Covid-19: lessons from war and humanitarian response

Summary: With COVID-19 Boris Johnson has been faced with a once in a lifetime crisis. He has failed the test.

Boris Johnson does love his military metaphors. They are intrinsic to his whole cod-Churchillian shtick. So, this past nine-months, at least after he finally bothered to show up to the COBRA crisis meetings, he’s been “wrestling” Covid-19, “whacking” it, “fighting” and “doing battle” with it.

Covid-19 doesn’t seem that bothered. Because it’s a virus. In these circumstances Johnson cosplaying a war leader is rather like, to borrow from Milan Kundera, attacking a panzer division with a mime troupe.

In truth, unlike other “natural disasters”, such as an earthquake or a tsunami, the effects of Covid-19 do bear some resemblance to a war induced emergency. Like the Troubles in the North of Ireland, or the civil war in Angola, wars ebb and flow like this pandemic. At different times they are more lethal in some places rather than others. Like this pandemic, wars also tend to be protracted crises in which we have to learn how to survive until a solution is in place.

Some research scientists working on treatments and vaccines, and the health professionals working in critical care, are fighting the virus. But the rest of us are effectively bystanders, just trying to survive it until, hopefully, the efforts of these professionals bear fruit. Unfortunately, in my experience, as we await a solution some people will always court risky behaviour as they become bored with the restrictions on life that health or human security concerns impose.

So the role then of a sane prime minister in these circumstances must be more akin to a humanitarian manager, trying to keep as many people alive until a resolution comes, rather than a general confronting an enemy. In such circumstances the language of battles and campaigning becomes redundant. Instead the priorities of humanitarian response are the relevant ones: Avoidance of risk and protection from harm, first for critical workers, then for the rest of us.

Jacinda Arden seems to have understood that. Boris Johnson has not. Arden has led by example. Johnson, with the not inconsiderable assistance of his father and Dominic Cummings, has shown that he expects different rules to apply to his coterie than to the rest of us.

Hence Johnson’s leadership in this crisis has been typified by muddle and confusion. Whenever there has been a hard choice to be made, he has routinely fluffed it. It is ironic that the government that so fetishized control of its borders in their fevered flight from the European Union, did not, unlike just about every other country in the EU, close its borders to prevent reimporting of the virus. Like the last lock down Johnson will show up to the next one three weeks late and, it appears, millions of dollars short.

The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown into sharp focus the fact that Boris Johnson is in possession of the single most dangerous trait in any leader: He wants to be popular. Hence he will tell any lie, fudge any choice if it just buys him another fleeting moment of the illusion of popularity. Every time a lie or an inadequacy is exposed he simply tells another, bigger lie to distract from his last failure. Hence his escalating promises of “world-beating” testing, track and trace. Lying having worked to deliver Brexit, it’s a trait that now seems to pervade the government with lethal consequences for the vulnerable.

When Johnson was just a philandering journalist this sort of behaviour only hurt those unfortunate enough to have loved or trusted him. As prime minister this has directly resulted in the UK having the highest death toll in Europe and the worst economic performance during this crisis.

As we are now poised on the brink of a second surge in Covid-19 infections it is critical that the UK government fundamentally rethink their approach to this crisis, learning from New Zealand, and the countries of South East Asia how they have managed to keep their populations safe from this disease.

Certainly, one critical issue, as Jacinda Arden has shown, is leadership. When human lives are at stake, any credible humanitarian response demands serious leaders for whom this will be the overriding priority. Johnson has failed in that test already. He should resign.

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