In his recent book, How To Make a Vaccine: An essential guide for COVID-19 & Beyond, Dr. John Rhodes celebrates the 300th anniversary of the first well-recorded inoculation against smallpox in Britain in August 1721. At the time smallpox was killing up to 400,000 people in Europe every year including a grandchild of King George I.
The science of vaccination has made extraordinary strides. Our thinking about ethics only some modest positive developments. Vaccination opened up a set of important questions about the common good, choice and individual responsibility, misinformation, and latterly, moral indifference.
The story begins in Constantinople with the wife of the British Ambassador to the court of the Ottoman Sultan. Once a beauty, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was disfigured by smallpox but survived to become an advocate of inoculation, or as she called it ‘ingrafting’, a practice performed on the Sultan’s wives. Lady Montagu’s son was successfully inoculated against smallpox in 1718. On her return to London a grand promotional event for the inoculation of her daughter was organised with royal court physicians including the King’s physician, Sir Hans Sloane, in attendance.
The Princess of Wales, Caroline of Ansbach, well read in the science of the day, (later Queen as wife of George II), instigated an experiment with the aim of protecting her own children. Six prisoners due to be hanged in Newgate, were offered their lives and freedom if they volunteered as guinea-pigs to test the safety and effectiveness of inoculation, also called variolation. With celebrity endorsement from London’s good and great this became a high profile event which Fellows of the Royal Society and some 25 members of the College of Physicians came to observe. In charge was the Scottish physician, Charles Maitland, a former embassy physician in Constantinople where he had learned the technique.
What followed was not for the faint-hearted.
Maitland made an incision into an arm and a leg of each convict and then inserted material from the pustules of an infected person. He had to repeat the procedure as not enough local reaction could be detected. One of the volunteers received the material up the nose. A 19-year old girl who had been inoculated was later exposed to a child smallpox victim and proved to be immune. All six were given a royal pardon and walked free a month later. Public opinion about inoculation was divided and, as it is today, politicised: the Whigs at court justifying the experiment on utilitarian grounds and the Tories opposing it on grounds that physicians should not play God. The anti-vaxx movement in Britain had begun.
Doctors in Asia had been playing God and evoking opposition for many years. Rhodes quotes the Chinese emperor, K’ang-hsi in the late 1600s. “The method of inoculation having been brought to light during my reign, I had it used upon you, my sons and daughters….In the beginning when I had it tested on one or two people, some older person taxed me with extravagance, and spoke very strongly against inoculation. The courage which I summoned up to insist on its practice has saved the lives and health of millions of men”.
The next big step, from inoculation to vaccination, came courtesy of a Gloucestershire milkmaid, Sarah Nelmes, who caught cowpox from a cow called Blossom. It’s the better known story of two rural physicians, Edward Jenner and John Fewster, proving that pathogens administered in a weakened form could protect against a more virulent form. Result: millions of lives saved. Blossom’s hide hangs on the library wall of St. George’s Medical School a bovine equivalent of Jeremy Bentham’s stuffed hide displayed in University College London.
But there is a lot more to Rhodes informative book than some captivating medical history. He is at his most instructive teasing out the complexities of the human immune system, a little army of interactive defenders against foreign intrusion each with its own task: surveillance cells patrolling, helper T-cells, killer T-cells, B-cells which have daughter cells that produce the antibodies we’ve all heard about, regulatory T-cells that shut down the immune response once the pathogen is defeated, memory B-cells that, I imagine, must trigger the amplified response from a booster dose of vaccine, and memory T-cells. I wish the word awesome hadn’t been voided of all meaning. The immune system is simply awesome. Though it can and does make mistakes.
How To Make a Vaccine is an important genre of science popularisation. It is clearly written but asks a lot of a reader without any biological or scientific background. Not because it is aimed primarily at a scientific audience but because it is narrating and explaining the intricate complexity of the immune system. There were well over two hundred different COVID vaccines at different stages of development as Rhodes was writing. They fall into eight distinctive categories depending on what part of the virus biochemistry is targeted and how: inactivated or attenuated forms of the virus, its DNA or messenger RNA or protein configuration for example. This is good news as variant mutations are unlikely to counter the effectiveness of all available vaccine categories.
Opposition to protective measures against viruses and bacteria has a long history. Andrew Wakefield’s spurious claim in 1998 that the combined vaccination against measles, mumps and rubella, MMR, was linked to autism was the direct antecedent to current resistance. The history indicates that a minority of the public will always be prone to making bad decisions about how best to look after their – and others’ - children or their own health. And this will inevitably create public health problems.
The Pope has made it unequivocally clear being vaccinated is a moral obligation. But Vatican guidance for Catholics in 2020 was pre-occupied by the question of the origin of cell lines that have contributed to vaccine production – human foetal tissue from two sources in the 1960s - despite vaccination being of paramount concern for the common good in this pandemic. This was at the expense of common good arguments for getting jabbed. The guidance concludes that the remoteness of the original ‘evil act’, abortion, removes any complicity from those seeking protection for themselves, family and others today. Indeed vaccination ‘may be a moral obligation’ if there are no other effective ways of stopping infection. Those who refuse in conscience must scrupulously find other ways of avoiding transmission of the virus. Scientists should obtain their cell lines without ending the development of a human life. Something tells me this is not going to sway militant anti-vaxxers.
How to Make a Vaccine is well worth the effort. The scientific progress it presents is in many ways comforting. It puts flesh on the dry bones of ‘following the science’. Anti-vaxxers, especially those addicted to conspiracy theories, should ask themselves how the medical profession, with their Hippocratic Oath, have conspired to fool the world for the last three hundred years – and yet managed to save so many lives. And then dip into this paperback. They won’t even open it, of course. The persistence of opposition to vaccination based on nothing to do with conscience is sad, obstinate and dangerous.
See TheArticle 30/07/2021
In Britain the gap between our actual political horizons and the need for radical change is deep and wide. It is that gap and not the word radical that ought to inspire fear. ‘Radical’ means getting to the roots of a problem not twisting, turning and tweaking as things get predictably worse. The fear comes from sloppy use of the word as a synonym for extremism used to shut down all debate.
Compared to secular leaders, religious leaders have the advantage of a traditionally accepted way of highlighting the perils of business as usual and of expounding radical approaches. The religious code word for this form of discourse is ‘prophetic’. It is a word that implies not just authority for seeing into the future but more importantly divine approval of the prophet’s broad-brush account of what is wrong and ethical prescriptions for changing direction and putting things right.
Pope Francis’ book Let Us Dream, published last year as a user-friendly and personalised synopsis of his lengthy and more formal encyclical Fratelli Tutti, is an excellent example of the prophetic mode. But his little book has proved to be much more than that. The pandemic provided a context in which prophetic words and ideas coming from an admired religious leader, speaking informally and intimately at a time of acute uncertainty and unprecedented upheaval, would be heard and considered. The secular Press carried respectful reviews. Waves of appreciative discussion washed through Catholic social media. There was none of the usual ‘the Church shouldn’t meddle in politics’ though the book described what politics should be about but wasn’t.
