All hail to Catherine Bennett for calling out Jonathan Sumption (“A growing clamour of voices treats the pandemic as if it’s just health and safety gone mad”, Comment). She quotes him as saying that previous generations, subjected to worse plagues than the coronavirus, “would not have understood all the fuss”. As a retired QC, may I lend support to Bennett’s condemnation. Sumption’s exalted status as a retired justice of the supreme court cannot be allowed to blanket out his disregard for the jurisprudence that has evolved in relation to article 2 of the European convention on human rights, which states that “everyone’s right to life shall be protected by law”. To which I would add that Sumption is a lawyer and a historian, not a scientist or an epidemiologist. In this crisis, I rather incline to the view that the advice of the latter professions is what we should heed.
Catherine Bennett writes against easing the lockdown from a position of privilege. The ultimate solution to the crisis lies in either a vaccine or herd immunity. Given that the vaccine is at least a year away, and that herd immunity has been abandoned as a strategy, waves of lockdown look likely to be with us for the next 12 months or so. This might not bother those who can continue to draw a salary (or a pension) while working at home, those who don’t suffer from domestic abuse or live alone, those whose mental health hasn’t nosedived or who aren’t among the 5 million gig economy workers for whom time has now run out.
Further afield, Oxfam warns that shutting down economies could plunge more than half a billion people into poverty. How are they to be factored in to the equation that churns out the lockdown answer to the question, what is to be done?
Reasons to be cheerful
Phillip Inman rightly says Nobel prize-winning economist Sir Angus Deaton, Harvard’s Amartya Sen and the Bank of England’s Andy Haldane offer “reasons for optimism” about increased global cooperation after the coronavirus crisis (“It’s in all our interests to become a more caring society”, Economics). Likewise, Jared Diamond, Pulitzer prize-winning professor of geography, told BBC2’s Newsnight: “I am cautiously optimistic that what we’ll learn from dealing with this problem of moderate importance [Covid-19] will help in dealing with much more important problems”, such as climate change and resource overexploitation.
Before the pandemic, Diamond predicted that “the chances are about 49% that the world as we know it will collapse by about 2050”. Post-coronavirus, he estimates the chances of survival of the planet’s present network of civilisation as having gone up from 51% to a still very sobering but improved 58% by 2050.
An honest appraisal
There is one sense in which Boris Johnson will fail to be honest with the voters (“Will Boris Johnson’s brush with death prompt him to talk more honestly?”, Comment). What has to be accepted is that the threat posed by Covid-19 will remain and that living with that will be the new normal. Society and the economy need to be organised so as to minimise the threat. Mass tourism, for example, will no longer be possible and the industry associated with that will disappear.
To manage this and other threats to the economy will require government intervention on a scale not seen since the late 1940s. The government will have to limit financial support to those industries that remain viable in a society vulnerable to this virus and be a midwife to those new virus-proof industries that are needed to re-employ those millions left without a job. Can Johnson be honest about the change needed – no – but can any politician be honest with the people in face of such a gloomy prognosis?
Tell, don’t nudge
Sonia Sodha is right to draw attention to the limitations of nudge theory when it comes to most public policy (“Nudge theory cannot replace hard science in matters of life or death”, Comment). There are examples where nudging people to behave in a certain way can work effectively. Flashing speed limit signals tend to slow down speeding drivers, though usually only for a short distance. In the case of tobacco consumption, however, dire warning messages and vivid pictures of diseased lungs on cigarette packages had very little impact on levels of smoking. What was most effective was making it illegal to smoke in public places.
When it came to responding to the coronavirus outbreak, nudge theory clearly fitted nicely with Boris Johnson’s libertarian and small government prejudices. Sadly, it delayed implementing more effective policies by some two weeks, the consequence of which has been a higher number of deaths than might otherwise have been the case. Sometimes, telling people what to do is necessary.
Steeple Aston, Oxfordshire
People before profit
Let me congratulate Kenan Malik for shining a light on the distortion of perspective created by the developed world’s concentration on profit, powered by rightwing ideologies (“We’re desperate for a cure, but at what cost to the human guinea pigs” and “Heroism is the most human of qualities”, Comment). In the grip of a pandemic that has accounted for about a quarter of a million deaths worldwide, there does not seem to be any equivalent concern over the much higher death rates from very preventable conditions in countries with higher percentages of poor people.
The most damning quote came when he highlighted Hélder Câmara’s comment about being considered a saint when he distributed food among the poor but castigated as a communist for daring to ask publicly why the poor have no food. Perhaps, out of the wreckage of this crisis, a new sensitivity to the unnecessary suffering of so many will take flower in the global psyche.
Bishopbriggs, East Dunbartonshire
Legal aid for women
Your leader on the domestic abuse bill was timely but omitted to include the need to restore access to legal aid in divorce proceedings, the lack of which significantly affects women (“Domestic abuse bill is welcome but the vulnerable need more help”).
House of Lords, London SW1
I’m cuckoo for the cuckoo
Rob Penn’s article on people becoming nature diarists rings very true (“What can be better for the soul than logging the first cuckoo of spring?”, Comment). While out cycling on our daily exercise, my wife and I were delighted to hear two cuckoos in the space of a few miles. This happened in Mouldon Hill country park near Swindon. I have lived in the area for 35 years and have never heard cuckoos before. A joyous sound.