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Sat 15 August 2020
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Paul Niland explores the sudden, wilful populist destruction of institutions that dragged the two top-rated countries for global health emergencies to the bottom of the pile

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A report entitled “The Global Health Security Index” came to a conclusion in October 2019 that some people may, just nine months later, find surprising. It concluded that the two countries best placed to deal with a global health emergency were the United States of America and the United Kingdom.

The executive summary of the report states the following: “because infectious diseases know no borders, all countries must prioritise and exercise the capabilities required to prevent, detect, and rapidly respond to public health emergencies”. In the face of such challenges, the top ranked countries were “America First” (as Donald Trump likes to say) and the UK second.

What happened? What went wrong? Why did we experience the opposite outcome when the test was real rather than hypothetical?

Is this the result of something found in the foundational, populist thinking of early key Trump advisor Steve Bannon, and in the writings of Johnson ally Dominic Cummings?

Indeed, what if the terrible loss of life experienced in these two countries (roughly 183,000 combined deaths, almost one third of the global death toll at this time) is the result of some misguided desire to tear down the established systems of government that have been developed over generations to keep people safe?

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Destroying the Safety Systems

Days after he fulfilled his boyhood ambition of becoming Prime Minister, Boris Johnson decided to terminate the Threats, Hazards, Resilience, and Contingency Committee. Coronavirus showed up on UK shores six months later. Similarly, across the pond, the Trump administration decided to axe the permanent Pandemic Response Office of the National Security Council.

In both the UK and the US, the structures most suited to oversee and advise their respective governments on a major public health threat were dissolved, at the exact time when they were needed most. 

The extent to which these decisions hampered an effective disaster response in each country is hard to quantify, but it is surely no coincidence that both countries have shown some of the worst outcomes in the world, despite previously being world leaders.


The Trump-Brexit Alliance

The overlap between the Trump world and the current crop of politicians in charge of Government in Westminster is not a shock. Not only did they share similarities in how they won their respective mandates (dishonesty), but they even shared the tools (Cambridge Analytica), and the people involved.

Not only was Steve Bannon one of the key advisors to Trump in the race for the White House, and then a key member of White House staff, but Bannon has also claimed to have played a role in advising Johnson, too, at the time that he was manoeuvring to outflank Theresa May and mount a political offensive on 10 Downing Street.

I want to bring everything crashing down” was one of the core elements of Bannonism. During the pandemic, this theory has certainly played out on both sides of the Atlantic.

What about Cummings? One indication of his thinking can be found in an utterly bizarre job advert where he lamented, “profound problems at the core of how the British state makes decisions” – claiming that he could fix such profound problems by hiring “weirdos and misfits with odd skills” or even “super-talented weirdos” for positions in 10 Downing Street.

As a result of that recruitment call, Cummings did manage to bring one person into Downing Street. His hire, Andrew Sabinsky, turned out to have sympathetic views towards eugenics, and left soon after.

Despite that self-destructive affair, Cummings is being progressively given more and more authority to reshape the nature of Government – pushing through radical reforms of the civil service. Anarchist tendencies are winning out, in the UK and the United States.


Destroying the ‘Deep State’

There is clearly an animus towards established government structures, and the expertise that they house. And as the botched responses to COVID-19 are becoming more and more apparent in the UK and US, alongside the attendant ineptitude of nominal leaders and the destructive tendencies of their sidekicks, lives are being lost on a scale not witnessed in a century.

It is not hard to show the extent of the problems caused by the removal of health systems in the UK. Despite the hindsight of having seen tragic events unfold in Italy, the UK is fourth in the world in deaths per million of population.

Likewise, United States has gone from being number one in the world for preparedness to number one in the world in the number of total cases and total deaths. In response to this, the White House is now commencing a campaign to smear the reputation of the nation’s top expert and Government advisor in this field, Dr. Anthony Fauci.


Authoritarian leaders don’t accept accountability for their actions, and in the case of both the UK and the US, the drift towards authoritarianism is tangible.

In the UK, Johnson attempted to shut down Parliament to avoid scrutiny of his Brexit deal, a move which entailed Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg being sent to lie to Her Majesty The Queen.

The Johnson Government has also concocted a tangled web of mistruths to keep the report on Russian interference into British politics out of the eyes of the public for nine months, and counting. As writer James Melville recently concluded, Britain is sleepwalking towards authoritarianism.

The characteristics of authoritarianism are best described by historian and Yale Professor Timothy Snyder in his book On Tyranny, which calls for the defence of institutions. Institutions are exactly the things that Bannon, Cummings, Johnson and Trump are conspiring to destroy.

Professor Snyder goes on to caution against a one party state, at a time when the Trump camp casts political opponents not as people with different perspectives on policy, but literally as people who “hate” their country. More pertinent advice from On Tyranny, relevant to both Johnson and Trump, is to believe in truth. “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true then no one can criticise power, because there is no basis upon which to do so.”


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