands aghast
America used to proudly boast that it never lost a war, but now Afghanistan joins Vietnam in destroying that claim.
As a ragbag force of 83,000 Taliban sweeps to final victory in a single week over a well-trained, highly equipped government army three times bigger, the US has suffered a humiliation every bit as great as that inflicted by the Vietnamese 45 years ago. Even that jaw-dropping scurry from the embassy roof has found a fresh equivalent.
A geopolitical catastrophe has been inflicted on the West as well as on NATO by a naïve, increasingly inept president and his predecessor. NATO had hitherto been seen as the longest, most successful military alliance in history and, indeed, it was. Now that hard earned credibility has been seriously jeopardised by its leading member. What is so galling is that the forces deployed before the collapse of its mission were minuscule compared to that it had deployed to bring relative order to the country. Yet this tiny force had been sufficient to encourage the Afghan army to do its job and stiffen poor decision making with its ranks. It also gave it state of the art equipment as well as training. Why, then, did the Afghan army fall apart so precipitously and succumb to a hugely inferior enemy?
It did so because of a terrible feeling of abandonment. Also, because its corrupt masters had stopped paying it – pocketing the huge funds its western backers were sending, when a foolish president set a date for withdrawal. The crooks in government knew that a day of reckoning was fast approaching with the austere men with long beards. Those funds went to myriad offshore accounts in the run-up to departure and before the crooks scurried off to their seaside mansions.
Over the course of twenty years, Afghanistan – and particularly its women – have come to engage with the modern world and enjoy its freedoms and opportunities. All this is about to be snatched away. Society will be plunged back into feudalism. Women, again, will become the playthings of men, suffering torment, cruelty and anguish with their Human Rights cut from under them along with education and job opportunities.
Although bringing overwhelming firepower to bear, once the heavy lifting had been done, the West only needed to maintain a fraction of that effort to hold things together. But its guiding light lacked the backbone to see the job through. Sadly, it stands to pay a heavy price for its pusillanimous. Had the Taliban, like the IRA, faced an enemy willing to stay the course, its stomach for a never ending fight would, eventually, have evaporated.
Afghanistan, more and more, would have moved into the modern world and there would have been no turning back. That kind of resolve, demonstrated by NATO over 45 years, eventually broke the back of the mighty Soviet Union. It will have to be summoned up once more to contain the assertive designs of a totalitarian China that binds the human spirit in chains of a sort never before available to tyrants.
Meantime, Afghanistan suffers and slips back into darkness. America licks its entirely self-inflicted wounds and Europe stands aghast. Has our stalwart ally and protector lost the plot, as well as its bottle? Can we rely on it as we always felt we could? We in Europe are half a billion people – rich people at that. Has the time come that we have to look to ourselves, while remaining in closest concert with our Atlantic neighbour? These are urgent questions, and they must be addressed. Meanwhile, laughing in the wings are China, Russia and Iran.
It seems too much to hope that the Taliban Mark 2 has seen the error of its former ways. Even if its now elderly leadership might wish to do things differently, its young foot soldiers out in the countryside can be expected to exact Quranic justice as per its 7th century origins. There are a lot of scores to be settled.
Afghanistan remains a tribal society with animosities that run as deep as did those between Scottish Highland clans. Perhaps one of its warlords will cobble together a challenge to the Taliban, much as the Northern Alliance did successfully. But then, again, perhaps we may all be wrong and it really is a changed Taliban. They certainly won’t want a fresh invasion, which is what they will get if they facilitate renewed terror attacks.
Above all, they crave international recognition for their renewed Emirate and only good – or at least better – behaviour can secure that. They have pledged to eradicate poppy production and appealed to the world to help them replace their narcotic dependency with alternative crops.
Afghanistan developed expectations as a result of thirty years of exposure to a fastmoving world – first the USSR and then NATO. It is just possible that the now weary old men can succeed in reigning in their hothead younger men and settle society down as has been achieved in our own backyard of Northern Ireland.
Margaret Thatcher’s successor, Sir John Major, has declared that however well we perform over the next half century, we will never again be a first-rate power. He says that, economically, we will be overtaken by other powers with much larger populations.
I find it astonishing that a man who has sat at the very centre of power can reveal himself as being so astonishingly myopic. Despite his seven years in power, he failed utterly to pick up on what his country was really all about. His lack of historical perspective is also equally baffling.
