As we hopefully move a step closer to ending the coronavirus pandemic, our leaders and we must resist the voices of division who care for nothing but themselves, and avoid becoming numb to empathy.


First published in February 2021 | Updated in March 2021.


It all started a bit like with Stelios, the man who created the “easyEverything” family of easy brands. From easyJet to easyBus or easyHotel...

Under Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the UK Government has tried its very best since early last year to create its own brands of “world-beating Everything”, keeping the frontier between dream and reality as loose as possible. They thus regularly talked about having:

They used “world-beating” so loosely and so confidently in the media, in Parliament, and at the Covid-briefings, that — being in the middle of such uncertainty — we could have blindly believed them. They sounded so certain of their future achievements that if this government had told us they would suddenly start brewing beer and make “possibly the best lager in the world” (as the advert goes), we would have taken their word for it.

But this over-confident, exaggerated, Brexit-like can-do attitude has been a disaster all along. The track and trace system ended up being a failure, so has the Covid app. As for the border, since Brexit took place on January 1, the government has been so good that ferries are now avoiding Britain to ship to Ireland instead to bypass the paperwork.

Was Stelios’ constellation of brands the model behind the UK Government’s world-beating narrative? | easyEverything

Pandemic nationalism

Trying to compete in the top league on your own is courageous. Still, boasting of “world-beating” achievements to compete with your former club (EU) when these achievements actually fail to materialise portrays you as a serial incompetent, not a genius. Falsely claiming to be world-beating at every occasion — almost obsessively — is a sign not of strength but weakness. It is giving in to pandemic nationalism, and it is wrong.

Worse, continuously refusing to admit your mistakes and insisting even that a minister who acted unlawfully by failing to publish Covid PPE contracts “moved heaven and earth to try to get their hands on PPE that was in short supply” deserves nothing but wide condemnation.

With Mr Johnson’s focus on his “world-beating Everything” strategy, the UK ended up at the back of the queue last year, with one of the worst death tolls in the world.

After the humiliating world-beating strategy failed, the government came up with a brilliant new idea: to be the world’s first at everything they could think of.

And now, Boris Johnson and his libertarian minions want the UK to be the world’s first to reopen everything by 21 June, starting with reopening all schools on 8 March. If it all goes wrong, we might well also be the world’s first to return to lockdown — Lockdown 4 — before the summer. Do you get a medal for that too?

There is nothing like a PM going to Parliament to explain to MPs that his grand reopening strategy is all data-driven, not date-driven… then starts setting out actual dates for the various stages of the very plan and produces no supporting data.

The right-wing media like it. Libertarian and Conservative MPs like it.

Metro front page, 23 February 2021.

The flu narrative returns

And when they have an opportunity to criticise or fault the scientists, two-faced politicians don’t miss it. Julian Lewis, MP for New Forest East, for example, made his view known on the zero-Covid strategy yesterday, in the House of Commons:

“Thankfully, (the PM) has clearly stated today that an extreme zero-covid approach is impracticable. Can he confirm that most, if not all, of his key scientific advisers now accept that our strategic goal must be and is a practical, vaccine-based method of controlling covid like any other serious respiratory virus, such as influenza?”

To what Boris Johnson replied:

“My right hon. Friend is completely right in the analogy he draws. The only reason I am able to say to the country that we must learn to live with covid as we live with flu in the long term is, of course, because we have this vaccination programme and the capability to evolve our vaccines.”

That is because the government is now openly advocating treating Covid-19 like the flu and for us to live with it. “Covid-19 is a relatively mild illness”, as Mr Johnson repeatedly told MPs yesterday, and as stated in the government’s own 60-page Covid-19 response document.

Covid-19 Response Spring 2021. | UK Government

The flu doesn’t kill over 120,000 people in a year. Covid-19 is not “a relatively mild illness”.

According to The Vaccine Knowledge Project at the Centre for Clinical Vaccinology and Tropical Medicine, Oxford University, “In the UK it is estimated that an average of 600 people a year die from complications of flu. In some years it is estimated that this can rise to over 10,000 deaths— a figure reviewed by Professor Andrew Pollard, the Chief Investigator of the Oxford Vaccine Trial himself.

Flu-related deaths are clearly much lower than Covid-related deaths. | Surveillance of influenza and other respiratory viruses in the UK, Winter 2019 to 2020. | Public Health England

To please his minions who have ganged around him, the prime minister has consented to use their unscientific language and senseless narrative at the end of the day. No, Mr Johnson is not data-driven; he is driven by fear. Fear they could do to him what he did to Theresa May. Et Tu Brutus?

We are probably just one step to seeing signs and posters at all UK airports reading: “Welcome to the UK, land of the joyful herd immunity experiment.”

Our leaders must resist the senseless calls for opening everything now for the sake of “personal freedom” and “personal responsibility”. Leadership is about listening to all available advice, showing empathy, and looking further than everyone else, even if it means taking very unpopular decisions.

The most recent polls by YouGov show that the people’s opinion on the PM’s reopening strategy is relatively balanced. It flies against the libertarians’ narrative that people want everything opened fast.

YouGov
YouGov

And it flies against some of the media’s narrative that people want everything opened fast. They are not mirroring people’s opinion. They only describe the view of some who have no interest in seeing us all as being together in it. Who think a date is more important than the data.

Daily Mail front page, 23 February 2021.
Daily Mail front page, 24 February 2021.

Empathy matters

What they don’t understand is that this health crisis is not about data. It is about people. And we all tend to forget about that. It is normal: it has now been a year since we have started seeing figures growing day after day of the number of people infected and people who died because of the virus.

We see numbers. Big numbers.

And we forget.

We forget that among the 135,613 people who have already gone there was somebody’s dad, somebody’s mum, somebody’s sister, somebody’s brother, somebody’s grandpa, somebody’s grandma, somebody’s friend, somebody’s colleague, somebody’s neighbour…

But it is crucial, as the world is hopefully moving a step closer to ending this pandemic, that we avoid being numb to the sorrow and to empathy. We must not allow a certain media-driven, libertarian-driven “lockdown fatigue” to become an “empathy fatigue”.

If it were to happen, we would have also lost ourselves in this pandemic. 


“I believe empathy is the most essential quality of civilization.”

— Roger Ebert (1942-2013)



J.N. PAQUET, Journalist & Author, Editor of PMP Magazine.


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[This piece was first published in [the brief] and re-published in PMP Magazine on 24 February 2021. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]


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