The subtitle of Let us Dream is The Path to a Better Future. Not an entirely accurate description of content. Popes do not prescribe in practical detail how to get from A to B. They provide counsel on where to find and how to read the signposts. The religious code for this is ‘reading the signs of the times’, or ‘discernment’ for short. Choosing pathways, turning principles and plans into practice is the role of politicians, civil servants, policy-oriented academics and experts in various disciplines. It should be achieved in close collaboration with civil society.
The remarkable feature of Francis’ brand of prophetic writing is that it dovetails with others who start off from where he of necessity as a religious leader has to end. For example, the American political scientist Robert Putnam and the social entrepreneur Shaylyn Romney Garrett’s How We Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do it again and Jon Cruddas MP’s The Dignity of Labour go into the detail of what it will take to make absolutely vital changes. Tellingly the distinctly secular political and cultural weekly, New Statesman, asked the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams to review both these books.
The gap between the reality of our politics here in UK and the radical change imagined by Pope Francis seems unbridgeable. Let us Dream promotes change emerging from the margins and led by Popular Movements. “I call them ‘social poets’. In mobilising for change, in their search for dignity”, he wrote, “I see a source of moral energy, a reserve of civic passion, capable of revitalizing our democracy and reorienting the economy”. Not to be confused with populism which “denies the proper participation of those who belong to the people, allowing a particular group to appoint itself the true interpreter of popular feeling”. It is an understandable view given the Pope is Argentinian and the history of Latin America.
We get a glimpse of possibilities from the Black Lives Matter movement. But at present putting together a powerful, sustainable coalition for radical change in a British context is a daunting prospect. Progressive politics traditionally, culturally, aim at incremental changes. Finding an umbrella mobilising theme would be a beginning. Perhaps a Campaign to Defend our Democracy. There is something similar breaking ground in South Africa. In Britain It would require pulling together scattered, legal, human rights, environmental and civic initiatives.
Britain faces a particular difficulty in coming to terms with two overwhelming aspects of present reality. Firstly, we cannot and should not return to the injustice, anger and division of the old normal. But it is an inevitable reaction to the pandemic to want a return to normality. Secondly, we are in denial about our history. We want a brave and glorious past, a compensation for recent decline. “History is what was, not what we want it to have been”, Pope Francis says in Let us Dream “and when we throw an ideological blanket over it, we make it so much harder to see what in our present needs to change in order to move to a better future”.
Afforded a large Parliamentary majority, those who have most control over the past, present and future today, the Johnson government, demonstrate the paradox of a British form of authoritarianism undermining the British structure of governance hard won in the past . Less accountability, more control by the few for the few, more greed and self-interest, appear as the change they have in mind. Governing in this manner requires negligible concern for truth and thus negligible purchase on reality. Its vision of a better future is refracted through the short-term good of the Party. An obvious symptom of this authoritarianism is that serious challenge, within and without the inner circle of the Conservative Party, has been, and will be, punished: by expulsions, resignations/sacking. The old-fashioned alternative to coercion is persuasion.
But at the same time, focussed on a future of devastating Climate Change, a significant and growing consensus is emerging about the urgency of radical economic transformation and the social and political reforms that must accompany it. In Germany the Green Party’s Annalena Baerbock, might even take the Chancellorship. We are seeing a growing consensus that unites religious and secular thinkers. Laudato Si, Francis’ 2015 encyclical, grounding the Christian Green movement in the Bible and Revelation and calling for ‘swift and united action’ provides a supportive religious commentary on the report of the UN’s 2009 Sustainable Development Commission. We need to go back to the 1960s when the Catholic emphasis on human dignity met the human rights movement for such a confluence of thinking.
Two other events give hope that popular movements are able to gain momentum and bring about change. There was the encouraging verdict of a jury in Minneapolis that at least one black life, George Floyd’s, mattered enough to convict a police officer of murder. It was not just a matter of video cameras telling the story, the four officers filmed savagely beating Rodney King in 1992 were acquitted by a jury. Something had changed.
Then there was the remarkable response to the Super-League plans of twelve top football clubs. In UK demonstrations outside clubs that this should not stand several core values were voiced by the British football-loving public. Prominent was that despite a history of spectacular commercialisation football as a sport generated local community. A few multi-millionaire owners of the celebrity clubs would not be allowed to destroy this treasured expression of togetherness (it helped that for the six British clubs involved all these individuals were foreigners). Closely linked to this was that lesser, smaller clubs would be cut out from the financial benefits of the status quo in which skill and effort is rewarded with advancement, cups and big money. The giant-killer, Leicester City’s spectacular 2016-2017 season, was used as the exemplar of football as the terrain of soccer meritocracy with the status quo providing redistribution of the money flowing through the system to the smaller clubs.
You might not agree with the values deployed to justify the public outrage – see Michael Sandel on meritocracy. But suddenly, community, sharing and the hopes of the less well-endowed were being brought into play in the public domain. Are these the morals of the British heart? If so, the question that comes to mind is why don’t these values, held by the majority, or at least some of these explicitly held values, come into play in the run-up to elections?
True, the Pope’s dream is as radical as it gets at a personal and social level. Yet he is not a voice crying in the wilderness. But if the fate of Martin Luther King’s dream is anything to go by, the virtue of patience recommended by Pope Francis in Let Us Dream, will be indispensable. Meanwhile as the disembodied voice warns those waiting expectantly on the London Underground platform: ‘Mind the Gap’.
Sadly there have been many avoidable deaths in this pandemic. Now we hear that Freedom is coming. While retaining his signature incompetence, Boris Johnson’s contribution to the COVID crisis has shifted from lethally misguided to incomprehensible. Some airport manual on leadership appears to have convinced him that he must keep national spirits up with heady optimism and the sort of slogans that defeated the Remainers. His remarkable ability to assert the exact opposite of how he actually proceeds, ‘data not dates’, has given us Freedom Day.
Who can be against Freedom in these dark days of authoritarian governments? Perhaps Johnson cribbed it from Freedom Day, April 27th, the annual South African public holiday to celebrate their first non-racial elections, but I doubt it. On 19 July it won’t be freedom for the hundreds of thousands of immune-suppressed people who have much reduced protection from vaccines and will have to restrict their movements if others go mask-free. It won’t be freedom for unvaccinated young people who find they have long-COVID after a relatively mild initial attack of the virus. And it won’t be freedom for the many, afraid to challenge cavalier unmasked travellers on crowded buses and trains, who would be driven off public transport but for the intervention of devolved governments in Scotland and Wales and London’s Mayor, Sadiq Khan and other Labour mayors. Nor for those fearful to enter badly ventilated stores and restaurants. It will be freedom for repeated arguments, drunken brawls and unnecessary conflict.
Johnson’s grandiose language, evoking struggles for liberty, as he promises to end compulsory mask-wearing in England does not match the public’s views. They have accepted some compulsion in matters of public health since the 2006 Health Act which “makes it illegal to smoke in all public enclosed or substantially enclosed area and workplaces. The ban includes smoking on vehicles which serve the public and / or are used for work purposes”. Provisions were subsequently tightened and expanded to protect children’s health. Local Councils were made responsible for enforcement but compliance was high without direct compulsion. They public agreed that protecting the health of others was both sensible and right.
