Britain, an island nation with a population density of 275 people per square kilometre and a population of 67 million, has passed one million COVID infections resulting in over 50,000 deaths. Taiwan, an overcrowded island nation off the coast of China with 671 people per square kilometre and a population of over 23 million, has recorded 553 cases and seven deaths. It hasn’t had a ‘domestic infection’ (locally transmitted) for six months. Why the huge difference?
Three main agencies combat the spread of the virus around the world: the State itself, its health system and its citizens. The State introduces measures to inhibit spread with more than an eye to protecting the economy from collapse. Health systems vary according to the role an insurance provision plays in them. But, without coercion — as in China’s authoritarian surveillance state — these measures will only be effective if citizens believe them to be necessary and find it financially feasible to comply. Looked at from another perspective, particularly before a vaccine is found, the intangible qualities of ‘social capital’ and confidence in government are as important as ‘the science’ and the capacity of the health care system to respond effectively to the pandemic.
“The big lesson from Asia”, Will Hutton wrote in a typically thoughtful piece in The Observer (1st November) “is that communitarian, more equal societies have the social capital…” - that allows them to mitigate and curtail the pandemic. He is not comparing authoritarian regimes with democratic societies and regimes. South Korea, for example, a functioning democracy with a population density of 511 people per square kilometre, with 13 million citizens fewer than UK, has recorded only 25,000 cases and 434 deaths at the time of writing.
True, some of the Asian countries Hutton highlights, such as Singapore, have an authoritarian past with some of its characteristics still remaining, and it’s true they derived valuable lessons from the 2002-2004 SARS outbreak. It’s also true that they achieved greater economic success than the UK. Is there something in the Asian cultures, perhaps trust in and respect for authority and for the old, perhaps appreciation of the tangible improvements in standards of living, or perhaps that the Enlightenment played a lesser role in their intellectual history, or even that capitalism arrived relatively fast and late compared with Europe which nurtures social cohesion? Hutton’s emphasis on equality and a communitarian spirit in civil society is worth serious consideration.
“We are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”, Peter Mandelson told executives in Silicon Valley in 1999, adding “provided they pay their taxes”. It was the heyday of New Labour. Twelve years later in the midst of Tory austerity measures post-banking crisis, Mandelson began recanting. In 2016 inequality emerged as the parent of BREXIT. But corporate executives are still on the whole filthy rich and aggressively deploy clever tax experts for tax avoidance. Now COVID infections are known to occur disproportionately, and shamefully, amongst the poor, no political party ought to be intensely relaxed about inequality and its impact on deaths from infections.
Governments whether in Asia or Europe play a role in encouraging or undermining social values. Margaret Thatcher’s assertion that there was no such thing as society only families and individuals bettering themselves through hard work heralded a distinct rise in elbows-out individualism and shameless greed. The present Prime Minister’s chosen mode of greeting since his infection, bumping elbows instead of shaking hands, is strangely appropriate. His repeated, almost plaintive appeals, ‘we are all in this together’, only highlights the reality that we aren’t; it is mainly the poor, the aged and the sick who face sickness and premature death.
‘You get the government you deserve’ is by definition more true than false in a democracy. A government that is basically reactive to its own baying back-benches and to upsurges of public anger on neuralgic issues, like the recent schools dinner fiasco, loses public trust. Our culture retains a strong sense of social responsibility towards children, especially if they are sick, hungry, abused or disabled. Even a three-year old knows that “one rule for us, one rule for them’, is unfair, is wrong. And when coupled with a belief that the private sector will invariably make a better job of things than the public, and after months of ignoring local government, public respect for national government evaporates. The practical steps to control the virus require a communitarian mind-set. But the necessary set of values to control COVID are a bad fit with individualism, let alone Johnson’s libertarianism. Thinking that freedom means doing whatever I want when I want becomes disastrous when the health of whole populations is at stake.
Does the communitarian spirit to which Hutton attributes success in the face of COVID, inevitably erode when leadership is weak and vacillating and trust in government is fading? Sadly, it seems to be so. The COVID second wave is evoking less public-spiritedness than the first. Though the faith communities have kept going feeding and helping the poor much as they have always done. The clapping has stopped. Self-assertion is expressed in the rise in speeding offences, increase in alcohol consumption and a cavalier attitude amongst some to social distancing. “We are losing our cherished freedoms”, cry the Tory back-benches.
Catholicism and Islam for historical reasons both sit towards the communitarian end of a line that has individualism at the other end. This can have its obvious downsides: conformity through inertia, defensive tribalism, ‘it’s God’s Will’ fatalism. But faith communities can also have vital insights into the changes, values and future structure of society and economy that will sustain the communitarian spirit and bring about social justice. These are not eccentric ideas outside the mainstream of political thinking. Will Hutton’s secular insights last week tally with Pope Francis’ concept of ‘social friendship’ in his recent encyclical Fratelli Tutti. As the Asian examples Hutton provides testify, this is not pie-in-the-sky utopianism, it is a matter of life and death during this pandemic. Do we, though, have the ability and humility to learn from the best in other cultures and ways of living?
See TheArticle 05/11/2020 "How can we learn from other cultures?"