Death rates, arrogant leaders and the problem with fading superpowers
World by Gwynne Dyer
Something has gone wrong in the ‘Anglosphere’, as the English-speaking countries are known in some other parts of the world.
Smaller English-speaking countries are coping with the Covid-19 emergency quite well. New Zealand’s coronavirus death toll so far is 18, and Australia’s is 83. Even Canada, despite being next door to the United States, has only 2,500 fatalities.
But the two big English-speaking countries are taking worse losses to the coronavirus than anywhere else. The United Kingdom has 20,000 dead already and the United States will have hit 60,000 by the time you read this. At the current daily death rate, the U.S. will reach 100,000 in about two weeks.
Last month Sir Patrick Vallance, the British government’s chief scientific adviser, said that keeping deaths below 20,000 would be a “good outcome.” But the final British death toll in this wave of the pandemic will probably be between 30,000 and 40,000 people — the highest in Europe.
The United States is almost as bad. Early this month President Trump congratulated himself for his belated conversion to lockdowns, boasting that “The minimum [predicted] number was 100,000 lives and I think we’ll be substantially under that number.”
American infection rates are still going up so that is highly unlikely. But even if the U.S. stops at the ‘minimum’ level of 100,000 deaths, that would mean Americans are dying from Covid-19 at 80 times the death rate Chinese citizens suffered before Beijing got the virus under control. Or, if you doubt China’s statistics, at 1,515 times New Zealand’s death rate.
Other English-speaking countries, including those that use English as a common second language like Kenya, India and South Africa, are not showing anomalous death rates. It is just the United States and the United Kingdom. What might they have in common that none of the other English-speaking countries share?
Oh, wait a minute. Weren’t these two countries the superpowers that dominated the world one after the other for most of the past two centuries? Might that have made them a bit arrogant? Unable to see the experience of other countries as relevant to their own situation? Reluctant to follow the advice of international bodies like the World Health Organisation (WHO)?
Am I getting warm here?
Britain ticks all the boxes. It has a nationalistic government obsessed with the ‘greatness’ of the country’s past and unable to grasp the reality of its modest current stature. Hence the Brexit project, for example, but exactly the same attitude is manifest in its coronavirus policies.
WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was saying “Test. Test. Test” as early as January. In early March, however, Britain defied the conventional wisdom and all but abandoned both community testing and contact tracing (which is the other essential part of the “Test” strategy).
Instead, the U.K. wandered off into the lethal fantasy of seeking ‘herd immunity’ by letting infections rip, ignoring what first the East Asian countries and later most other European countries were doing. It only panicked in late March when it realized that its National Health Service would collapse under the weight of so many deaths.
It finally declared a lockdown after all its neighbours, and it is paying the price for the delay with its death rate. This was sheer arrogance at work, with only a slight tincture of ignorance. And even now, with pressure growing for an early release from the lockdown, the U.K. government is still playing catch-up.
The United Kingdom is only now starting to work on building an organization to test on a national scale (hundreds of thousands of tests a day), trace the contacts of infected people and isolate them all to break the chains of transmission. Yet you cannot safely ease the lockdown until the testing and contact tracing network is up and running.
Wrong at every step, Prime Minister Boris Johnson must be very grateful to have Donald ‘Lysol’ Trump making him look good by comparison. The American president’s sins of omission on coronavirus are why the United States has one-third of the Covid-19 infections in the world with only one-twentieth of the world’s population.
Trump downplayed the threat as long as he could, then became a last-minute advocate of lockdown. He has now moved on to being the liberator of the American people from lockdown (without any contact tracing, of course). The problem with him as a leader is that he is not only arrogant, but flighty and astoundingly ignorant.
But his flightiness and ignorance are merely personal attributes, and Boris Johnson is not ignorant at all (just lazy). What the two men and their respective countries both have in abundance is an arrogant exceptionalism that is leading them into increasingly grave errors.
As Joseph de Maistre remarked, “Every nation gets the government it deserves.”
Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.