The divergence between public opinion and libertarian rhetoric has become so obvious we are into the familiar Johnson phase of backtracking and mixed messaging accompanied by a barrage of cautionary advice from Ministers. After all, one function of law is to settle conflicts and especially to avoid violent forms of dispute settlement such as might be caused by disagreements in public about wearing masks. Mr. Rees-Mogg would perhaps like to return to dueling, maybe in Wetherspoons, but the hope is we will move forward to a less-divided society as the pandemic comes under control.
For the government right now its first problem is that it has repeatedly trumpeted 19 July as the day when any and all restrictions will be lifted. Anything less could prove to be the Johnson betrayal that finally alerted the public to the disaster for the UK that he is. The second problem is that, perhaps not inadvertently, the masks issue has become part of the culture wars fostered by Johnson and is now arousing strong feelings of personal identity. Particularly, it seems, among young men who are notoriously reluctant to wear masks on London’s Underground. Coming from Communities Secretary, Robert Jenrick, the explanation that the purpose of removing legal restrictions is so we can ‘exercise a degree of personality responsibility and judgement’ beggars belief.
No-one in government, though, seems to want to take masks out of the sacred Tory domain of choice. The very word “choice” is bandied about as if it were a transcendental value in itself irrespective of the true value of what you choose. It has entered the core of Western ideological extremism. It is difficult to say what libertarianism actually is in the minds of the Tory back benches but their current political position puts liberty front and centre. Let’s just say that for them it could mean one or all of the following: free markets, an unbalanced individualism, a belief in seriously reducing State intervention in society, and a blind spot when it comes to social ethics, those obligations we have towards others. We hear little about the ethical decisions and values consonant with a decent society when talking about the mask issue.
Quite simply, wearing a mask in this pandemic is an action which protects the health and wellbeing of others who will be wearing a mask to protect yours. It is not, as government persists in talking about it, primarily a choice between individual protection and ‘getting back to normal’. Nor has the requirement to wear a mask any direct impact on economic success as the Asian countries have demonstrated despite government implications to the contrary. No one in their right mind believes that moral considerations, concern for others, will be a priority for everyone and that is why the public believes there should be some compulsion until the virus is brought under control. Public Health is primarily a matter for the State’s attention. Challenging the ‘mask-free’ (those not exempt for health reasons) in COVID-friendly environments is not the job of tired workers who have no option but to travel to their jobs on public transport.
True freedom requires that we acknowledge that we are essentially social beings formed in dependent communitarian relationships, reliant on each other, not individualist monads with limitless choices. This insight, increasingly missing from modern Britain, is retained in the world religions. The libertarian view of freedom, like Boris Johnson himself, is a seductive counterfeit. Its consequences will soon be appearing as the government’s refusal to take responsibility for a key preventative measure to limit the spread of COVID become apparent.
In all this current blather about Freedom the question that should be asked, and discussed, but won’t be, is “What is Freedom for?” It happens to be a chapter heading in The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of tradition in an Age of Chaos, a much acclaimed book by Sohrab Ahmani, an Iranian-born journalist and convert to Catholicism who confesses to being ‘a public Catholic’ and ‘interrogator of modern certainties’. He adopts this role by asking twelve questions, one per chapter, each linked in an eclectic selection to different thinkers from around the world. “The past”, he writes, “can lend us a hand amid our modern misery, and we can retrace a path out of the current chaos and confusion”. It is an exercise in historical humility. I recommend one chapter a day on the beach – that is if you can manage to get to one.
See TheArticle 16/07/2021
Now is a critical time for South Africa, a major test of its institutions and leaders. Former President Jacob Zuma (79) is finally behind bars. The Constitutional Court, the country’s Supreme Court, will hear his appeal against a sentence of 15 months imprisonment for contempt of court. By refusing to testify Zuma, the very stereotype of leaders in Africa, defied a Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture (systemic corruption in which private interests significantly influence a state's decision-making processes for financial gain). Then, at the end of next week, it is Mandela Day when South Africa celebrates its exemplary and heroic first leader. The contrast between the two men couldn’t be greater.
Leaders operate within political and social contexts not necessarily of their own making. No-one doubts multi-millionaire President Cyril Ramaphosa’s skills as negotiator. He is an outstanding former trades union leader whose role was pivotal in negotiations with the apartheid regime. But he has inherited a daunting level of corruption in his Party, the African National Congress (ANC).
South Africa’s constitution includes important institutions intended as protections for democracy and guarantor of citizens’ rights. The office of Public Protector, reporting to Parliament, is an independent body designed to monitor government maladministration and corruption. In March 2016, the Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela, set in motion an investigation into allegations against Zuma. It was widely believed that three businessmen brothers, the Gupta family, in cahoots with Zuma had been selling top ministerial appointments in exchange for highly favorable business deals and contracts. The investigation itself was the result of a civil complaints procedure initiated by Father Stanislaus Muyebe, the vicar-general of the Dominican Order in southern Africa, and a second complaint by the main Opposition Party, the Democratic Alliance. The final lengthy report of the investigation was worrying enough for the Constitutional Court to implement Madonsela’s recommendation to set up a Judicial Commission of Inquiry. Zuma was finally forced to resign in 2018 after nine years in office.
I only met Zuma once some forty years go. He suddenly appeared from behind a bush in the then Salisbury capital of Rhodesia/ Zimbabwe. I was with Rev. Frank Chikane, the future secretary-general of the South African Council of Churches (SACC), then and now a prominent and courageous advocate of human rights and democracy. Frank was meeting his brother, an active member of the external ANC. At the time, the ANC camps in Angola and Zambia had been infiltrated by apartheid agents and in an atmosphere of paranoia scores of alleged ‘sell-outs’ had been executed. Zuma was head of ANC Intelligence. Even in that fleeting encounter he struck me as a frightening and dangerous man.
In 1994, not long after he stepped down as President of Zambia I accompanied the late Kenneth Kaunda (KK) monitoring South Africa’s first fully free elections. His recent death reminded me of so many unanswered questions about the leaders of the African liberation movements. How had they managed the transition from political activist or guerilla fighter to holder of high office in an independent State? Why in the case of Kaunda, a pious Christian and a thoroughly decent man, was the one-party State a natural default position? In the case of Zimbabwe, did its first President, Robert Mugabe, impart a sense of entitlement to wealth through power the result of suffering, persecution and prolonged imprisonment under collapsing colonial or settler rule? A kind of reward?
The heady atmosphere of optimism and idealism, the euphoric crowds voting during the 1994 elections, are long gone. Even then there were serious threats. KK was assigned to KwaZulu-Natal where Inkatha, the Zulu tribal movement, was shaping up for a war with the ANC. Violence that could derail the process of the elections. KK had a retinue of two: a Zambian bodyguard impeccably turned out in military uniform and myself as bag-carrier and general factotum. We were lucky. The Zulu leader Gatsha Buthelezi backed off after intensive lobbying . Instead of carrying machetes and guns the young men we met in our first small town were having a wonderful time talking into walkie-talkies and acting as if they were a Presidential protection unit. Sadly intercommunal violence was to pick up after the elections.
