Thursday, 19 March 2020

Covid-19 and the Black Death

The corona virus Covid-19 is a strange phenomenon. On the one hand, it has caused the global shut-down of much that makes the modern world function, both socially and economically – theatres, restaurants and cafes, leisure venues, workplaces and now schools, bringing the world into ‘uncharted territory’ and forcing us to live in unfamiliar ways which may make us re-think our modes of work and travel quite radically. On the other, it is an infection with two very different outcomes, depending on who contracts it, combined with a very rapid infection rate and a relatively long asymptomatic incubation period during which the disease can be transmitted to others. Because it is a virus, and an unknown one at that, there is no simple cure – antibiotics (and antibacterials, please note) do not work against viruses. It seems that most people under 70, unless they have underlying health issues (there is an official list of 10, including diabetes and asthma, which are suffered by many of the under-70s), will experience quite mild symptoms which clear up after a week or so – unpleasant, perhaps, but not in any way life-threatening. If we only had to deal with those, there would have been no problem. But the vulnerable, the elderly and those with specific health issues, can be affected very severely, with some needing hospital treatment at the level of intensive care, and some do not survive. It is for the sake of these people, the severity of whose illness will overwhelm the NHS if the epidemic is left unchecked, that the government has taken such radical measures. And I do not disagree with them.

However, we must keep a sense of perspective. For one thing, many vulnerable patients, particularly among the elderly, do not survive a bout of influenza, which is why these folk are invited to have a ‘flu jab every autumn. Once we have a vaccination for Covid-19, we should be able to downgrade its significance to that of influenza, though I doubt we shall get rid of it altogether. This is a temporary shut-down of normal life, to slow the rate of infection and allow us to weather the storm. It is like putting up the flood defences before the river breaks its banks, or reefing the ship before the severe gale hits you. When the storm has passed, it is possible to return to ‘normal’ life, though you may have learned valuable lessons from the losses sustained. For another, this is not the worst epidemic the world has suffered. Many people are looking back to the Spanish Flu of 1918–1920, which killed millions across Europe in particular. But we could also look back further, and consider the Black Death.

It just so happens that (quite by coincidence) I am in the later stages of writing a novel set against the background of the Black Death in the fourteenth century. It has been a rather strange experience, writing this as the Covid-19 death rate mounts, and as the crisis hits various countries. You can almost feel the fear, not only of the disease itself (which as I have said, only a relatively few actually need to fear) but also of the disruption and the uncertainty, particularly economic uncertainty, that it has brought. However, this all fades into insignificance if you look at the Black Death scenario.

When the Black Death (not called this until the eighteenth century – contemporaries referred to ‘the Great Mortality’ and ‘the Pestilence’) arrived in Europe from Asia, where it was endemic, in 1347, nothing like it had been seen since a previous epidemic of the same disease in the sixth century. It arrived first in southern Europe, then raced across Italy and France to arrive in southern and western England in the summer of 1348. It spread across the British Isles and the rest of northern Europe through 1349 and 1350, finally petering out. It seems to have consisted of two or perhaps three forms of bubonic plague – the classic type with the growths (buboes) which killed 60% of those who caught it, a chest version (pneumonic plague) which attacked the lungs, and which had a near-100% death rate, and the rare septicaemic plague which killed people so fast that many never knew they actually had the disease but collapsed and died within hours of contracting it. The disease bore most heavily on the young and children, and up to half the entire population died in the two years that the plague raged across the continent – imagine the effect of this on the economy and society in general. Compare these statistics with a consistent death rate of 1 in 30 (less than 4%) of confirmed Covid-19 cases, where unconfirmed mild cases almost certainly outnumber the confirmed ones, especially in the UK where no attempt has been made to confirm the illness in many of the self-isolating individuals who have identified the symptoms in themselves. A fair number of these will not even contact the 111 service, except possibly via the internet, but will simply wait to recover and then return to work.

Add to this comparison the fact that in 1347–1350 no one knew what caused the illness or how to combat it (not even washing their hands!), there was no medical science as such to advise governments, no mathematical models to guide, no ways of treating even the symptoms or improving people’s chance of survival. The Paris medical faculty, who informed the physicians of the day, put it down to ‘miasma’ – bad atmosphere – and an unfortunate conjunction of planets in 1345. Most people couldn’t afford the services of a doctor, but even if they could, it made little difference to the outcome. Even the herbalists, who offered pharmaceutical aid to the poor and rich alike, had no answers. Only flight gave any chance of avoiding the disease, and even then it was quite common for those who fled to take the contagion with them to the unfortunate place they chose as refuge.  I think you can see that really by comparison Covid-19 is not the terror that some might think.

