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Corona Diaries: The Recriminator – a new role for Arnie

April 19, 2020

Here we go then. A little early in the game perhaps, but the recrimination engine is cranking up. Everyone’s getting in on the act, from conspiracy theorists to big-ticket mainstream journalists.

The recipe is familiar. A large dollop of cover-up, a strong flavour of deep state and a seasoning of insanity and espionage. The standard defence of “we are where we are. Let’s get the crisis over with before we start asking awkward questions” is crumbling before The Recriminator – an Arnie Schwarzenegger decked out with a titanium PPE suit slashing away at an army of lily-livered apologists.

Exhibit A is the origin conundrum, which is bubbling away nicely. Even the big newspapers are unable to figure out who to blame, apart from China in general. Ben Macintyre in yesterday’s Times gives us chapter and verse on the KGB’s campaign to pin AIDS on the CIA, and the fact the myth is still alive today. Today’s Sunday Times tells us about the Wuhan Bat Woman, in whose lab COVID-19 was allegedly brewed and accidentally released.

Donald Trump, in characteristic fashion, wavers between praising Chairman Xi for China’s transparency and mumbling “we’ll see” – his usual response when he hasn’t a clue and realises he should have a clue – about reports that the bug originated in the notorious Wuhan lab.

Then there’s Exhibit B: those who fiddled while Rome burned – or at least when the first few tenements went up in flames. Boris Johnson’s enjoyment of his extended recuperation at Chequers probably diminished a little when he learned, also from the Sunday Times, that he failed to attend five COBRA meetings before he got sick, some of them at weekends.

If this is true, I have some sympathy for him. Leaders, or anybody else for that matter, forced by circumstances or the expectations of others to work 12 hours a day seven days a week, especially when they live on top of the shop, sooner or later become in danger of losing a sense of perspective. The occasional day of leisure and reflection will surely be of greater benefit than attending endless meetings in which much is discussed but little achieved. Besides, even Winston took the odd day off.

The same newspaper accuses the British government of “sleepwalking into a pandemic catastrophe.” It may be true that Johnson and company wallowed in a warm bath of complacency for three critical weeks, but equally true is that we as an electorate have also sleepwalked. We slumbered into Brexit, and last year elected the most incompetent bunch of politicians in two generations to serve as our government. You might not agree with that suggestion, but I would argue that our sleepwalking took the form of the suspension of critical faculties. We followed our dreams rather than objectively drawing conclusions from a number of self-evident realities.

So we might gleefully pronounce that “it’s the government’s fault”, but we should accept that it’s our fault too.

Yes, we’re into a four-way blame cycle, in which everyone blames everyone else – involving the politicians, the scientists, the bureaucrats and the public.

What of leadership? As The Recriminator dons his gleaming armour, we in the United Kingdom have been parading one hapless, rabbit-in-the-headlights minister after another, and a stream of compliant scientists prepped to deliver the same slogans. Boris Johnson, more by accident than design, sits above the fray.

Exhibit C is in US, where the situation is slightly different. Donald Trump has assumed the role of Recriminator-in-Chief. Every day, seemingly without rhyme or reason, he finds someone else to blame for his government’s lame response. The fake news media, China, the Democrats and anyone else who dares to distract attention from himself. His advisers crowd around him, some struggling to keep a straight face. Others, like Mike Pence, adopt expressions of blank piety. And poor old Dr Fauci puts himself through an Olympiad of carefully chosen words in his attempt to tell the truth without criticising his boss.

In Germany we have Angela Merkel, who shows her scientific rigour as she calmly spells out the consequences of each week of early lockdown on the German health system in a manner that even the dimmest of us can understand, yet without condescending to the logically challenged. If things go pear-shaped in her country she will be in trouble, at least in terms of her mental health, as the inner politician points fingers at the inner scientist and vice versa.

Very few leaders will emerge from this crisis with a clean bill of health as far as their people are concerned, because the pandemic offers huge opportunities for their opponents to criticise them. But it does look as though female leaders (as in Merkel, Ardern in New Zealand and one or two others), will emerge with more credit than their male counterparts. Which is not surprising, given that all the strong men are men.

If we’re going to ascribe blame not on the basis of the evident human failings of the decision-makers but instead on cold, hard data, we’re going to have to wait for a very long time. Or so says my brother, who is a leading academic in the field of medical statistics. In a phone conversation this morning he suggested that this pandemic will be the subject of PhD theses for the next twenty years.

The haphazard way in which infection data is collected, analysed and interpreted around the world makes it ridiculously premature to come to any certain conclusions either on infection control or the efficacy of treatments. In other words, most countries are doing it their way, which is very British of them, but also rather strange, because I thought the World Health Organisation had provided frameworks for such research. More fool me, but I wouldn’t join Donald Trump in blaming them, because persuading all the scientists and politicians to adopt a common approach must be like herding cats.

Be that as it may, The Recriminator won’t wait for data. He’s already well into his stride, and no doubt he won’t be satisfied until the heads start to roll, regardless of how long it takes. But no matter how many victims he claims, it will only be an entertaining sideshow, because in most countries the die is cast. People will keep dropping, and the pandemic will end when it’s good and ready.

Though blaming someone else makes us feel good, doesn’t it?

From → Film, Politics, UK, USA

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