KK stopped at Pietermaritzburg for a night-time vigil in an Anglican church. We had a row of pews to ourselves with the bodyguard seated two places away on the left of Kaunda and myself on his right. Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Denis Hurley, the Catholic Archbishop of Durban, were to give short homilies. During a silent period for prayer out of the corner of my eye I saw a stocky white man barreling down the left aisle. He stopped at the end of our row. He looked disturbed. It didn’t look good. As he pushed along the row towards us it looked bad. To my amazement the bodyguard let him pass, sit down next to KK and start sobbing. KK handed over his signature handkerchief and held the weeping man’s hand. The man blurted out that he had come to ask forgiveness. He had been on a South African commando raid into Zambia which had killed several people. Kaunda said a few gentle words. Somehow both the bodyguard and Kaunda had known this white intruder was intent on confession, truth and reconciliation, not assassination. It was a mysterious moment but in retrospect caught something significant both about South Africa in 1994 and Kaunda’s personality and leadership.
KK and my friend, the SACC’s Rev. Frank Chikane, owed much to a Christian humanism that allowed them to move seamlessly between the political and the religious. Chikane survived neurotoxin poisoning by the apartheid security police and became in 1999 Director-General in Thabo Mbeki’s presidential office. In July 2010, Frank courageously publicised his insider blow-by-blow account of the de facto coup by which Zuma forced Mbeki’s resignation and came to power as President. Chikane now has a leading role in the nationwide Defend Our Democracy Movement, a coalition of NGOs, religious bodies and lawyers.
Chikane is both consistent and persistent. His position is simple. South Africa’s future had fallen into the hands of politicians who looted the country and enriched themselves at the expense of the people. Now is the time for the people to mobilize ‘as the last line of defense’, Chikane’s words, to protect South Africa’s democracy. Against this background of a popular movement, and Zuma in prison despite support in the ANC, the role of the judiciary takes on a particular significance. Meanwhile Mandela’s spirit of reconciliation and enormous self-sacrifice for his country remains a political ideal.
Younger readers may think of distant South Africa and the 1990s themselves as ‘another country’. But there are lessons for Britain’s contemporary political problems. We need some of that early post-apartheid political creativity, the infectious hope that things can change. We need a concerted movement that draws different parts of society together to support our institutions and defend our democracy. And we need Church leaders with the courage and confidence to recognize our problems as both ethical and political who will speak truth to power and act accordingly.
See TheArticle 08/07/2021
Are we sufficiently concerned about the anger, division, and outbreaks of thuggish and violent behaviour we see right across the country? Are our contemporary divisions destroying trust, cohesion and civic values everywhere and not just in post-BREXIT Northern Ireland?
The temptation is to highlight contemporary bad news and imagine trends, signs of a dystopian present giving rise to a more dystopian future despite our residual nineteenth century belief in Progress and Development. Taking things to their logical conclusion as a way of reasoning has obvious pitfalls; things, thankfully, rarely get to any firm conclusion least of all logically.
On the one hand, we might be experiencing what the German philosopher Walter Benjamin called Jetztzeit, a here and now marked by a major upheaval, an explosion in the dismal continuum of recent British history. On the other, we may be looking at more of the same. We forget too easily past crises, riots and social division, and eventually all may calm down and society return to as normal as we can manage.
An allied question: is there a relationship between the current stresses on civil society and the weakening of proper governance of public affairs, compliance with laws and rules and the accountability of those holding political power? Or expressed more simply, what kind of corrosive damage does a corrupt government cause civil society and civility? Or is a corrupt government just propped up by an un-civil society? COVID has opened up numerous opportunities for gaming the system. British people are in the habit of using public services whilst avoiding paying for them through taxation. Requests for and payments of cash-in-hand are common, and at the better off end there is sophisticated tax evasion by the rich. Maybe, as the Anglo-Irish political scientist, Benedict Anderson says: “We have met the enemy and it is us”.
A lot hangs on what we mean by corruption. In the 1970s, I lived and worked in Nigeria. Embezzlement, kick-backs, fraud and bribery in government office were normal. What of Nigerian civil society? Expatriate academics from communist Poland found those little financial inducements quite natural and handled the university bureaucracy with practised skills. Taking them as her example my wife got the university to install an air-conditioner but without paying off anyone. And she got a round of applause from senior administrative staff who had been following her antics with great amusement. Nigeria encouraged you to believe in a trickle-down theory of corruption. Enormously stoical, resilient and humorous, Nigerian civil society aspired to clean governance but was resigned to the opposite.
In Britain using public office for private gain, or personal gain in political careers, is less common, less acknowledged and less recognised as harmful. It takes place on the poorly patrolled border between the unlawful and the criminal, rank cronyism and ‘chumocracy’. Note how choice of words can soften the impact of much the same conduct. Accusations of conflict of interest don’t get the public onto the streets, though avoiding such conflicts is a fundamental principle of good decision-making and therefore the conduct of public life. The public condemned Matt Hancock and his adviser Gina Coladangelo for their videoed clinch for ignoring COVID rules, and this was the reason he gave for his resignation. No mention of any conflict of interest in his adviser’s appointment as a Non-Executive Director in the Department of Health and Social Care. Ministers still ‘forget’ to disclose relationships pertinent to lucrative government contracts. And donors to the governing Party found their way onto the 2020 government VIP procurement list. Much of this is illuminated by the work of civil society organisations such as the Good Law Project.
In developing countries where a single breadwinner may be supporting many poor relations, the pressures at every level on those with any access to money and power are enormous and the temptations to corrupt practice great. They are much amplified if you can count on not getting caught. Whether the corrupt are likely to be exposed and punished is the touchstone of how bad things will get. It has little to do with inherent differences in moral sentiments between nationalities. Corruption gets a lot worse when a government is accustomed to ‘getting away with it’ and avoiding scrutiny. Nigerians in my experience hate the prevailing corruption but, given the behaviour of their own politicians, are at a loss how to curtail it.
Do we disapprove of the corruption of the Johnson clique enough to do something about it? And if we don’t– taking things to their logical conclusion - are we heading for a dysfunctional polity like Nigeria? Good heavens ‘No’, you will say ‘nothing logical about that and indeed preposterous’. We have Parliament. We have the Common Law. We have an effective and learned judiciary able to subject government’s conduct to judicial review and we have the European Commission and Convention on Human Rights. We have parliamentary select committees. We have the BBC and a free Press. And we should treasure them all. But the long term resilience and effectiveness of all these depend on voters too many of whom seem to feel this is not their concern or even that ‘politicians are all the same’.
It would be good to think Matt Hancock’s resignation is a turning point. But it isn’t. Adultery is neither unlawful nor criminal nor as disapproved of as it once was. Public wrath, transmitted via Tory MPs’ fears into Tory Whips’ political muscle, was directed at the flagrant demonstration that “there’s one rule for them and another rule for us”. The suspected Minister of Health’s cronyism was not the raw meat the tiger Press fed on. And its readers seem yet to make the connection between dishonest government cronyism and their own wellbeing.
