Something is happening with Covid-19 that the bungled “yes” 2016 referendum campaign didn’t manage to do: making us feel more European!
Since Covid-19 struck China, we knew our turn will come. All countries in Europe including ours braced themselves for bad news but all were confident they would adopt measures that will slow down infection and control it. In the first phase of the pandemic, each European country consulted with its own experts and decided on a strategy that ignored what worked: strict, rigorously controlled confinement (or “lockdown” as we call it here in the UK or “sheltering in place” as the Americans call it), exemplified by China, South Korea or Singapore. European governments justified their lack of action using various arguments. One was that only authoritarian regimes such as China can impose such strict measures; democracy-loving and free-thinking Europeans will ignore constraints and rebel against any sorts of governmental diktat that limit their rights to assemble, work, and move. Another stemmed from the very real danger of the economy collapsing if drastic confinement were to be imposed.
This might have sounded very reasonable if only “Reason” had been in the driving seat in making these decisions. It was not. The argument that we couldn’t follow the Chinese example because we are not authoritarian ignored the fact that South Korea, a democracy, was successful in limiting the spread of infection. They “tested, tested, tested”, as the WHO chief told us recently we should do; the wearing of masks was almost universal there; and they went into lockdown very quickly. So why didn’t we follow this example.
The reason for not following is to be found along the path of the Covid-19 pandemic as it expanded from country to country. The Italians were the first to be struck in Europe. Their first reaction was to test and lockdown. They applied this strategy to one of the first cities (Codogno) in Europe to be contaminated and it worked: the infection subsided. Unfortunately, the Italian government at this point panicked, possibly weighing up the economic costs of locking down an entire country: so, it stopped testing and stopped confining which, in the fullness of time, led to reverse-panicking by re-imposing testing and confinement. By then, it was too late.
The French, the Spaniards and the Germans, seeing the situation in Italy deteriorate, didn’t do anything, the UK neither. For god’s sake, we are not Italian! Italians, the popular wisdom in these countries often tells us, are known for bungling things, change government every month, are good at fashion but bad at organising and managing crises. No wonder the virus roamed free there! But we, French, Spaniards, Germans, British are different! Let’s manage this our way, letting the science guide our decisions! Misleading, unfair, unfounded, national stereotypes endure!
But of course, the scientists were themselves divided. Some preached the building of herd immunity among the population, some others working out models predicting catastrophic outcomes if nothing is done. But, never mind the scientists, what was important was to learn as little as we could from other countries experience. Why should we learn from China, an authoritarian state, or from Italy, a bungling state! So France and Germany, who were a week or two behind Italy and could have nipped the infection in the bud, decided to do nothing. Draping themselves in the mantle of science-driven decision making, they put economic interest before public health, letting the infection go on a rampage. Spain followed suit.
Now we are turning to the UK, the last in the Covid-19 domino piece in the pandemic chain reaction in Europe. The UK, perhaps because it is an island or perhaps because people are a little more reserved when it comes to direct physical contact, had a good 3 weeks to get its acts together and evaluate thoroughly what works and what doesn’t. Did we take advantage of this unique window of opportunity. The answer is a resounding “NO”. That’s because the UK government decided that we were going to do it “our way”. We now had the Chinese example (authoritarian!), the Italian one (messy!), the French, the German and the Spanish struggling to contain the epidemic. Well…. we decided that we had nothing to learn from them. Flanked by its science and medical advisers, Johnson appeared and say we’re going to build “herd immunity”. But within days, and in the face of massive protest (including mine), he quickly changed tack and declared we needed to limit people’s movements and right of assembly. But he didn’t close the schools. Then, he closed the schools, but didn’t close the pubs. But then he closed the pubs but advised that getting outdoors was fine. When thousands followed his advice and congregated in parks, on beaches, and in beauty spots this weekend, he threatened us with a police- and army-enforced strict lockdown. And he just did! But we are still allowed to commute to work in crowded trains where the virus can continue rampaging as it pleases. Expect this to go soon! As we went “our own way”, we actually followed exactly the same way all other European nations followed: first do nothing and then panic. And this is not surprising: we are, after all, more similar to the French, the Italians, the Spaniards and the Germans than we care to admit. In fact, we are exactly the same, something we, British, have tended to forget or denigrate in the last decade or more: we are Europeans.
When it comes to the British public, we also thought we were different: we are essentially decent, reasonable, and intelligent. Surely, we can do better than these continental Europeans and stoically weather the storm. After all, we ruled an empire and won world war 2. The blitz has become a reference that should inspire us, the kind of fighting spirit that got us through worse crises. But then, we didn’t expect loo rolls flying off supermarkets shelves. We were told not to stockpile, but we did. We were told to avoid getting out unless we had to, but we did. We were told to not travel abroad, but we did until the last moment when airlines shut down. In the face of such a crisis, we thought we’ll pull together, but we didn’t. We thought we left it to the Italians, the French of the Spanish to bungle the crisis; surely, we British can do better: we didn’t. It seems that we, Europeans, may be a lot more similar than we think we are. We are just as decent, reasonable, and intelligent as our fellow humans in France, Spain, Italy and Germany.
In fact, we ended up managing (or mismanaging) the Covid-19 crisis in a similar way, “the European way”, because there is more that unites us than divides us. We were reluctant to lock down our countries too early because, as Europeans, we value freedom and only very reluctantly would we accept to restrict it. Only when the situation became really critical, were we ready to contemplate a temporary ban on what we cherish most, liberty and free will. We are also for the most part reluctant to make our lives difficult and unpleasant economically. That’s because, during the post war period, we have built an economy that has worked for most of us. We were understandably reluctant to take the economic hit that lockdown entailed. Now that the human cost of the crisis is seen as unacceptable, we are ready to accept the economic costs, provided that the government bails us out, something all European governments have now accepted to do, another feature of our “European” way that we all have in common. As to stockpiling and loo roll stock building, we are simply…. humans, not different from anyone else in our need to put our own interest first and foremost! Thus, this crisis is likely to make us feel more united as Europeans, including us the British. In that context, is it totally unthinkable to reconsider our exit from the European Union?
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