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Tue 31 March 2020
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Paul Niland explores how the global COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the weakness of populist politics and unprincipled power.

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The world is currently facing conjoined crises. The obvious one is the Coronavirus, but it is being worsened by crises of competence and leadership. It is the perfect storm, at the worst time.

As the number of people affected by the virus is surging into the hundreds of thousands, the countries with incompetent leadership, delayed reactions and the failure to follow the examples of others and advice of experts have experienced outbreaks that were preventable to some degree.

In recent years, we have seen the death of expertise, in the pursuit of high political office by populists who have arguably said anything they needed to win, regardless of the truth and including the claim that they alone could fix whatever litany of problems they themselves had projected onto the nation.

Their incompetence and dishonesty is now crashing into reality – with devastating consequences.


The UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, seems very clearly out of his depth, while the narcissism of US President Donald Trump has led him to have convinced himself that he is doing a great job of managing the Coronavirus outbreak and, inexplicably, that he knew this was a pandemic long before anyone else did – neither of which are remotely true.

This is the time to restore society’s trust in science and experts and to let such people lead apolitical and bipartisan efforts to minimise the damage as much as is now possible. Perhaps most importantly, is the time to allow those experts to lead the country’s health and other services through the coming months with all of the skills that they have, unencumbered by egos and bravado.

One of the issues I believe is being stress-tested right now is just how upside-down the ‘game’ of politics has become of late. It has ceased to be driven by a competition for ideas and an arena in which one party is competing with another for an ever-improving form of governance. It is now only about staying in power.

What has been at the heart of Trump’s denial of reality seems to be nothing more than his consideration of how the US economy crashing will hurt his chances of re-election this year. For that – and because he has surrounded himself with sycophants who are also out of their depth – the US is about to pay an enormous price.

What is desperately needed is professional leadership, not an eye on the polls. Perhaps, when this is all over, the legacy of the Coronavirus pandemic will be that we return to a time when politicians heeded advice and formulated policies and led the opinion of the public so that the tail is not wagging the dog.


What Needs to Happen?

Emergency medical facilities should be constructed. The Army Corps of Engineers in the US is standing by for orders, as is the Corps of Royal Engineers in the UK. Disused school gyms should be retooled as auxiliary medical facilities to receive the overflows from hospitals, which will soon become saturated.

The large scale manufacture of medical supplies should be requisitioned. Masks and gloves still remain in critically short supply, already endangering the medical staff who are bravely risking their own lives in order to save ours.

Despite the WHO being “test, test, test”, NHS doctors and nurses are still not being tested. The manufacture of test kits and/or purchase of them in large numbers is one of the long list of immediate, overdue, priorities. The principle of ‘flattening the curve’ is proven to work, but it is achieved by testing, isolating and tracing. South Korea achieved remarkable success in doing this and tested 10,000 people a day.

At the same time as addressing immediate medical needs, social cohesion and person-to-person support will also be needed by so many on a personal level. How people are coming together to look out for their neighbours, the Italians singing and playing instruments together on their balconies, those in Spain and France holding a round of applause each day to show respect for medical workers – these have all been signs of hope and reminders of basic human decency.


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