The Era of Missed Opportunities

It could have been very simple.  Boris Johnson could have sacked Dominic Cummings as soon as he had evidence that his special advisor had broken lockdown rules.  Johnson would have strengthened his authority by the move: he could have come out to brief the press, stared at the camera, and looked straight down the lens with a clear gaze.  He could have said, “The rules apply to everyone, no matter what their role is within this government.  It is clear that Mr. Cummings broke the spirit if not the letter of those rules, therefore there is no place for him here.  I have relieved him of his duties with immediate effect.”

The tabloids would have cheered.  The Daily Mail, no doubt, would have run a headline calling him the “Iron Prime Minister”.  The Daily Express would have used the adjective “steely” in relation to him and praised his fairness and resolve.  The Daily Telegraph would have made up some editorial praising the return of strong, authoritative government.  The Times would have also run some piece on the refreshing change that the coronavirus had wrought in Johnson, suggesting that he had risen to the role which he had sought for so long.

Of course, nothing of the kind occurred. Our government is the most simultaneously fearful and privileged since Louis XVI worried about the sans-culottes busting down the door of his palace.  Dominic Cummings’ behaviour echoes Louis XIV: “L’etat c’est moi”.  Let the sans-culottes sit on a Tube train wearing a thin mask or crouch in a Lewisham bedsit.  He would not be denied his trip to his father’s Durham estate, nor be prevented from taking his wife to a beauty spot for her birthday. 

It could have been simple in America too.  The Governor of Minnesota, the Mayor of Minneapolis, could have reacted instantly to the murder of George Floyd by the police.  They could have reassured the public that this isn’t right and would be put right immediately.  They could have sacked the 4 officers involved in the incident at speed.  President Trump could have stayed out of it; lest his voice add to the din.  Has these officials been more responsive and responsible, perhaps the wildfires of reaction to police brutality would not have burned as ferociously.

It could also have been straightforward in India too.  Rather than allow members of his party blame Muslims for the pandemic, Prime Minister Modi could have said that the coronavirus has highlighted that no matter one’s faith, we are all equal in the eyes of God, and we are just as susceptible to nature’s wrath as each other.  Such rhetoric could have united his fragmented country and strengthened his government.

China too is guilty of making things more complicated than they should have done.  The authorities have shown some level of repentance by making the doctor who initially raised the alarm about the coronavirus something of a public martyr and a hero of the state.  But what mechanisms are now in place to ensure that such a hero is never maltreated again?  And what is the point of cracking down on Hong Kong now?  Populists in America and elsewhere are looking to blame China for the coronavirus: tightening the screw on students demanding freedom only pours more petrol on the flames.

Brazil is now experiencing the depths of the pandemic.  Rather than supposedly prioritise the economy over effectively dealing with the coronavirus, President Bolsonaro could have realised that the health of the people and the health of the economy are linked.  He could have demanded a quick lockdown like New Zealand did, and spared his people the death and turmoil that they are presently experiencing.

In short, this is an era of missed opportunities.  These nations all provide potent examples.  In addition, we as individuals are apparently not learning the lessons proffered by the pandemic.  We should have come to the realisation that humanity is frail and vulnerable.  One virus can knock our global trading system flat.  One virus can wreck public finances.  One virus can force us to isolate from those we love.  One virus can alter our destiny in the blink of an eye.  Does this make us more cautious?  It doesn’t appear to have done so, if the crowds on beaches are anything to judge by.

We should also take this opportunity to look at the damage we have wrought on our planet.  Because of lockdown, the skies in some cities are clearer than they have been for a very long time.  In this all too brief pause in humanity’s attempt at ecological suicide, wild animals have retaken territory, we can hear birdsong which was once drowned out by traffic.  The canals of Venice have cleared and the swans have returned.  The air we breathe is purer and our carbon emissions have temporarily collapsed; even the dreams many of us have experienced are more vivid than they were before, perhaps it is a by-product of sleeping in silence.

However, we are on a quest to return to “normal”; lest we forget, the “normal” we seek was no paradise.  We apparently were so busy with “business as usual” that the stillness that thought requires couldn’t find us.  Perhaps that’s the most dangerous element of this period, at least from the perspective of those in power.  There is time for us to think; there is time to contemplate the depths of incompetence of those in power.

Whether we are ready for it or not, lockdown is ending.  Some schoolchildren in the United Kingdom returned to class today.  Car dealerships have re-opened: should we wish to spew more pollution into the atmosphere, the tools to do so are available for purchase or lease.  Soon stores which have previously been classed as “non-essential” will re-open, making available things that we didn’t apparently need all that much.  The din of modern life will resume, increasing in volume until it drowns out thought again. Once more the birdsong which has been the feature of lockdown mornings will be drowned out by honking horns and traffic congestion.

If we are fortunate, however, we will be forever changed by what we’ve experienced these past few months. The blatant incompetence of the authorities should be crystal clear by now.  Maybe, just maybe, we’ll demand and get change.

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