Corruption could get a lot worse. Government under Boris Johnson remains determined to get away with it and avoid scrutiny. “I think he honestly believes it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception”, his Eton teacher wrote in Johnson’s April 1982 school report, “one who should be free of the network of obligations which bind everyone else”. A Prime Minister who does not understand how a rule-based society works or the distinction between private and public interest is a threat to the whole of society. As the old proverb says: “A fish rots from the head down”.
See TheArticle 02/07/2021
During their June General Assembly America’s Catholic bishops blundered into the US culture wars. Holy Mother Church in the USA seemed about to threaten President Jo Biden over his position on abortion. Quarrels broke out. Bishops openly questioned each others’ motives. They finally decided that work should begin on drafting a formal statement which could contain guidance on moral impediments to receiving holy communion. Such a statement could deny communion to the President, a pious mass-going Catholic who, unlike Trump, shares the Church’s position on climate change, immigration and racial justice.
This was transparently a disunited Bishops Conference, something that Pope Francis and all former Popes sought to avoid. Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), failed to find a consensus. Perhaps arguing online didn’t help. The critical vote on tasking “the Committee on Doctrine to move forward with the drafting of a formal statement on the meaning of the Eucharist in the life of the Church” was 168 to 55 with 6 abstentions. Such USCCB Action Items would normally pass with fewer than ten against or abstaining.
Rather less momentous than Martin Luther posting his 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg you might say. And you’d be right. Though you’d be missing an important point. Cardinal Luis Ladaria, a Jesuit colleague of the Pope and Prefect the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, had written in May urging the USCCB to avoid a vote. Pope and Vatican feared the debate would become “a source of discord rather than unity within the episcopate and the larger Church in the United States”. Ladaria reminded the Conference of the ‘prerogatives of the Vatican’ and the rights of individual bishops suggesting they discuss their approach with the bishops of other countries and seek a ‘true consensus’. This, in Vaticanese, was explicit guidance meaning “don’t go there”. That guidance was ignored. Indirectly but surely they were defying the Pope.
The clash between America’s bishops and the Pope had been some time coming and is significant for American politics as well as the Church. Catholics make up 22% of the US electorate. Strong and opposing views on abortion and gay rights are held by Christian communities and by the influential secular women’s movement throughout the USA. Whilst campaigning Trump made much of Biden’s support for a woman’s right to choose.
Over his long career in politics Jo Biden’s position on abortion has changed. In the last fifteen years he has moved from traditional Catholic opposition to abortion to a more supportive if nuanced position, distinguishing his personal views on abortion from a representative political role where he felt he had ‘no right’ to overrule the choices made by the majority of American women. He opposes the 1976 Hyde Amendment which bans federal funding of medical programmes that include abortion provision and is committed to defending as constitutional Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court enabling judgement, a hot issue now the court has a conservative majority.
In 2016, Catholics voters, traditionally democrat leaning, voted 52% for Trump and 44% for Hillary Clinton. But in 2020 with a Catholic candidate the Catholic vote was evenly distributed between Republicans and Democrats, though it was racially split with 67% of Hispanics voting for Biden compared to 42% of White Catholics. According to the Pew Foundation, a 2019 survey showed 77% of Democrat or democrat-leaning Catholics thought that abortion should be legal in most or all cases, while 63% of Republican Catholics believed the opposite. In a tight race every vote counts.
Archbishop Gomez, the President of the USCCB, informed the Bishops conference at their November 2020 meeting that he was setting up of a working group on relations with President-elect Biden, singling out abortion as creating a ‘difficult and complex situation’. The group operated in the shadows - nothing unusual ecclesiastically there. But disbanded after two sessions in February 2021, the Biden working group was behind the Conference’s contentious and admonitory response to Biden’s inauguration. Gomez pointed out “our new President has pledged to pursue certain policies that would advance moral evils and threaten human life and dignity, most seriously in the areas of abortion, contraception, marriage, and gender”. Five whole paragraphs presented abortion as the bishops’ ‘pre-eminent priority’ – which incidentally didn’t mean the only priority - all in sharp contrast to the Pope’s warm congratulations.
An even more important and politically significant outcome of the group’s work was their recommendation that the bishops should make a formal statement on the general issue of ‘worthiness for communion’. ‘General issue’ avoided any explicit reference to Catholic politicians’ conduct. Whether their policies or voting record put them in a position of grave sin and ineligible to receive communion would be a ‘particular issue’. The official line is now that the document aims to address the declining understanding of the Eucharist amongst American Catholics. But the claim put about by several bishops that such a formal document had nothing to do with Church relations with Biden was, to say the least, disingenuous.
The Vatican’s position on participation of Catholics in political life, expressed in a 2002 note from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, emphasises that abortion and euthanasia are not the only “grave matters of Catholic moral and social teaching that demand the fullest level of accountability”. Again climate change, immigration and social justice, as well as capital punishment, come to mind. The Bishops of England and Wales have followed the same principle, for example before the May 2015 general election, advising that Catholics’ voting choice “should seldom, if ever, be based on a single issue”.
In the USA the abortion issue is tangled up with both the constitutional relationship between individual states and the federal government, and funding for health care, limited by the Hyde Amendment. Under Trump, Republican-governed States increasingly attempted to restrict the application of the key enabling Supreme Court judgement of 1973, Roe v Wade. Several states sought to limit abortion to rape, incest and danger to mother’s health provoking powerful opposition from the women’s movement. The indirect impact of the Hyde amendment was to discriminate against pregnant women who were poor and relying on federal provisions in MEDICAID, while richer, insured, women could afford safe abortions. Hillary Clinton was the first to call for its repeal in her 2016 election campaign.
Jo Biden is America’s second Catholic president but he is the first to be open about the influence of catholicism on his spiritual, moral and political life. What an astonishing outcome if President Biden, who calls slavery America’s ‘Original Sin’ and dares to use Catholic language, should be at risk of condemnation by his own bishops. The Vatican, though, has a millennium’s worth of experience in dealing with troublesome bishops and already seems to be bringing the situation under control. In Pope Francis’ words, the Eucharist is “not the reward of saints but the bread of sinners”.
See TheArticle 27/06/2021
Iran’s elections and their result – a decisive victory for Ebrahim Raisi - open a worrying new chapter in the country’s history. They demonstrate the failure of US sanctions policy. Failure, that is, if the intention was to force Iran to become a more amenable member of the international community. Trump ended all hopes of that by reneging of the nuclear treaty and imposing devastating sanctions. The window of opportunity for Iranians to loosen theocratic repression, the promise of outgoing President Hassan Rouhani’s two terms, has closed.
The political legacy of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s 1979 revolution is a strange, indeed unique, hybrid of clerical rule under a Supreme Leader operating through his Guardian Council, and the institutions of popular sovereignty with an elected Parliament and President. Iran developed parallel political systems, two sets of hands on the tiller, two political elites. But it is the clerics within the religious system, elbowing their way to economic and political power, eliminating their rivals in a fashion reminiscent of the French revolution, vetting access to key public office, who have retained ultimate control. Distinguished service in the revolution, in the terrible Iraq-Iran war from 1980-1988 and within the Supreme Leader’s Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), or links to the new State’s founder and Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, open the way to membership of this clerical power club.