Size of economy and population do not in themselves confer on you front-rank power. Very soon, India’s economy will overtake our own and its population overtake China’s. Is anybody saying India becomes more significant than us at that point?
Let me list a few of the reasons why I believe Britain will remain a force to be reckoned with and very much a front-rank power. We are the founder member of the Anglo-Saxon diaspora, comprising ourselves, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. That diaspora formed the cornerstone of the post-war world order and the multitude of organisations and affiliates operating under the auspices of the United Nations – itself a body created by its two leading members. So close and trusting of each other are these five countries that the Five Eyes, as they call themselves, share intelligence to the very highest level and admit no others to their closed order.
The common language these countries share has become so ubiquitous and necessary in the world of international diplomacy, science, medicine, business, the web and the arts that, without any agreement between the world’s 195 nations, it has become the world’s lingua franca.
Britain is the inventor of the modern world. It is a tolerant, law-driven, property-owning, democratic society in which the executive is answerable to the collective will of individuals who maintain a constant watch on what it gets up to through a free media. It remains an incredibly innovative country with a greater number of Nobel laureates relative to its population. It has schools the rich worldwide like to send their kids to and universities that rank among the world’s best.
Also, John Major takes no account of that great empire that formerly straddled the world which has morphed into a free association of nations – fifty-four of them – and forms today such a magnet that some countries which were never part of that empire want to join. That association – or club, as it often likes to refer to itself – seeks to promote democracy and decency among all its members and will reject any state who egregiously fails to meet its standards. In many ways it is like a mini United Nations – though not one which will tolerate tyrants – and it has a touching, almost family aspect to it. All the Commonwealth’s members positively love to meet up every two years and party with no interpreters in sight.
Despite the aberration of the Trump presidency – one quite survivable, as we see, in a democratic society – the United States remains the most dynamic society on earth. The country most admired and trusted by that state enjoys, by definition, a special status as well as an advantage. It has the ear of its best pal as no one else does. Note that, despite a serious difference with Boris Johnson over Brexit and disparaging words spoken earlier about the British prime minister, he was still the first leader Biden picked up the phone to after his confirmation as the president elect.
Then there is our physical proximity, cultural and historical links with the great power which will one day be the United States of Europe. These ties will not go away. We will always need and want each other. Great Britain was just not a proper fit for the EU’s aspirations. Quite apart from this, it would never want to upset us too much for fear that we would retaliate by using our newly repatriated powers to seek economic advantage.
I do believe that Britain has the most polished and effective diplomatic service in the world. This is enhanced by the world’s most respected broadcaster, the BBC. Its World Service is the most trusted of any and listened to avidly even by its enemies. Its documentaries, dramas and period pieces entrance millions.
All these assets come under the heading of Soft Power. It is the only power, realistically, which can deployed in the 21st century. Unlike tanks, planes and warships, it passes under the radar and makes you friends – not enemies. Hard Power is a wasting asset; it is hugely expensive and ruinous to maintain. The ever-increasing restraints of an ever increasingly activist UN make it almost impossible today to go to war without UN authorisation. The war against Saddam Hussein may well have been the last in which that could be done without a mandate.
As for nuclear weapons, the only thing that can be said about them is that they free you from fear of invasion, which is almost certainly why North Korea has impoverished itself to acquire them and their delivery system. Otherwise, they are unusable – so being armed to the teeth is truly a drag anchor. Dynamic as it is, imagine how much more the United States would be capable of were it not burdened with supporting its colossal military-industrial complex. That is the foolish road that authoritarian China is presently going down. While it is true that we ourselves are not free from displaying military muscle – we have submarines that can deliver a nuclear strike anywhere in the world and two aircraft carriers of immeasurable power – we do not let ourselves be carried away.
John Major downplays the country that allowed him, the son of a circus man, to rise to the top – as well as a grocer’s daughter. But among so many other questions, he needs to ask himself what is the attraction of our nation that desperate people will borrow thousands from people traffickers to come and live among us? What makes a man willing to die to reach our shores?
The fact is that we are seen a tolerant nation as well as a successful one. The quality of our judicial rulings brings litigation to London from all over the world. In theatre, drama and music, Britain turns in a matchless performance. Many consider London the coolest city in the world with the City of London the beating heart of an enormous chunk of global financial transactions.
