Dr Owain Williams By: Dr Owain Williams
Lecturer in IR and Human Security
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11 May 2020 : Merchants of Confusion

Confusion reigns in some of the countries worst hit by COVID. The UK, the US and Brazil are now in disarray with confused messaging and the real disintegration of functioning political systems. In all three countries, state-level governments, devolved nations and cities are now following their own paths as the messages grows more confused and leadership is absent, or useless. In the US and UK there also appears to be a growing divide within the conservative parties that govern, caught between COVID doves and hawks, each faction seeking different priorities and public health or economic goals. The push for opening up coming from Trump and his supporters is causing real havoc at the state and metropolitan levels, and is also dividing the UK conservative party and cabinet. Mayors and health officials are openly criticising Trump’s open-up messaging and its impact on control measures, frustrating their ability to respond effectively. Some of these critics are themselves in office within open up states like Georgia, with city officials trying to steer urban populations through the pandemic against a backdrop of state level and Federal chaos.

Whatever the impulse behind or motivation for the loosen and open up messages, it is causing some people to vote with their feet to go out, to shop and congregate. It is ok to do so after all, isn’t it? In the UK there were street parties on Friday with people gathering to celebrate the Victory in Europe day, with some reports of conga lines and images of the public out in force signing ‘We’ll meet again’. Friends are describing far more people out and about in parks and shops all across the UK.  It is a disaster.

On Sunday evening Boris Johnstone, the UK Prime Minister, delivers a staggering and contorted national address, admittedly with a serious and sombre tone. The statement was pre-recorded and offered no space for questions; apparently it was not put before the cabinet and emerged from the core quad of COVID advisers. The message delivered was vague and meaningless as the new ‘Stay Alert’ slogan, this now replacing the ‘Stay at Home’ advice. How do we stay alert and where are the details, what does this mean? Many questions, but the shift is significant in terms of the ambivalent but implicit message that lurks beneath it. Those that can, should work.

He advises that people in certain sectors should return to work, especially in construction and manufacturing. At the same time, the process of easing restrictions will be guided by data and science and determined by what happens with the virus. But we are no longer staying at home it seems, leat not all of us. There is much celebration of this in some of the UK press. Those returning to work should not use public transport. Primary schools may reopen on June 1st. Workers returning to work will do so with no mention of childcare. Is it to be assumed that women will remain at home and look after the children, or is there a less gendered plan to be unveiled at some point? There are no deadlines set for phased easing up, and we hope that the much-vaunted strategy document will shed light on the government’s plans. I am not hopeful.

The political confusion this address generates is quite instant and truly damning. If either Wales or Scotland were to have independence vote today or in coming months, then the Union would be over. Both the First Ministers of Wales and Scotland criticise the messaging and tell their publics to continue to continue to stay at home; nothing should change and the message applies only to England. Northern Ireland is much the same, with a less hostile reaction masking evident incredulity at how this was done. So we have again a situation where a devolved political systems and devolved public health systems are departing from the national plan. What is striking is that no one seems to have been consulted on this, and we are left with two different messages and two sets of COVID 19 strategies in the UK. Sturgeon, in particular, appears with a stay at home message in the background, and is clearly seething with the UK government’s shifting targets and failure to consult.

Keir Starmer states the obvious, that the message lacked ‘clarity and consensus’. But he is not alone. Industry bodies demand clearer and detailed guidance for returns to work, and the exact nature of measures that will need to be put in place. Many of the business leaders are worried about indemnity and their legal responsibilities for a safe workplace. The unions have also not been consulted and are questioning the safety of workers expected to return. There is much quoting of Section 44 of the 1996 Act, that gives workers the right to withdraw labour if they are fearful of their safety at places of work. Much more needs to be in place if there is any return, such as testing and a contract tracing system that works,  childcare, and guaranteed physical distancing and infection control. But we have only confusion, and certainly now apology as to how the UK arrived at the mess. All this confusion and doubt as the UK has 219,183 official cases, 3,923 new cases (as of the 10th), and 31,855 official deaths.

In the US confusion also reigns. Fauci and Mike Pence are both self-isolating as there have been outbreaks in their staffs. Obama and city officials are slamming Trump publicly for the totally chaotic messaging and absence of strategy. Meanwhile, Trump is playing to his base and is asking for sport to return. He keeps dripping the open up message to the public. According to insider reports, Trump now ranges between the petulant and angry, or the dispirited. His numbers and approval continue to flatten in numerous polls. Everything and everyone are conspiring against him and resisting his will, especially the COVID numbers. He continues to seethe about the Russia probe, and his messaging is way beyond the bounds of vague, it is often disturbing. All this with 1.3 million American infected, with numbers of new cases rising in many states. Talk of a second wave seems presently abstract in the USA, and we are witnessing a long first wave with no sign of suppression or coordination.

Finally, in Brazil Bolsonaro continues to dismiss the virus publicly and by his own actions. He is almost like a Mike Myers’ creation now. He jet skis to a floating barbecue on Saturday, naturally.  He describes what he feels is mass COVID ‘neurosis’, involving the disproportionate restrictions on normal life and business that he so publicly tries to undermine. States and cities across Brazil are also in open war with the President, and he is losing the public support that swept him to power. In Brazil there are 156,000 official cases and there have been over 10,000 deaths. The Lancet publishes a piece that nails him completely:

‘He not only continues to sow confusion by openly flouting and discouraging the sensible measures of physical distancing and lockdown brought in by state governors and city mayors… Such disarray at the heart of the administration is a deadly distraction in the middle of a public health emergency and is also a stark sign that Brazil’s leadership has lost its moral compass, if it ever had one.’

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