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A time to do unspeakable things

July 6, 2020

You can get away with murder in a pandemic. Or at least, your chances of being caught are considerably diminished when everyone’s looking the other way.

I’m not just talking about killing someone. In the wider sense of the expression, you can do stuff that in other times would attract widespread condemnation, not just from statue destroyers but from people in power who have enough attention left over from the crisis of the moment.

In most countries, the crisis is not just the undulating waves of the diseased and the dead. It’s also governments floundering as they fail to deal with the response, and in some cases the slow demise of their leaders.

Thus in Britain, huge contracts for PPE are awarded to absurdly unqualified suppliers. In the US tens of millions of dollars in federal relief funding are paid to the president’s cronies. Whether or not laws have been broken, these activities have slipped by, almost unnoticed, until they come to light weeks or months later.

What, I wonder, would be on the front pages, and therefore coming to the attention of more than a limited number of news consumers, if it hadn’t been for COVID and the death struggles of governments?

Would we pay more attention to the intensifying civil war in Libya? How about the unprecedented heat waves within the Arctic Circle? Or the continuing harassment of Muslims in India? Or China’s move to bring Hong Kong to heel? Or China’s ongoing imprisonment and “re-education” of its Uyghur population? Or Putin’s referendum and its improbable result?

And if these events were centre stage, rather than relegated by Trump’s mania, drinkers in Soho and allegations of corruption here, there and everywhere, would governments with a potential interest in the outcomes have perhaps have taken measures that could have changed some of them?

Likewise, when primary journalism – by which I mean the discovery and reporting of stories as opposed to endless comment and analysis – has been debilitated by financial strictures and by the diversion of resources to the crises of the moment, how many stories have we missed, or emerged later than might otherwise been the case? And what were the consequences?

For example, if the story of Russia’s GRU (its military intelligence organisation) paying bounties to the Taliban for killing Americans had emerged before the impeachment hearings, would the outcome of the Senate’s vote have been different?

And if Britain were not so embroiled in the COVID crisis, would we not have paid more attention to the Brexit negotiations, and to the implications of our drift towards no deal? And what of the fabled Russia Report into possible Russian interference in British politics? Would we not have been pushing Boris Johnson harder to release it, instead of allowing him to sit on it for more than six months?

One of the favourite tactics among unscrupulous politicians, especially those in government, is distraction. If I’m getting heat on an issue, I invent another one that will get everyone fired up and talking. Trump has been a master at this in too many cases to mention here.

But distraction can also be accidental. And it seems to me that COVID, with all its ramifications, has served as an accidental distraction that some leaders, Putin and Xi Jinping chief amongst them, have used to their advantage. There are many who would say that they have got away with murder, quite possibly in the literal and certainly in the wider sense.

When governments might have reacted in a more decisive manner – over Hong Kong, the Skripals, Libya and India for example – those that could have made a difference have found themselves hamstrung by limited bandwidth as the result of power being centralised around a leader, be it a Trump or a Johnson, where in other times it would have been delegated to a State Department or a Foreign Office. And even when those sources of expertise are only partially emasculated, they can only be effective if leaders listen to them.

And the consequences? We might not know for some years where the tipping points that have passed us by in our distracted state will lead. And perhaps those tipping points would have been reached anyway, and countries such as the US, Britain, France and Germany have lost the power to intervene and make a difference.

But as COVID eats us up socially and economically, and our governments are paralysed by endless turmoil, it does no harm to focus on the tipping points and thereby, little by little, to force our leaders to pay attention despite themselves. Chances to avert negative outcomes are surely as important as opportunities to do great things.

From → Media, Politics, UK, USA

One Comment
  1. deborah a moggio permalink

    “For example, if the story of Russia’s GRU (its military intelligence organisation) paying bounties to the Taliban for killing Americans had emerged before the impeachment hearings, would the outcome of the Senate’s vote have been different?”
    Probably not.
    With all the brouhaha of Trump’s ugly fourth of july posturing, and for a week or so before that, the Republicans in the Senate are moving a bill to make it legal to accept foreign money for a political campaign and not report the source.
    They are doing all they can while they can. They are beginning to think they may not be in a position to stop legislation they don’t like next year.
    Wish I felt more confident that they were correct in that belief.

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