Dr Benjamin Martill, Associate at LSE IDEAS & Lecturer, University of Edinburgh, asks if there is no time for politics in the war against COVID-19 and provides a compelling response
We are waging war against an invisible enemy – COVID-19- which in just a few short weeks has transformed all of our lives. NHS staff battle the virus on the frontlines, the machinery of government marshals materiel and equipment to combat the spread, and our bodies fight the infection.
As with any conflict, there are clear depoliticising effects associated with the discourse of war. Wars require unity to fight, not disagreements, and there is no room for an opposition sniping on the side-lines. Power needs to be delegated to those who are in the know – strategists in war, scientists and technicians in the fight against COVID-19. Political leaders are — we hope at least — thinking about the fight ahead and not just about the next election.
This is reinforced by the desire to seek security at times of intense change. Appeals to science can calm the (understandable) worries of an anxious public, reassuring them a clear plan is being implemented.
These depoliticising tendencies are everywhere evident in the UK’s response to the coronavirus.
Major decisions and political airtime are being given – quite rightly – to members of the scientific community. (1) And longstanding critics of Boris Johnson — a contentious figure for many on the left and the right — have rallied around the Prime Minister’s response to the crisis.
Coronavirus has also changed the kind of questions we ask, the kind of issues we care about. Does the country have adequate ventilators? What kind of outdoor activities are permissible? Which individuals should count as key workers? For how long will the lockdown be extended? It is hard to see the ideological fault-lines in these essentially technical questions about rules, standards and figures.
Long-held political principles creak (or collapse) under the strain of necessity. The Conservatives, for the past four decades the party of free-market liberalism, are now the party of the state, of welfare, and very possibly of large-scale nationalisations (we will have to wait and see on that one).
The Brexit negotiations — a national obsession for the best part of three years now — are now taking place remotely (2) and have been notably absent from the news, though the implications of a no-deal Brexit have not really changed.
The politics of war
It is easy to see why politics has taken a back seat. Clearly now is not the time for squabbles between the government and the opposition.
But we need to be wary of buying into the idea that the coronavirus is somehow not about politics. As I argue below, each of the big decisions taken during the crisis is, at base, a political question and not simply a technical one. And a failure to recognise this risks endorsing only one side of a highly political debate
Consider, for one moment, how many political questions are lying just beneath the surface of the ostensibly technocratic response to the coronavirus.
There is, first, the trade-off between fundamental values — in this case, personal liberty and collective safety — which is deeply implicated in various other limitations on our behaviour, but which cannot be reconciled by logical argument alone. Decisions on when to instigate (and end) lockdown and how severe it should be are inherently political, not technical. ‘Herd immunity’, the path down which the UK initially set out, implied a particular view of the kind of risks society can take, and the relative value of keeping the economy running – just as the move into lockdown implies a different political vision more than any rejection of the postulates of the herd immunity concept.
Then there are the gaps in our protection. Unsurprisingly, some groups are more ‘at risk’ from the virus than others, most obviously elderly people and those with pre-existing illnesses, but also those from marginalised and minority communities, (3) raising important political questions about how we recognise and account for, such inequalities. Then there are questions about how to compensate people for the economic effects of the virus. Current provisions are more comprehensive than might have been expected, but leave problematic gaps. One is that those with caring responsibilities — predominantly women — are far less able to work from home than those without any such responsibilities.
And the difficulties of responding to the virus highlight the tension between global problems and national solutions. Viruses do not respect borders. Nor, nowadays, do economic transactions. So any meaningful response to the virus needs to be multilateral. (4) But this rubs up against popular anti-globalisation and anti-European sentiment which has risen precipitously in recent years. (5) So, again, there is a political question – do you prioritise independence or response-effectiveness? The government’s decision not to participate in a European Union procurement scheme for ventilators (6) shows this is not a hypothetical example.
We also need to ‘win the peace’ once the immediate effects of the virus have died down. It has become a cliché to suggest that the post-COVID-19 world will look different from what we have today, but what it will look like — and how different it will be —- depends on fundamental political questions concerning the extent of state involvement in the economy, acceptable levels of risk, which individuals or sectors are deemed worthy of support, and so on.
In defence of politics
Politics, then, will never take a back seat during a conflict. It can always be found, nestling away in supposedly technocratic debates and discussions. And this hidden politics needs expression, however inappropriate this might seem in a time of crisis. To do otherwise is not to render decisions non-political, but to ignore the fact they are necessarily partial.
Make no mistake, while the discourse, for the time being, will focus the statistics and technical questions, some very big choices are still to come.
Maybe we should start thinking about them now.
Editor's Recommended Articles
Must Read >> How to lead effectively during the COVID-19 pandemic