The fourteenth century had no broadcast media and no printed press, which may perhaps have been helpful. Rumour is certainly bad, but continued focus on a problem such as we have at the moment in the news media is possibly worse and is increasing the public fear of Covid-19 as a ‘killer virus’. As the American president F.D. Roosevelt famously said in another context: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Fear dampens the immune system, thus causing the body to fight the virus less effectively, so even in a physical sense, never mind a psychological or social one, it is to be resisted. All this will pass.

The extraordinary thing that, in Black Death England at least, where many of the best historical records survive for the fourteenth century, what you might call the Spirit of the Blitz made perhaps its first appearance. People helped each other– not universally, perhaps, but in significant numbers – in spite of the risks to themselves. Priests went about their duties to their parishioners and many died as a result of taking the infection from them (it is on the records of new appointments to benefices that most estimates of the death toll depend). Government went on, and local administration went on too. Rents and fees were paid if possible, and rebates were asked for (and generally granted) where necessary. Manorial and town records were kept up to date by a succession of officials. We Carried On. So we can now as well.

I’m glad to see that the Anglican Church, though sensibly cancelling gatherings for worship, is keeping its church buildings open for private prayer. The atmosphere within them is often saturated with centuries of prayer and worship, giving it a numinous quality that many will find helpful in these difficult and stressful days. I applaud this move, and hope that the church authorities will make sure this continues. Although many have rejected faith, yet in extremis some will find faith offers something that atheism, agnosticism and materialism does not. I know I do.



Sunday, 20 October 2019

Where Next for Brexit?

We have come a long and weary way from the referendum of 2016, when I think both Leave and Remain voters were amazed at the result – Leavers full of unexpected exultation, Remainers full of gloom and doom and ‘how on earth did this happen?’ Unfortunately, three years later we have not actually arrived anywhere (yet). All but the most committed Remainers are, I think, heartily sick of the process and most of all want it to end as quickly as possible, but is this the best scenario for us as a country?

The options I can see are these (and there may be others I haven't thought of):

1. We leave on the 31st October, as Boris and the extreme Brexiteers want us to, whether or not Parliament have agreed to Boris’s new deal, and whether or not (even if they have) the legislation is in place to make a smooth transition from EU membership to fully managing our economic affairs. A bumpy ride, in this Brexiteer book, is better than no ride at all. Most commentators view this as courting disaster of extreme proportions and it is not clear that we would be properly prepared for it, as leaving the EU is a much more complex process than most people realise, even now.

2. We are granted by the EU the short extension for which Parliament has mandated the PM to ask (but which he seems to be trying to find clever but childish ways to avoid asking for). It should be noted that this has to be a unanimous decision: only one EU member has to veto this to have us willy-nilly back in the No. 1 scenario above. This extension would at least give us time to get legislation in place to smooth the way for an orderly Brexit by the end of the year (always assuming Parliament agrees to Boris’s deal tomorrow – which is not by any means a foregone conclusion).

3. The deal agreed by Boris is rejected by Parliament and any extension the EU allows us has to be a longer one, to allow for another referendum (the so-called People’s Vote) or a general election – the result of either of which is extremely uncertain. Pollsters are now saying that voting patterns are extraordinarily volatile and hard to predict. The Lib Dem leadership, for example, report that there are now hundreds of seats across the country that they could win if the Remain swing continues. If Boris does manage to get his Brexit deal through parliament a general election might of course involve a Boris Bounce that would increase the Conservative vote, particularly with respect to those voters who would otherwise have voted for the eponymous Brexit Party. Of course the EU could, as with my point No.2, simply refuse us an extension and we would be stuck with No.1 as before! But most commentators seem to think this unlikely, at least for the immediate future – though I think the European Commission is understandably becoming impatient with us for our continued vacillations.

4. The deal agreed by Boris is rejected by Parliament, and there is then a vote of no confidence leading to EITHER a) a caretaker government which will ask in much more sincere and possibly contrite terms for a suitable extension during which we might have a People’s Vote which includes the current Boris deal as well as the option to Remain; OR b) a general election in which Remain/Leave is the major issue. The Conservatives, Brexit Party, Scottish Nationalists, Greens and Lib Dems are by far the most likely to benefit from this because of their clear stance, while Labour continues to try to ride both the Leave and the Remain horses at the same time. This apparently suicidal Labour endeavour is in fact a natural outcome of their mix of supporters from both camps combined with Jeremy Corbyn’s liking for Brexit with a Customs Union – something which the general public finds difficult to comprehend as it lies somewhere between the clear Out or In options that Leave and Remain offer.

5. Boris’s deal is rejected by Parliament, and the EU refuse to grant us an extension. Parliament’s absolute refusal to allow any kind of No Deal Brexit could then only be implemented by an emergency revoking Article 50. This might have to come with the promise that if a new People’s Vote delivered a reiteration of the Leave majority of 2016 a better deal could then be negotiated for a final departure from the EU in 2022 (since a new invoking of Article 50 would carry a two-year negotiating period as before).