Even the shenanigans of our Royal Family are a source of endless fascination for the entire planet. And when it comes to a state visit, a royal wedding or a funeral, who can put on a show to match one of ours? Brexit may have driven us mad, but the theatre of it all in the mother of parliaments – especially that of its outrageously partisan speaker, Bercow, who so loved the sound of his own voice – made for riveting viewing worldwide. The complexities of the arguments deployed made even the US electoral process look straightforward.
So wake up John Major! You haven’t been right about very much these recent years and you’re certainly not right about this.
Not in living memory has the entire world been gripped by a fear as great as that which holds it in thrall at the present time.
In this COVID-19 crisis, it seems to me that what is needed more than anything is a sense of proportion. In the lifetime of people still walking the earth, a pandemic struck which killed fifty million of the planet’s inhabitants.
I refer, of course, to Spanish flu. It was a nasty, virulent strain which targeted the young – male and female children and those of military age. These were the ones it liked to sink its cellular teeth into. It wasn’t interested in the old.
Furthermore, you were over one hundred times more likely to die of Spanish flu than you are of the current malignancy. The saddest irony was that millions who had survived four years of shell and shrapnel in the trenches fell victim to this unseen killer wearing no uniform and against which they had no defence.
The ones who perished were the ones society could least afford to lose. Much less was known in those days of the nature of viral spread and reproduction and even less on how to combat it. In that much less regulated and interventionist world, no lockdowns took place.
With COVID-19, it was apparent early on that you were at risk – not just by being old, but if you were obese and/or with underlying health issues. The very young would often hardly know that it had come and gone with them.
Any sensible approach should, therefore, have taken these factors on board with targeted policy measures. People in a high-risk category should have had a protective shield thrown around them and the rest left to go about their business, mindful of the dangers while exercising due diligence. Test and Trace should have been an early priority.
Had this been done, it would not have been necessary to inflict such catastrophic economic harm and all the attendant collateral damage associated with these national lockdowns. Nor would we have mortgaged our children’s’ future with debt levels never before seen outside of world wars. It is likely, in the final reckoning, that as many will have died from delayed treatments for heart disease, cancer, strokes and a multitude of other conditions as have succumbed to this coronavirus.
The country in Europe which has come closest to what I regard as a measured and proportionate approach is Sweden. Their one obvious failure, which was joined by our own litany of failures, was not to have protected their care homes. But at least their economy will have emerged largely unscathed and treatments for other more numerous life-threatening conditions continue on track.
The Swedes are, by nature, a calm people – as once we were – and their appeal has been to people’s good sense. The instinct to stay alive has been sufficient to persuade their socially minded people to do the right thing, and they will reap a rich dividend as a result.
Britain’s own unenviable record of the highest death total in Europe can be largely explained by our Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, dithering over lockdown and our appalling levels of obesity and associated poor health. It seems no coincidence that our even fatter cousins across the Atlantic lead the field in fatalities.
Our country’s latest catastrophic error was Boris allowing himself to be terrorised by alarmist and grossly exaggerated figures of likely fatalities. Four thousand daily were predicted by 20th December. If this was in anyway plausible, 1,000 daily should be dying at this time of writing. The figure is actually 167. Thus the country will be plunged, on the basis of pure scaremongering and out-of-date prognostications, back into an even more economic and mental misery, predicted by many to be even more damaging than before.
Our prime minister’s scientific advisers, Chris Witty and Patrick Vallance – not to mention the government’s myopic scientific advisory group, SAGE – have so much to answer for. Their blinkered, doom-laden tunnel vision would entertain no opinions other than their own.
The British public are desperate for Boris to be the Boris we elected. He can make a start by respecting the opinions of thousands of medics and Nobel laureates whose credentials are quite the equal to his current advisers in the form of the Great Barrington Declaration.
Banks are the only firms on high streets still consistently causing queues. Why are they continuing to operate short hours while other businesses are opening as normal? And why do they close on Saturdays and insist on cutting their high street presence even further, against huge public opposition?
A little over a decade ago, their scandalous activities drove the world almost to the point of meltdown, yet they have shown no contrition nor gratitude for what the taxpayer did for them nor rendered up any guilty scalps. And notice, please, how no Royal Commission was ever put to work to investigate that most monumental of scandals. Today, in this world of COVID, the banks continue on their merry way.
As a shopkeeper, I need change. I had to wait twenty minutes on my high street to gain entry yesterday and only one out of four counters was operational.
Part of the problem is that Brits are too polite. We stand in quiet acquiescence to the nonsense the banks are subjecting us to. It is not in our nature to make a fuss. Politicians will not come to our rescue because too many of them look to the banks for lucrative jobs when their days at Westminster are over.
