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When I got polio on a farm in the middle of the Irish countryside in 1956, an Irish Health Ministry official visited our nearest neighbour, a farmer called Dick Cunningham, the next day. He told him what had happened and advised him to keep his children at home. Other farmers in the area, none of whom had a phone, received similar visits and advice.

All epidemics are by their nature local events. A certain person at a certain address catches polio, TB or coronavirus. Such diseases can only be contained locally by well-organised and well-informed people able to respond at speed to identify, isolate and trace the contacts of the infected person.

Those going into voluntary self-isolation will have their lives severely disrupted so they should be told to do so by somebody with real authority and credibility and not by a voice from a call centre.

The latest lockdown restrictions imposed on four million people in the north of England is a measure of the government’s failure to set up an effective track-and-trace operation half a year into the pandemic. The centralised body charged with doing so, headed by Baroness Dido Harding of Winscombe, works less well than the ill-resourced health officials in impoverished rural Ireland more than half a century ago.

Yet finding, testing, isolating and immediately tracing the contacts of anybody who has Covid-19 should be at the heart of any campaign to combat the pandemic. Anger at the amateurism and inadequacy of Baroness Harding’s NHS Test and Trace organisation is boiling over as local councils are forced to launch their own test and trace operations. One of those to do so is Sandwell, in the West Midlands, which says that the central government service only reaches 60 per cent of cases in its area. Local officials are chary of condemning its failures because they must look to government for money and resources, but their frustration is evident.

Lisa McNally, the director of public health in Sandwell, is quoted as saying that “as soon as a new case comes in now, we’re not waiting for [Harding’s] test and trace to fail to reach them, we’re phoning the same day”. In Bradford, one of the places subject to the new lockdown restrictions, the city council says it would like to do the same as Sandwell but lacks funding. Sir Richard Leese, who heads regional health in Greater Manchester, says that local tracing is necessary to cope with cases that cannot be dealt with by a phone bank.

The calamitous consequence of this failure to establish comprehensive testing and tracing in England cannot be overstressed. In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland a more localised approach has had a better outcome in terms of deaths and infections. In England, however, the government has managed to get the worst of all possible worlds by combining over-centralisation with fragmented decision-making at the top. Unsurprising, it is Ceredigion, a rural county council in the west of Wales, that set up its own tracing system in March, that has had one of the lowest infection and fatality rates in the UK.

Baroness Harding, a Conservative peer and businesswoman, appears oblivious to the complaints by local councils or the reasons why the system is not working. But the results of her failure to pursue the virus with enough success and aggression to prevent its recurrence has earth-shaking consequences for British society and the economy.

The problem is that “the new normal” is too abnormal to be sustainable, except in the very short term, without devastating damage to all aspects of life in Britain. Social distancing and other regulations mean that schools and universities cannot teach and shops, pubs, restaurants will not get enough customers to survive. Anybody in the travel business, from taxis to giant airlines, faces extinction. Six million small businesses employing 16 million people are at risk.

There are three approaches to coping with the pandemic: letting it run through the population, controlling it sufficiently to let the economy restore itself, and eliminate coronavirus entirely by speedily finding and isolating whoever has it with a fine mesh test and trace system. Britain briefly tried the first option in March, until discovering that this risked massive loss of life. Since the initial lockdown it has, as have other European states, tried to reduce the number of infections to a level low enough for economic life to resume.

The upsurges in infections in the north of England, Catalonia and elsewhere show that attempting to live with the virus is not working as a strategy. This leaves the elimination of the virus by denying it hosts, the strategy pursued in east Asia through aggressive testing and tracing on a street-by-street basis, as the only feasible long-term strategy.

Such a campaign involving millions of people may ultimately prove to be the least bad option. Launching it would have been much easier six months ago before the government’s credibility was shredded by repeated unforced errors over care homes, PPE, face masks, tracing apps, quarantining. It turns out that the government did not even know by a factor of two how many of its citizens were dying from coronavirus every day. In the single week up to 17 July, the Office of National Statistics says the number of fatalities was 284 and Public Health England says it was 574. The reason for the disparity is that PHE counts anybody who tested positive and later dies from any cause as a victim of Covd-19.