6. A new Parliament to which a general election had returned a Remain majority unequivocally revokes Article 50 without either starting the whole Leave process again or holding a new referendum, or both. The Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson has in fact undertaken to do just that if they were returned to power, which on the face of it seems a far-fetched possibility (but in these wild and unpredictable political days, who knows?). And goodness knows what fences there would be to mend with the EU, anyway, not to mention the fury of frustrated Brexiteers, who undoubtedly feel that the 52% gained in the original referendum (however flawed as a piece of democracy) entitles them to Leave as soon as possible. A general election or a People’s Vote would at least give us a clearer sense of what people actually now want – every politician interviewed in the media thinks they know, but do they actually?

So clearly there is a whole political multiverse out there, in which any of these scenarios could play out. Some seem more likely than others, but as the Brexit entertainment staggers from one unlikely and melodramatic scene to another, nothing can be ruled out. We the public watch open-mouthed and speechless or with head in hands as the outlandish events through which we are living unfold. What most of us want more than anything else is for it to be OVER. For many, even the prospect of a calamitous and financially disastrous No Deal has the secret attraction of certainty, and Boris’s deal, which at least does something to protect the Northern Ireland/Republic of Ireland open border status (even though his erstwhile allies the DUP do not like the solution), even more so. No one among the electorate really understands the detail of the Withdrawal Agreement, which apart from the Irish solution is to all intents and purposes the same as Theresa May’s ill-fated deal. We hope it will be all right, and many of us (even those who voted Remain) are willing to give it a go if it will mean that this protracted, acrimonious divorce will become a decree nisi on which we can base further negotiations, trade deals and the rest. We are tired of being neither Out nor In, tired of being stuck somewhere in No Man’s Land among the mud, the shellholes and the barbed wire.

More than that, we are all conscious that for more than three years we have been split by an issue that divides the nation from top to bottom, through constituencies, communities and even families (my own included). The continued failure to resolve it means that the divisions are as raw and sharp as ever, the two sides as polarised as they were when the referendum was voted on in June 2019, except for a kind of creeping Brexit fatigue that would fudge the issues, neglect the detail, surrender the principles … anything to bring the whole sorry business to an end. For, as one Remain leader recently put it in my hearing, the issue is ‘sucking the oxygen’ out of everything else that matters. The NHS is under severe pressure, austerity has reduced far too many people to dependence on food banks, homelessness and despair, corporate greed and personal debt are as serious now as they were before the financial crisis of the previous decade, and other pressing social and economic issues have been swept so far under the carpet that they are almost forgotten except by those directly affected.

So what should we do? Some take to the streets, but it is hard to see what good that will do in the present juncture, for politicians on all sides feel so strongly (though with little agreement between them) that there is precious little that public pressure can do to affect the outcome – especially as views on the street are just as divided as those in parliament. Until we are given the chance to vote, either in a general election or a new referendum, we ordinary folk can do nothing, and most of us are growing too confused, despondent and weary even to talk or think about it intelligently. We can only hope that tomorrow’s vote will move us on, in one direction or another, nearer to some kind of destination. Standing in a bog, sinking steadily, is a poor way to conduct the business of a nation.


Saturday, 23 March 2019

Should we revoke Article 50?

Should we revoke Article 50?

Perhaps the most notable failure of the 2016 Remain campaign, apart from the complacency of its supporters, was that it did not present the electorate with many reasons for remaining. The negativity of the campaign, focusing as it did almost totally on the disasters inherent in leaving the EU (almost all of which were based on truth and are staring us in the face – which to be fair is more than can be said for the ‘facts’ presented by their opponents in the Leave camp!), had a lot to do with the eventual result. However, a petition to ask parliament to revoke Article 50, and effectively ignore the referendum, has over 5 million signatures as I write this and is clearly on a roll. It effectively drives a cart and horses through the debate in parliament, which has in the main been respectful of the referendum result. It also offers a (rather appealing to many) opportunity to get out of our current parlous situation without more in-fighting, without depending on the EU for extensions and permissions, and without the perilous, time-consuming and expensive gamble (a gamble whichever view you hold) of holding another referendum. I suspect this is the secret of its success, as it was started in late February and has only in the last few days suddenly begun to snowball.