One big mistake was not to let a couple of the big banks go down the Swanee as the US did with Lehman Bros. Considering banks ‘too big to fail’ made cowards of us. Now we must force them to accept their social responsibilities. Easy access to money should be a start and right. Abandonments of dreams to make us a cashless, at least for the foreseeable future, should be another. A little humility would also help.
Yesterday, all your troubles seem so far away;
At last, release, and rescue from the endless fray.
A childhood lost to parents’ waring feuds;
Smart thoughts in afterlife so badly skewed.
Great lines and beauty, all to no avail.
My own unhappy start was yet redeemed.
You said I was the lucky of we three:
I think you right, for I was free to see.
There have been world wars, genocides, whole cities obliterated and great economic depressions. There has even been the Black Death. But we can never identify a period when the whole human race has been shut down in the face of an invisible foe with the potential to kill untold millions and perhaps wipe out half of our elderly mothers and fathers.
Had we not become a scientific species which had acquired a keen understanding of how viruses transmit, this may very well have happened. But today, in my country after three months of hiatus, the shops are permitted – under strict conditions – to resume business. This in itself is a first. There are so many of them. Never before have traders countrywide been prevented from plying their wares. But equally, never before had all human activity which involved close contact been forbidden and the entire population placed under what amounts to house arrest.
Because these constraints so obviously impinge on the ability to do business, economic activity has taken a hit greater than any since the arrival of the Black Death seven centuries ago. Billions of humans have been sent on enforced sabbaticals, and in many cases have lost the will to work. In this glorious spring and summer weather, they have actually enjoyed not having to report for work in the early morning and suffer the burden of having to constantly maintain output, work schedules and the annoyance of being bossed around by their superiors.
Society now faces the herculean task of firing up again all these beach-comers and new enjoyers of public spaces ever since they were permitted to exercise and take the air to maintain health and sanity. But just as daunting are the hitherto unheard levels of public debt incurred to keep as many businesses as possible on life support. Governments around the world knew that, despite breaking every record in the economic rulebook, millions of enterprises will never recover and untold millions will find themselves relying on the public purse to survive. This is particularly galling to those governments – including our own – which managed their affairs well and were looking to a golden future. No one knows what the consequences of so much public debt will be, but consequences there surely will be.
In handling this crisis, my own country has been found seriously wanting. While our freshly minted prime minister has won the first big test of his premiership – exiting the European Union – he has failed abysmally on the second, COVID-19. Failing to put the country in lockdown sooner cost tens of thousands of lives. Failure to test, track and trace added to the litany of woes, as did failure to provide personal protective equipment. But perhaps the most scandalous failure was that of not throwing a cordon sanitaire around the people most likely to die: those in care homes. Hospitals sending infected patients into care homes may be said to have reached the bar of criminal negligence, as was the failure to provide protection for those who look after them. But as if these failings were not enough, we must add four more: an insistence that two-metre social distancing be maintained; a mule-like refusal to accept that face masks can make it harder for the virus to jump from person to person; a tardiness in getting the least at risk back to school; and the lunacy of introducing travel quarantining after the horse has bolted.
But beyond these events, there is an important geo-political dimension. Where has the European Union been in all this? Nowhere, so far as anyone can see. Brussels has been criticised by virtually every member state for interfering in matters they say don’t concern it. But here was a life and death issue which affected all of them equally. Would any have complained were the Union to have taken the lead in protecting them? After all, health issues have always been a major concern of Brussels. It extends even to the much maligned bent or undersized banana.
It has been truly absurd that 27 member states ended up doing their own thing. This was never better illustrated than in our own small island, where devolution allowed for four different solutions to the same problem. We ended up in a Kafkaesque world where an Englishman for the first time in eight hundred years could be stopped from entering Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland.
Various national leaders – and none more so than our own – will face a harsh reckoning when the story of this crisis is finally written up. Had the European Union taken responsibility for managing the crisis, those leaders would have avoided all the brickbats that will now come raining down on them in what many consider the great project of our time, the European Union. And had the EU, for its part, acquitted itself well, it would have provided a mighty fillip to those who have always lauded its creation and pine for a United States of Europe.
As we grapple with COVID-19, we are left wondering how we overnight got from a happy confluence of a strong government, a finally successful Brexit exit, a strong economy, a budget which promised to regenerate our country, into a downturn of unimaginable proportions.