The PHE approach is so contrary to common sense as to be funny, but, less comically, means that the government has been basing policies on grossly inaccurate statistics. The old jibe of some politician or pundit that the British government keeps three sets of statistics – “one to deceive the public, one to deceive parliament and one to deceive itself” – turns out to be all too true.

What is truly dangerous is not just that the Johnson government makes mistakes, but that they are very simple ones. It should not have required much thinking about by a sensible person to foreseen that frail, sick elderly people in care homes would be vulnerable; that a speedily developed tracing app might not work; that masks were obviously beneficial. Johnson keeps bleating that he and his ministers were only following the scientific evidence, but in an unprecedented catastrophe evidence will inevitably be scanty and will trail long behind events.

The allegation that Boris Johnson is a bombastic blowhard and careerist who is out of his depth in a real crisis has been confirmed all too frequently by events. There is no need to demonise him and his ministers as actively malign, like Donald Trump and his lieutenants, but their inability to get a grip on the pandemic has had a similarly disastrous outcome in both cases.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Britain, Coronavirus, Disease 
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Donald Trump has fallen far enough behind in the polls as to raise the hopes of the world that it will soon see the back of him as US president come the election in 100 days’ time. Given his calamitous handling of the coronavirus pandemic, the decline in his popularity is scarcely surprising.

Yet Trump has always shown a Dracula-like ability to rise from the political grave. The writer and politician Conor Cruise O’Brien once wrote of the similarly amazing ability of the Irish taoiseach, Charlie Haughey, to survive scandals and crises. “If I saw Mr Haughey buried at midnight at a crossroads with a stake driven through his heart,” said O’Brien, “I should continue to wear a clove of garlic round my neck, just in case.”

The secret of Trump’s survival is his skill in using and manipulating the media to his own advantage. He may sound crass but he is expert at changing the topic of the hour so that today’s damning revelation becomes tomorrow’s old news. By outrageous antics he dominates the news agenda and, whatever his failings, he is never dull.

This latter skill may not seem politically significant but the news business is all about what is new, interesting and entertaining. Trump’s utterances and tweets may sound eccentric or crazed but they are really news headlines geared to giving him gigantic publicity, often from newspapers and television networks that loathe him. Journalists understand that they are dancing to his tune, but there is not much they can do about it.

Critics correctly attribute his supreme ability to stay centre stage to his 14 years in the role of an all-powerful business mogul in the reality-television show The Apprentice. Yet the tone of the criticism is dismissive, as if starring year after year in an immensely successful television show is easily done. Of course, nothing is “real” about reality television: a single hour on air of The Apprentice was edited out of 300 hours of footage, producing an artificial end product.

The reasons the producers cast Trump as a business genius – though his hotels and casinos had gone bankrupt six times – help explain his political success. Several years ago, Richard Levak, a psychologist who consulted for The Apprentice, gave an interview to The New Yorker magazine in which he explained why Trump’s personality was appropriate for the show. He said the traits that got Trump the job had been “the energy, the impulsiveness, the inability to articulate a complete thought because he gets interrupted by emotions, so when he speaks it’s all adjectives – ‘great’, ‘huge’, ‘horrible’.” But what made Trump so magnetic to audiences, according to Levak, and this remains true to this day, was Trump’s willingness to transgress and to break the rules.

His shambolic spontaneity and unexpectedness have hitherto made his television appearances compulsively interesting. “That somebody can become that successful while also being that emotionally undisciplined – it’s so macabre that you have to watch it,” said Levak. “And you keep watching for the comeuppance. But it doesn’t come.”

But maybe Trump’s comeuppance is with us now in the shape of the coronavirus. People find his political box of tricks less enticing when he suggests that they inject themselves with disinfectant to cure infection.

Not everything about Trump is distinct to America. Aside from his unique capacity to manipulate the media, he has most of the characteristics of populist, nationalist, and authoritarian rulers everywhere. There is the same xenophobic demonisation of minorities at home and of foreigners abroad; law and order are lauded when applied to others and ignored by himself and his lieutenants; elected representatives, experts and the well-educated are treated with similar disdain. Over everything, there is the same smell of corruption, militaristic bombast and willingness to use violence.