But the USA and the UK underestimate the influence of history on their relations with Iran. The Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran in August 1941, forcing the German-leaning Prime Minister, Reza Shah Palavi to resign, set a precedent. The UK/CIA coup of 1953 got rid of Prime Minister Muhammad Mosaddegh, a reformist offering hopes of a democratic future who had the audacity to nationalise the Anglo-Persian Oil Company – later BP. The coup brought to power the last Shah. The West supported him and his SAVAK torturers against Iranians seeking change. And lastly, as a reaction to the hostage crisis during the revolution, the West backed Saddam Hussein and Iraq against Iran, a war which cost an estimated one million Iranian lives.
When you travel from Tehran to the great mausoleum for Ayatollah Khomeini you pass acres of war cemeteries filled with the graves of young men, the ‘martyrs’ of the Iran-Iraq war, poignant photographs on their head-stones. When you meet anyone over-sixty a persistent cough is not a symptom of COVID but a long-lasting effect of Saddam Hussein’s mustard gas whose chemical precursors came from European factories. Yet ordinary Iranians well able to distinguish between governments and their citizens show visitors the customary warmth and hospitality of the Middle East.
Iranians today are living, and have been living, under a sanctions regime so severe it amounts to a form of war on the civilian population. An attack less damaging only than outright warfare itself. Soraya Lennie in her recent book Crooked Alleys Deliverance and Despair in Iran tells the stories of individual lives interwoven with the changes in the revolutionary regime. Her account of the daily pressures of sanctions, desperate relatives travelling to the United Arab Emirates to buy vital medication, Iran’s civil aviation falling apart for want of spare-parts and new airplanes, targeted assassinations by Israel and the USA, spiralling inflation, unemployment, protest and harsh repression, illuminates daily life and brings us close to the experience of ordinary Iranians.
Sanctions are a double-edged sword. They generate economic crisis which heightens popular resistance to government in Iran just as it would anywhere. The Arab-Spring-like ‘Green Movement’ of dissent, suppressed in 2009, brought two to three million onto the streets. Its leaders remain under house arrest. But the impact of sanctions also strengthen the hand of the hardliners looking for any stick with which to beat political leaders promising even the mildest of reforms. The volume of chants ‘death to America’ increase and contact with US diplomats and the West become almost treasonable. In the delicate balance betwen the two political systems, theocrats and reformist pragmatists, the reformists lose out. Before the elections, the Monitoring Agency of the Supreme Leader’s Guardian Council was able to disqualify all but seven of the 592 proposed names. Theocracy selects then democracy elects the selected. For this reason many, despairing of change, have shunned the polls or spoilt their ballots.
It is widely assumed that the victorious Sayeed Ebrahim Raisi has his sights set on becoming Supreme Leader when 82 year-old Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, with whom he is close, dies. At the moment he is only a Hojjat-al-Islam, a rank below Ayatollah. In the 1980s and 1990s he was Tehran’s deputy-prosecutor. A junior member of the ‘Death Commission’ he was complicit in mass executions that went on for five months in 1988. Thousands of imprisoned Mujahedin-al-Khalq (Iranian revolutionaries who supported Iraq in the war), members of the communist Party, Tudeh, and other political prisoners were shot or hanged. For this reason he is amongst those personally sanctioned by the USA, complicating further future relationships.
The new President was born in the holy city of Mashad, site of the important shrine of Imam Reza, the seventh Imam of Shi’a Islam and descendant of the Prophet. In 2016 Raisi gained control of its bountiful bonyad, a Shi’a charitable foundation, a ‘sprawling for-profit conglomerate’ worth at least $15 billion, controlling thousands of businesses, thus advancing his religious and networking credentials. Since his defeat in the 2017 elections, Raisi has used his Mashad base in the Ravasi-Khorasan Province of North East Iran to stir up opposition to Rouhani. Significantly, the Supreme Leader, who also controls the judiciary, made him Chief Prosecutor in 2019.
Negotiations on the nuclear treaty (JPCOA) opposed by the US Republicans, Netanyahu’s Israel and the Iranian hard-liners, will not get easier. The five European signatory States to the treaty gamely tried to tread water, but their banks and big businesses were too frightened of repercussions from Trump’s America to risk continued trading with Iran. Raisi described the 2015 treaty positively as ‘a national document’ while campaigning in 2017 and supports its re-establishment. On the one hand, he badly needs sanctions lifted. A collapsing economy undermined Rouhani. On the other hand, Raisi’s hardliner support base treated Rouhani’s dealing with the USA as akin to treachery. Even moderates will not easily forgive the drone killing of the national hero, General Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad, Trump’s master-stroke destroying any residual trust in the USA and bringing the two countries further down the path to conventional war. Conservative voters on Friday were turning up at polling booths with his picture.
The Revolutionary Guard will continue promoting pro-Iranian militias where it can and the Supreme National Security Council will stick to its policy of destabilising Iran’s enemies in order to protect its borders. It will take all of Jo Biden’s experience to reverse the weakening of nuclear containment and American influence wrought by his predecessor. Given Biden’s commitment to Israel, Iran cannot expect much sympathy. Biden’s ‘America is back’ is a great sound-bite but, on their side, Iranians will wonder ‘for how long?’
See TheArticle 19/06/2021
Ordinary people versus elites: call it populism, call it what you like, it’s an addictive story especially for politicians. If ‘the people’ decide you are on their side and vote accordingly, you win. In the USA and Europe the story has begun to lose some of its electoral appeal but it has not gone away.
Michael Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit is one of the most important books of 2020. In his 1958 satirical critique The Rise of the Meritocracy the sociologist Michael Young ( later Lord Young of Dartington) introduced the term to describe a political system in which education, ability, talent, hard work and achievement are rewarded with wealth and power. Sandel also argues convincingly that meritocracy generates a sense of failure and exclusion in large groups of people. And that this sense of failure and exclusion fuels popular resentment and anger against elites.
The term meritocracy has rather faded but what it describes has become more prevalent. The populist opposition between people and elites accords with many people’s social perception, experience, and their sense of how things are but lacks analysis of the causes of their strong feelings. Populism’s rise has coincided with the decline of social democracy and its offer of equality of opportunity. That offer brought Tony Blair three terms in office and Obama two but ran out of steam in the last decade. Both Trump and Johnson are able communicators of the populist message “I am on your side against the elites”. But why was social democracy’s offer of equality of opportunity rejected?
Sandel goes beyond saying that for most people since the 1980s the ‘American dream’ has been just that, a dream. He takes the feelings of those whom the dream eludes seriously. If you believe there is a ladder available for you to climb out of poverty which you have failed to climb you feel a failure. Conversely if you’re at the top of the ladder you feel your prosperity is deserved. You earned it by hard work and personal virtue. And those at the bottom suspect that the people at the top blame them, disapprove of them, regard them with disdain, to quote Hillary Clinton, as ‘a basket of deplorables’. It is those feelings that populists exploit.