Rather than going back to the country - which now has a different demographic from three years ago, and which has had the opportunity to view (generally with dismay) the terrible mess Mrs May’s government has gotten us into, Stan and Ollie style - the petition organisers argue that it might be better to recognise that we are better in the EU fold than out of it, something which, as I have said, the Remain campaign largely failed to point out in 2016. For one thing, the poorer fringes of the UK (including some, like Cornwall, whose voters supported Leave) gained immense financial advantages from EU membership for infrastructure and business support, which they will almost certainly not receive from the UK government after Brexit. For another, Europe has the strength to counterbalance the US, China and Russia in world politics, particularly with the UK on board, where on our own we are minnows. And most importantly, the problem of Irish conflict may recur if there is a harder border in place – as there cannot fail to be, backstop or none, if we leave. The peace process in Northern Ireland was enabled by the common membership in the EU held by Eire and the UK, and it may well unravel without this essential cornerstone.

Quite apart from the advantages for Britain that came with EU membership, there is the very real prospect of a destabilisation of the world economy happening as a result of our exit from the EU. Austerity in this country and elsewhere, arising from the 2007/8 financial crisis, is already creating hardship for many, which will only worsen if Brexit disruption in Europe creates the conditions for a deeper recession. This is not a wild doom-laden prophecy but a very real prospect of concern to such bodies as the IMF and the World Bank, and something which in my view, taking an ethical perspective, we should not be ignoring as though Brexit was all about us and what we want.

Add to these points the growing evidence that in 2016 not only was the referendum process flawed (for example, 66% rather than 50% is the level of support needed for major constitutional change in most countries), but the Leave campaign broke electoral rules and presented as fact speculations with no real foundation (such as funding the NHS with fantastic sums) and thereby misled many, and it is not surprising that some are beginning to argue that slavishly following the result as a democratic watershed makes no sense at all – especially as parliament cannot agree on anything other than outright rejection of Mrs May’s agreement, which the EU have stated they are not willing to reopen and renegotiate. However, a new referendum would be unpredictable, as younger people in general supported Remain where the older generation supported Leave, and the demographic is changing, and many minds have changed in both directions over the nearly three years that have passed since the original one was held. It might also risk reopening the deep wounds inflicted on the social fabric by the 2016 campaign, which saw members of the same family on different sides of the argument - divisions which have in many cases remained (in my own family too).

As it happens, the situation in Europe is changing, just as our demographic is. Our rejection of the EU in the 2016 referendum has focused many minds in Europe and its leaders already realise there is a need to balance centralisation with individual countries’ freedom to put in place laws that are right for them. In other words, a future in the EU might be very different from our experience in the past. There might be more chance of a reform of the CAP and the fishing quota system, for example, and we would need to work to ensure, for everyone’s benefit, that the core of the EU doesn’t dominate the political agenda to the detriment of newer members – something we have been and would be uniquely placed to do, being outside the euro and independent of the EU core of six, and therefore able to counterbalance the power of France and Germany. There is little doubt that our revocation of Article 50 would be met with enormous relief in Brussels and other European capitals. Britain represents a significant proportion of the EU economy, not to mention hosting one of the major financial centres of the world, and is the major trading partner for many EU members. The gap we would leave, with or without a Brexit deal, would be enormous. It is the EU realisation of this, and of the chaos that would ensue from a No Deal Brexit, that is driving their willingness to extend the Article 50 deadline, albeit with conditions (for they too are weary of the argument and wish to push us to some resolution quickly, and who can blame them?)

We therefore have an opportunity right now to rejoin, or rather return to, the centres of power in Europe with goodwill, though it would need firm leadership (and from whom are we to get this, I wonder, among our current politicians?) first of all to recognise that the 2016 referendum result is dead in the water, and secondly to make sure that those in the EU who are not so well disposed towards us do not use our current embarrassments to humiliate us. This would benefit no one, but I note that Donald Tusk is trying to make at least friendly-sounding noises towards us even at the moment, which is encouraging. But should we take it?

Such an action would of course in the short term create an enormous outcry from the hard-line Brexiteers both in politics and in the country. That is to be expected and must be borne. But they have had their chance, and a fine mess they have made of it. There could have been a deal which would have commanded cross-party support, and which Remainers such as myself would have been prepared to go along with. We cannot always win the argument and the point of democracy is that those who have lost respect the majority and come to terms with the result of votes. The whole problem with Brexit has been precisely that this has not happened, either in parliament or in the country, because it has been clear all along a) that the referendum result was flawed; and b) that Mrs May’s priorities have been to keep her own party together and negotiate a deal that they would be willing to support. These priorities were politically wrong in the first place and have failed to deliver even what they were designed to do. The Conservatives will never agree on Europe, whether we are in or out of the EU. It is a running sore that may end by destroying them. But must the world be destabilised, as well as Europe and the UK, in an attempt to keep the Tory party together?

I’ve come to believe that in the national interest, if for no other reason, it is time to revoke Article 50 and rebuild our relationship with the European Union. But it is now or never. If I have convinced you, please sign the petition at https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/241584.