Last year, the Global Health Security Index ranked this nation second in the world for pandemic readiness, while the US was first. Broadly speaking, in both nations the necessary systems were in place. Our governments chose not to use them.
The climate modeller James Annan has used his analytical methods to show what would have happened if the UK government had imposed its lockdown a week earlier. Starting it on 16 March, rather than 23 March, his modelling suggests, would by now have saved around 30,000 lives, reducing the rate of illness and death from coronavirus roughly by a factor of five.
But even 16 March would have been extraordinarily late. We now know that government ministers were told on 11 February that the virus could be catastrophic, and decisive action was urgently required. Instead, Boris Johnson told us to wash our hands and “go about our normal daily lives”.
Had the government acted in February, we can hazard a guess about what the result would have been, as the world has conducted a clear controlled experiment: weighing South Korea, Taiwan and New Zealand against the UK, the US and Brazil. South Korea did everything the UK government could have done, but refused to implement. Its death toll so far: 263. It still has an occasional cluster of infection, which it promptly contains. By contrast, the entire UK is now a cluster of infection.The proof is indeed in the pudding for every government. Trump deliberately dismantled the pandemic response team bequeathed to him by Barack Obama. Some estimate that act of resentment has already cost the lives of upwards of 60,000 Americans. Needless deaths. Monbiot pins 30,000 needless deaths on the negligence of Boris Johnson.
Let them eat cake.
In other words, none of these are failures of knowledge or capacity. They are de-preparations, conscious decisions not to act. They start to become explicable only when we recognise what they have in common: a refusal to frontload the costs. This refusal is common in countries whose governments fetishise what we call “the market”: the euphemism we use for the power of money.
Johnson’s government, like that of Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, represents a particular kind of economic interest. For years politicians of their stripe have been in conflict with people who perform useful services: nurses, teachers, care workers and the other low-paid people who keep our lives ticking, whose attempts to organise and secure better pay and conditions are demonised by ministers and in the media.
This political conflict is always fought on behalf of the same group: those who extract wealth. The war against utility is necessary if you want to privatise public services, granting lucrative monopolies or fire sales of public assets to friends in the private sector. It’s necessary if you want to hold down public sector pay and the minimum wage, cutting taxes and bills for the same funders and lobbyists. It is necessary if corporations are to be allowed to outsource and offshore their workforces, and wealthy people can offshore their income and assets.
The interests of wealth extractors are, by definition, short term. They divert money that might otherwise have been used for investment into dividends and share buybacks. They dump costs that corporations should legitimately bear on to society in general, in the form of pollution (the car and road lobbies) or public health disasters (soft drinks and junk food producers). [In Canada, think 'orphan wells' and Tar Sands tailing ponds] They siphon money out of an enterprise or a nation as quickly as possible, before the tax authorities, regulators or legislators catch up.Governments designed to fail their people.
Years of experience have shown that it is much cheaper to make political donations, employ lobbyists and invest in public relations than to change lucrative but harmful commercial policies. ...Thanks in large part to their influence, we have governments that fail to protect the public interest, by design. This is the tunnel. This is why the exits are closed. This is why we will struggle to emerge.What we're seeing today is the real face of the neoliberal order and it's not confined to the UK or the United States. It's everywhere and it works for special interests ahead of the public interest, sometimes with lethal consequences. Justin Trudeau may come across as an eminently likeable, compassionate guy but he's a devout neoliberal. It was his handpicked finance minister who was sent out to tell Canadians that theirs would be a future of "job churn," life in the gig economy, the precariat, the same path that has left an alarming segment of working class America impoverished, unable to cover even a $400 emergency. It is a toxic political-economic ideology built on a foundation of increasingly unstable supply chains, 'just in time' planning and, for too many people, no way forward.
A few days ago I wrote that if we don't unhorse neoliberalism there may be no future and that, if we are to fight back, we have to recognize how widespread and deeply embedded neoliberalism has become in our political institutions.
That would mean, at a minimum, driving out the neoliberals, the real disease that has sapped our strength - economic, social and political - since Thatcher, Reagan and, yes, Mulroney foisted it on us four decades ago. It will be these same neoliberals, regardless of party badging, who will steer us into the post-Covid world imagined by Galbraith and Harari and many others. Think of it as neoliberalism on steroids, neoliberalism weaponized. Think crippling inequality. Think of the decline of liberal democracy and the rise of oligarchy. Then think about stopping it while we can.