A deadly virus had mutated in an ancient land which, despite being at the cutting edge of so many modern technologies, still hangs on to disgustingly unhygienic animal practices more worthy of witch doctor days.
Precious weeks were lost in a miasma of deceit, cover-up and punishment of those who sought to tell the truth. I am not saying that we in the West do not have our share of such practices, but they are the exception rather than the rule. And where our unfettered media ferret out such goings on, things change and frequently heads roll. Those in power – who can be held to account – know this and that is why such happenings are the exception. Democracy is what does it. As Churchill once said: “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time…”
No authoritarian, one party state, such as China, would tolerate for an instant the daily press briefings whereby the most powerful man in the land submits himself to a grilling in which he is obliged to answer unscripted questions. Nor would such a state allow its media to tear into its handling of any matter. Furthermore, all such dictatorial states insist on imposing their own narrative to events. They will brook no counterview and punish those who try, often by torture and all too frequently by death. All this makes it galling to the nth degree when the perpetrator of the terrible events which have gripped the world shows no contrition, but rather starts boasting how well it has handled it all. To add insult to injury, it sends hapless foreigners rushed supplies of PPE, much of which is defective.
If China wishes to be admired and respected by the rest of humanity, it must be honest and upfront on issues which affect the entire planet. This is particularly necessary where health and survival of the species is concerned. It has to be said that there was a certain inevitability – given ancient animal practices carried out in live wet animal markets in the Far East – that such outbreaks as coronavirus would be regular occurrences. A family member, not long ago, drew my attention to a YouTube expose of animals being skinned alive in China. It was so horrific that I quickly had to avert my gaze. In those parts of the world where human rights are given short shrift, it is not surprising that those of animals are virtually non-existent. Not until all of us treat each other humanely can we expect those who don’t to extend the same protection to our fellow creatures.
Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness – as the US Constitution has it – may even be said to be the right of animals too. As the only part of Creation blessed (some might say cursed) with a mind capable of understanding the issues, we should regard our role as that of a high steward – the ultimate protector of all that has evolved on this orbiting accretion of stardust.
We should regard the outbreak we are currently living through as a wakeup call for the next pandemic coming down the track. And down it most definitely will come. When it arrives, we may not be so lucky as we have been this time with a virus which kills, it is thought, one in a hundred and which largely leaves the young and the fit able to survive it with minimal discomfort. Pity, though, the old and those with health issues.
Deaths worldwide are likely to be under a million from a world population of 7.3 billion. The SARS coronavirus, only a few years ago (also from China), had a mortality rate ten times higher than the COVID-19 coronavirus, but it was somewhat harder to catch and showed symptoms earlier. Luckily it was contained. Spanish flu, on the other hand, one hundred years ago, spared the old and ravaged the young, killing in the region of fifty million out of a then world population of 1.8 billion – a fraction of today’s 7.6 billion. One third of humanity is thought to have contracted the disease. Woe betide us if the next pandemic has the killing power of the Black Death. Then, half the human race vanished.
It is a perennial worry of our species as to what its ultimate fate will be – an asteroid strike, Global Warming, a runaway population explosion (1.8bn to 7.3bn in one hundred years) the exhaustion of the Earth’s raw materials and nuclear annihilation – but pandemics are our biggest enemy. A new, incredibly murderess and fast-moving virus strain against which no antidote can be found before it kills half of humanity or even more.
People think that the world has only recently become interconnected, but the worlds of the middle ages and even antiquity were fully aware of each other’s existence and traded. Albeit their ships were smaller, slow-moving and the overland routes dangerous, but they still pulled it off. It took many months for the Black Death to move from the East to the West – and it never reached the Americas because there were no overland routes and we didn’t even know they were there. Now our coffin-shaped jets – acting like high-flying incubators – can bring it to us in hours. Had China included international air travel when it put a ban on movement in and out of Wuhan, there is every reason to believe the world would have been spared this health and economic catastrophe.
The lessons to be taken from our present travails are speed, transparency and isolation. Also, nations must be obliged to create war chests of PPE, test kits and ventilators, since the failure of any one of them puts the rest of us at risk. Primitive practices such as live, wet markets must be banned worldwide.
If all nations insist on maintaining military establishments with their horrendously expensive tanks, planes and warships, they surely can afford to protect themselves from a potentially greater enemy than any state poses by maintaining health service capability. After all, no neighbouring, hostile state ever enjoyed the advantage of invisibility.