Sandel while a Rhodes scholar at Oxford was strongly influenced by the communitarianism of his Canadian philosophy professor, Charles Taylor. Sandel’s own communitarianism challenges the individualist conceit that people succeed or fail as lone individuals so that those who succeed deserve their advantages. It is a belief that can only be sustained by ignoring the countless ways in which each person is shaped and influenced by their environment. The middle and upper-middle class have helpful social networks, private tutors and full book-shelves at home. The wealthiest have parents who can pay the fees at public schools which ease their way into Oxbridge or the US Ivy League. At the bottom of the ladder are children whose parents are too poor to take them to the theatre or on foreign holidays, too unsure and fatigued working at low-paid jobs to supervise homework, and may even be neglectful.
Sandel strongly makes the case that the great US divide in income is closely correlated with college education, or lack of it, what he calls ‘the sorting machine’. He demonstrates how admission to the elite Ivy League US universities opens a fast-track to membership of the top 1% of wealthy individuals in the USA. “The children of poor and working class are about as unlikely to attend Harvard, Yale and Princeton as they were in 1954”, he writes. Attempts are made by universities to counter this sorting machine, companies seek talent irrespective of ‘credentialism’, but little has changed in the US measure of merit over recent decades. Polling has shown an astonishing relationship between voting behaviour and educational attainment. The best predictor of a pro-Trump vote was lack of a college education. And who more adept at connecting with the shame and fury of those who felt themselves despised by a ‘metropolitan elite’, the denizens of the “Washington swamp”.
In Britain, it is a Russell Group university education that opens the door to high-income jobs and provides the Oxbridge credentials for a specially privileged minority within a minority. Only 2% of Oxbridge admissions are white working class children. The 7% of children in private education take about a third of Oxbridge places. The Labour Party is losing the working class to Trump-lite politics while gaining the well-heeled and well educated in big cities. When security and prosperity are the ‘merited’ reward for an elite education, coinciding with years of wage stagnation and low incomes, the anger and humiliation of those who are not financially successful become socially and politically significant.
Sandel argues that poorly paid work and its contribution to society are undervalued in every sense. This began to be recognised when, for instance, during the pandemic bus drivers risked their lives to keep public transport going. If wealth remains the reward for elite education too little consideration is given to the emotions of those who do not attain it. Too little consideration is given to human dignity, to what Sandel calls ‘contributive justice’, being acknowledged as playing a constructive role in society with a voice that is listened to, which social democracy overshadowed by ‘distributive justice’. “Finding ourselves in a society that prizes our talents is our good fortune, not our due”, he writes. We haven’t earned the attributes we are born and grow up with. We need the humility to acknowledge this. A society based on deliberation about the common good at the heart of its politics, rather than individual consumerism, will encourage practical solidarity. A meritocratic society is not culturally predisposed to do this.
So far, so chastening: Sandel with great gusto is sawing off the branch on which I and many friends have been sitting for the last sixty or more years. The G7 leaders who have been meeting in Cornwall need to have some of Sandel’s critical vision of the future. Just an idle thought but it would be good if after all the self-congratulation they tucked into his book on the way home.
See TheArticle 11/06/2021
Much Cummings but no goings last week. Resignations are so yesterday - reserved for traditionalist civil servants. Sound and fury signifying nothing? No, signifying that suspicions are likely well placed. What more have we learned? What must we do? Here are few suggestions.
Poverty, bad housing and poor nutrition are health issues. The pandemic has highlighted long recognised social causes of ill-health, now linked to ethnicity. Sir Michael Marmot’s seminal work on health inequalities is dramatically affirmed by the skewed social distribution of COVID deaths. Our increasing inequalities are not just deplorable, they are positively dangerous.
First: While the economy is being fixed post-pandemic, social justice must not be an afterthought.
Prevention is not just better than cure, it is a lot less demanding on the public purse. The medical consequences of obesity cost the NHS a fortune and now include the results of enhanced vulnerability to COVID. The cost of another major COVID surge would be ruinous. Changing people’s behaviour is not easy. But smoking has been significantly reduced, people wear seat-belts, and drink-driving brings social censure.
Second: MPs must stop talking about hospitals as if a health service is synonymous with hospital care, and they must back public health.
It was reckless to underfund and overload the NHS leaving no slack in the system to deal with major shocks. Government policy as a result failed to ‘protect the NHS’ in a meaningful sense. It was overwhelmed. The crisis of acute COVID hospital admissions was dealt with by cancelling non-urgent surgery, building up a gigantic backlog, and transferring frail patients into care homes. Without adequate support, under-protected NHS and care-home staff shouldered an intolerable burden. Over 850 NHS staff died from COVID during 2020. There was no ‘protective ring’ around care homes.
Third: Learning from mistakes in our current pandemic, there must be effective pre-planning and resourcing for all types of emergencies.
Changing public behaviour in response to a major pandemic requires trust in those in authority. Lying to people to hide mistakes, coupled with misplaced morale-boosting optimism, destroys trust. This is not Britain in 1940 when sustaining morale was essential for survival. Trust depends on transparency, and competent, timely decision-making, based on government’s willingness to heed expert advice. Experts must not be pressured to give the advice government wants to hear. They are not special beings immune to human failings such as ill-judged deference to authority.
Fourth: To be trusted and gain public compliance in a crisis government policy must be evidence-based and led by expert advice.
A binary opposition between the good of the economy and protection for the public from COVID infection makes little sense. It is, though, relevant for infected low income workers who should have been given government support to quarantine. The Prime Minister and Chancellor opposed lockdowns on economic grounds. It is now commonly accepted that delays in imposing, and over-hasty release from preventive measures, caused thousands of unnecessary deaths. Owing to exponential growth in infection, a two weeks delay can result in two months of far more economically damaging consequences further down the line.
Fifth: Health messages must be clear, evidence-based and err on the side of caution if economic consequences are to be minimised.
Find, test, trace, isolate and support are important ways to reduce transmission of the virus. Local health authorities responsible for public health have the experience, the knowledge and the necessary relationships in their communities to be effective. The farming out of this vital set of responses to SERCO and other private companies was not just a mistake, it was a mistake motivated by ideology. ‘Private Good, Public Bad’ is a belief dear to the Tory back-benches. £37 billion of taxpayers’ money was poured away as a result.
Sixth: The government must adopt a policy of subsidiarity, acknowledging that the most effective level for action is the level nearest to the problem. Action at a higher level should not be taken unless action at a lower level is ineffective.
The UK’s rate of COVID deaths per 100,000 compared to other similar countries is inexcusable. Perhaps a residue of imperial arrogance, there were no signs that those grappling with the COVID unknowns in the early days paid any attention to the experience of Asian countries such as Taiwan, Vietnam and Singapore. Consultation with them might have quickly knocked ‘herd immunity’ theories on the head.
Seventh: When dealing with an unfamiliar global problem, in this case a pandemic, consult and learn from those who have successfully dealt with one.
