Thursday, 26 March 2020

Setting the narrative for the future

One of the problems with any action taken by large numbers of people is that it is difficult to know whether, or to what extent, there is a common underlying motivation.  And one of the results of that is that people looking at the same events from different perspectives can and do project their own interpretation on those events, to suit their own ends.  We saw it with Brexit, which some chose to claim was all about immigration, some blamed on xenophobia whilst yet others saw it as about ‘taking back control’.  There’s been something of a parallel this week.
The response to the English government’s appeal for volunteers (and in this context, it is an England-only scheme, set up by the English Health Minister to assist the English NHS, although one wouldn’t know that from news reports) has been staggering, and encouraging for those of us who believe in people’s better nature, especially at a time when we are seeing incidents which might cause one to doubt that.  We cannot know the motivations of all those involved, but it does seem to me to be a desire to help other people, and fill gaps in service provision.  It’s not the only possible interpretation, though – the Prime Minister’s language seems to suggest that he sees it as a great outpouring of (British) patriotism, as people are influenced by what he, no doubt, sees as his stirring Churchillian words (although others might see them as anything but).
For the time being it matters not what the actual motivation is nor the way that motivation is interpreted; the key thing is that as many gaps as possible get plugged and that help gets to those who need it.  The hows and the whys are questions for a later date. They will be important, though.  Many are already arguing that when the current crisis is over, things can’t go back to the old normal.  We can be certain, however, that some will want to take us back to that point – there are plenty of vested interests in ensuring that happens.  The outcome if this week’s surge of volunteers is interpreted as an expression of social solidarity and a desire to help others will be very different from the outcome if it is seen as a patriotic effort to overcome a short term crisis – an interpretation which could even lead some to conclude that austerity cuts to public services can continue, because volunteers will fill the gaps in an emergency.
In the longer term, it matters a great deal who does the interpreting and who sets the narrative.


dafis said...

Bang on the button there. There has been a recurring theme of attempts to generate a momentum in the voluntary sector. Cameron's big idea - Big Society is one that springs to mind.Very noble indeed. Get others to work for sweet F.A while the fat cats chatter among themselves working out how to syphon even more out of the public purse into their coffers. Generally known as scheming cnuts !

Jonathan said...

We have a choice here.
(1) we recreate the spirit of the Blitz, and unite as a British people, providing our labour free of charge for a task which will demand so much but reward us in heaven. I'm not knocking the idealism. But I would like to point out that there's no end point. We just endure, nobly.
(2)We do what the Americans are doing. We say that the cure is worse than the disease. We've been duped as to the extent of the danger. Its not the Black Death after all. And we have forgotten to weigh the so-called dangers against something else, the death of our economy/way of life. Which is why Americans are saying - from now on, we weigh things differently. For example, see what the Lt.Governor of Texas said about self-sacrifice. I agree with him
Re-open by Easter!

John Dixon said...


I don't believe that the two options scenario you present is quite as black-and-white as you suggest. "... there's no end point." We just don't know that yet.

"We've been duped as to the extent of the danger." And your evidence for that statement is what, exactly? Let me try and summarise, as objectively as I can, what we know and what we don't know. There's no 'duping' involved in this - it's serious.

The odds are that there will be a vaccine at some point, and that vaccination and/or having the disease and recovering will create immunity, but neither of those things is by any means certain. What we do know, with a reasonable degree of certainty, is that a proportion of people die, and that that proportion will be higher if a large number of cases need treatment at the same time, because of resource constraints. Those facts are, I think, inarguable. The question which is open to debate is what that proportion is, and the reason it's open to debate is that the number of 'known' cases is lower - probably much lower - than the actual number of cases, because a lot of people may not even realise that they have the virus. A fatality rate of between 0.5% and 1% (much lower than the apparent numbers coming out of Italy and Spain because of that 'known unknown') seems not unreasonable, and an infection rate (if left unchecked) of between 60% and 80% of the population is also a reasonable one.

Your option 2 implies an acceptance - if we apply those figures to the UK population of 66 million - that there would be between 200,000 and 530,000 deaths within a fairly short timescale; and the fact that large numbers of cases would need treatment simultaneously, way beyond the capacity of the NHS to cope, would push the numbers towards the higher end rather than the lower end. In Wales alone, that means between 10,000 and 26,500 deaths. In the US, with a population of around 330 million, it implies between 1 million and 2.5 million deaths. That seems to be Trump's policy - and it also seems to be yours.

I also disagree with your suggestion that this amounts to "self-sacrifice". It does not - those making the decision aren't the ones making the sacrifice; the latter won't even be asked. As has been the case throughout history, it is the rich and privileged (in the US, people who can afford and will get the best health care) who make the decisions, and it's the less well-off who make the sacrifice.