An important lesson for the pandemic-stricken world to remember as challenge after challenge casts its shadow on Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s beleaguered government in London is that no opinion -- not even that of a suspected adversary -- should be dismissed or derided at a time of grave international danger.
More of that later. Immediate attention focuses on another aspect of the coronavirus crisis which inspired Britain’s Agra-born business minister, Alok Sharma, to exult grandiloquently: “In years to come, we will remember this moment as the day the United Kingdom led humanity’s charge against this disease.” He meant -- as every British spokesman repeats ad nauseam -- that the UK is the first country to agree to use the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine against Covid-19.
Not everyone is equally boastful. While the German ambassador reminded listeners that the vaccine represents collective European enterprise, the tiny oil-rich island kingdom of Bahrain quickly muscled into the limelight to share Britain’s glory with its own agreement with Pfizer/BioNTech. Another critic with little stomach for bombast that might resound to applause in Mr Sharma’s ancestral Uttar Pradesh sharply reminded him that this moment might also be remembered for “the UK having one of the worst death rates and the worst economic impact due to poor governance”.
Going beyond the United Kingdom’s 1.71 million Covid-19 cases and 61,014 deaths, he might have been speaking of the frantic last-minute parleys in Britain’s protracted divorce negotiations with the European Union which suggest that the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, did not think things through when he played up to domestic separatists with his aggressive Brexit agenda. With time running out for the December 31 deadline, this week’s last throw of the dice (as it’s called) in the negotiations may be heading for a breakdown rather than a breakthrough. If so, it would be catastrophic for both parties who cannot escape their interdependence. While British waters are much richer in fish than the seas surrounding Europe, British trawlers make their money selling to the European nations.
As Mr Johnson continues to pander to the insular lobby by accusing the EU of riding roughshod over British sovereignty, Rachel Reeves, a senior member of the Labour Party’s shadow cabinet, has warned that he “needs to deliver the deal he promised the British people”. He can’t ignore her for Brexit has exposed his reliance on Labour votes in the House of Commons. Neither can he ignore the new Cold War against China and Russia that US President Donald Trump had launched with vehement diatribes against the so-called “Wuhan virus” to woo American voters ahead of the presidential election.
With talk of Washington invoking the 1977 International Emergency Economic Powers Act to blacklist the popular Chinese video app TikTok as “an unusual and extraordinary threat”, Mr Johnson has taken up the cudgels for the United States like another British leader, Tony Blair, who kowtowed to George W. Bush and joined the American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. That probably explains the sudden £16 billion increase in Britain’s defence budget over the next four years, despite the pandemic’s calamitous damage to the economy. Such gestures appease the Americans, as do accusations of the Kremlin trying to penetrate Britain’s secret scientific research programmes and promises to reveal Russia’s alleged covert interference in British politics.
Initially, Mr Johnson rejected pressure, American as well as from the rightists among his own Conservatives, to ban the Chinese technology company, Huawei, from any role in building the UK’s 5G infrastructure. He has since done a volte face and now cites “sound technical reasons” for giving Huawei marching orders. But although Huawei is said to threaten British security and is excluded from the 5G network, Mr Johnson cannot be seriously concerned since the eviction will become effective only over seven years.
Neither this anomaly nor the ban itself seems to have attracted much public attention in Britain. The reason may be that people are genuinely horrified by China’s oppression of the Uighurs, its tightening grip on Hong Kong, the military assertiveness in the South China Sea and muscle-flexing in Ladakh. But the Brexit controversy makes Britain vulnerable, and succumbing to American pressure at this juncture may compound London’s dependency on Washington. Instead of taking back control of his country’s destiny -- the publicly reiterated reason for leaving the EU in the first place -- Mr Johnson might end up by moving closer to the old joke of Britain as the 51st state of the United States of America.
Obviously, the pandemic aggravates the impact of all other crises. Covid-19 might also have caused less suffering and spread less terror if a sane approach had been followed from the beginning. Dr Hans Kluge, who heads the World Health Organisation’s European operations, says that lockdowns are unnecessary if 95 per cent of the population wears masks. This should have been far more widely and forcefully propagated when the pandemic was exploding across the world. Sadly, many European and American leaders dismissed masks then as politically unacceptable.
As Britain and the EU nations were going into lockdown, Dr George Fu Gao, director-general of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, China’s main public health body, corroborated Dr Kluge’s view. Asked about the mistakes being made by other countries trying to control coronavirus, he replied that “the big mistake in the US and Europe, in my opinion, is that people aren’t wearing masks”.
That opinion should have been taken seriously even though China had already been cast as the adversary. According to independent observers, China’s return to normality was largely the result of old-fashioned public health measures, with a heavy emphasis on test-and-trace and travel bans, vigorously enforced by mobilising the country’s vast resources and, of course, invoking the state’s coercive authority.
There’s a lesson there for the rest of the suffering world.