Britain has the advantage of being an island and the disadvantage of being a transport hub. Having left the European Union and talked a great deal of nonsense about ‘taking back control of our borders’, the present Government failed to do precisely that. Variants rampant in countries whose governance is even worse than our own are spreading. The Indian variant may be 60% more transmissible. India was put on the ‘red list’ two weeks after Pakistan and Bangladesh. Some believe because the Prime Minister wished to visit India in pursuit of a trade deal.
Eighth: Effective border controls and properly monitored isolation of incoming visitors or returnees must be imposed early.
Co-ordination of medical research, promoted by Professor Dame Sally Davies when Chief Medical Officer, 2011-2019, notably by building up a body of expertise on viruses and vaccines, has given the UK a head-start in genome analysis and vaccine production. This was far-sighted thinking within the NHS, a tangible success for public health in Britain. Ministers ought to acknowledge our debt to this preparatory work on vaccine response to COVID, rather than trying to take all the credit for rapid vaccine roll-out in order to deflect attention from their multiple mistakes.
Ninth: Co-ordinated research bringing together the best brains internationally in the field of immunology and vaccines must be encouraged, well-funded and facilitated by government.
The World Health Organisation has never been more needed than today. It has its faults. Like the UN it is only as good as its members and Syria (still led by the brutal Assad regime) is now on its executive board. But the impoverishment and weakness of health systems in the Global South can only be alleviated by international action. This has become dramatically apparent during the pandemic.
Tenth: Starting with the coming G7 meeting, Britain must play a much bigger role in the WHO, especially leading on the dissemination of research findings and supporting centres dedicated to vaccine development and immunology.
The Independent Inquiry announced by the Prime Minister starts in Spring 2022. Dame Deidre Hine who undertook the swine-flu report estimates that it will take at least 2-3 years to complete. Well after the next general election.
See TheArticle 01/06/2021
“They no savvy shame” as the cook used to say in Nigeria. And he wasn’t working for Boris Johnson or Rishi Sunak. In 2005 at Gleneagles the G8’s European members led by Tony Blair decided to sign up to the UN development aid target of 0.7% of Gross National Income (GNI). David Cameron later turned this pledge into a commitment in UK law. Johnson presides at the G7 June meeting this year with a reduced UK aid target of 0.5% of GNI. These cuts are particularly damaging in the midst of a pandemic. And here, having spent 35 years of my life working in international aid, I declare a personal interest.
Three figures give some idea of the magnitude of the global COVID problem. Sierra Leone where I worked with Muslim and Christian leaders in a national malaria education programme that reached five million – with pregnant women and under-fives most at risk – has vaccinated eight out of every thousand people. In oil-rich Nigeria with a population of around 200 million the figure is nine per thousand. In Malawi, which incidentally had the largest Department for International Development (DfiD) office I’ve come across in Africa, it’s 17.5 per thousand. These figures almost guarantee new and more dangerous mutations. And they won’t stay in Africa.
Despite the government’s expressed preference to ‘cut once, cut deep’ there have been two very deep cuts in our former £14 billion aid budget. According to the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (that reports to the All-Party International Development Committee) last year there was an actual cut of £2.94 billion based on - an overestimate of - the amount GNI had fallen. There followed this year a further cut of £4 billion, apparently at the insistence of the Treasury. The very poorest countries are hit hardest by these sudden unprepared for cuts.
Andrew Rawnsley in last Sunday’s The Observer, quotes a former Cabinet member describing the reduction in funding as nothing to do with economics and ‘utterly cynical’. “It’s because they think aid cuts go down well in the red wall seats”, he said. There may be some truth in that claim but, hamstrung by vast Trident costs and by ring-fenced departmental budgets, there was also fear that not being able to increase the Defence budget would alienate Conservative voters. And on the Tory back-benches there is a strong ‘charity begins at home…and ends there’ faction, long hostile to DfID, who applauded its absorption into the Foreign Office.
Insufficient time and thought has been given to which beneficiaries, countries and categories of programmes would face reductions, and their consequences. From March to December 2020, £1.39 billion of British aid was spent on anti-COVID measures around the world. You might have thought that in the midst of a pandemic funding for the rest of the health sector in the poorest countries would be carefully protected. But the cuts hastily introduced this year damage programmes against malaria, polio and HIV and, most importantly, will affect public health systems which prevent and control disease, including COVID.
The Victorians were smart enough to work out that parsimony and indifference to the health of the poor was a bad idea. Cholera and other infectious diseases they realised jumped class barriers and borders. This simple observation applied globally does not seem to have fully penetrated the Johnson government’s policy though, characteristically, Gordon Brown has made it crystal clear.
Providing COVID equipment, PPE’s, oxygen, ICUs and so on will make only a marginal difference if the recipients in a local health system are badly organised, corruptly managed or even barely functioning. And here is the Achilles heel of government-to-government funding providing good copy for the right-wing press and clearing the consciences of voters who support cuts in aid. If the government clinic is not properly funded, the nurses and doctors poorly trained or doing two jobs, and the clinic has no drugs or equipment that works, it is to little avail. Corruption and poor governance kills. Sensitive interventions in the management of ministries can and do make a difference and must continue.
In an ideal world, the comparative advantage of governmental aid interventions generally is scale. Immunisation for example must reach whole populations as we all know from our recent experience of Covid. There are, of course, large NGOs such as OXFAM which can manage significant humanitarian programmes by providing clean water and similarly Save the Children for education. The British government has pathways to those in need via such relevant NGOs that bypass corrupt governments.
Our government is also more covertly dipping into development aid spending for services provided by other Departments of State. While COVAX spending is appropriately taken from the aid budget spending on peacekeeping should come out of the defence budget and for climate change out of Business and Energy - not out of development aid. And all such assistance in our interconnected world should be considered as a security measure if the term is to have much meaning. FCO/DfID needs to learn from the COVID pandemic and focus on funding for health and education. This year’s cut of £4 billion should be reversed immediately.
Health and education are not only pivotal for a country’s future they are unifying concerns shared by every parent irrespective of faith, ethnicity or nationality. Non-Governmental organisations (NGOs), local and international, do wonderful work. In Sierra Leone I have watched a Pentecostal pastor and an Imam together teaching parents about bed nets, mosquitoes and standing water, then going back to their communities to bring health education into their sermons. And there are no more influential health visitors than respected elder village women chatting to mothers at bath-time, bringing health messages for the under-fives into the conversation. I have watched illiterate women being trained to recognise symptoms of a score of major diseases in Mali so they can send those who need to go to the nearest clinic for treatment. These are the sort of small-scale things NGOs do well and they can often be scaled up in support of health Ministries where the potential for national action lies.
As our Government Ministers sit round the Cabinet table or claim improbably to camera that cuts to health programmes are temporary, I wish they could be transported to the places where the cuts fall to meet grass roots workers and explain why our rich country can’t help them. The £4 billion cut this year is about 1% of what Mr. Sunak has been spending on dealing with the multiple impacts of COVID in UK. Andrew Mitchell, former Secretary of State for International Development, knows what a shameful, short-sighted and damaging step the Chancellor and the Prime Minister are taking. MPs who think like Mitchell should stand up and, like him, be counted.
See TheArticle 27/05/2021