Trump is at his most dangerous when he is cornered and at risk of losing power. He seeks confrontation at every turn: in the US, his racism is more blatant, witness his willingness to deploy federal agents against protesters in Democratic-run cities like Portland, Oregon and Chicago, presumably in order to provoke clashes that will strengthen his law-and-order credentials. Abroad, the freshly brewed Cold War against China escalates by the day. Traditionally, US presidential elections on 3 November are preceded by dire warnings that the occupant of the White House is planning to stage ‘an October surprise’ by covertly provoking some game-changing crisis. These Machiavellian conspiracies have seldom actually happened, but on this occasion they might well do so.

Even a concocted crisis should not make a decisive impact in the face of the appalling reality of the pandemic, with 142,000 Americans already dead and four million known to be infected. Trump’s abrupt about-turn away from down-playing the illness as a hoax inspired by his enemies probably comes too late, as he wears a mask for the first time and cancels the Republican convention in Jacksonville, Florida, that was to nominate him for a second term.

Trump still has options. By resuming White House briefings about the pandemic, he will focus attention on himself and marginalise Joe Biden. He remains a ferociously effective campaigner and he is fighting in Biden, as in 2016, a lack-lustre Democratic Party candidate.

The Democrats’ strategy of assuming that Trump would self-destruct failed four years ago because, among other things, it created a vacuum of information that Trump filled with slanders about Hillary Clinton. But these advantages may matter less than they would in any other year because Trump’s real opponent is not Biden but the coronavirus – and his campaign is being crippled by his failure to bring the epidemic under control or convince Americans that its ravages are being exaggerated. At his renewed press briefings, he is visibly at sea as he spews out an endless list of ill-assorted actions by the federal government to combat the virus. His claims of world-beating American success sound dangerously deranged when set against graphs showing infections soaring past the four million mark and deaths rising above a thousand a day.

Trump may go but he is unlikely to go quietly. The pandemic may sink him but it also gives him unprecedented opportunities to muddy the waters and stir up hatred and division come election day. In urban areas, for instance, where the Democrats have strong majorities, the polling stations are traditionally manned by elderly retired volunteers, who are vulnerable to coronavirus. If they do not turn up on election day, then polling stations will be closed to the benefit of Trump who is already trying to delegitimise postal voting. Many voters may be simply too frightened of the virus to leave their homes to cast a ballot.

• Category: Ideology • Tags: 2020 Election, Donald Trump, Joe Biden 
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The new Cold War launched by the West against China and Russia is escalating by the day. In a single week, the Kremlin has been unmasked trying to discover the secrets of Britain’s pursuit of a vaccine against coronavirus and revelations are promised about covert Russian interference in British politics. Boris Johnson made a U-turn on Huawei, announcing that it is to be kicked out of participation in the 5G network because it poses a threat to British security, though a curiously slow-burning one since they will only be evicted over seven years.

The US may put the widely used Chinese video app TikTok on a blacklist that would prevent Americans from using it. The administration is considering using the 1977 International Emergency Economic Powers Act in order to penalise TikTok as “an unusual and extraordinary threat” to US security. President Trump says he is considering banning the app in response to the way China handled the coronavirus epidemic.

This is a clue to the prime motive for Trump to ramp up the Cold War against China, which is his determination to win a second term in the White House by diverting voters’ attention from his catastrophic handling of the pandemic. “Don’t defend Trump – attack China,” is the advice of a leaked 57-page memo circulated among Republican Senatorial candidates in April. It suggested that Republican politicians should blame China for starting the epidemic by allowing the virus to escape from a laboratory in Wuhan, lying about it and hoarding medical equipment needed to treat the sick.

A striking feature of the US and British diplomatic offensive against China is how little criticism or even discussion it has provoked in any quarter in the US and Britain, even from those whose normal knee-jerk reaction is to denounce anything said or done by Trump or Johnson. This may be because these critics are genuinely horrified by undoubted Chinese oppression of the Uighurs, proposed imposition of dictatorial rule in Hong Kong, and assertions of military power in the South China Sea and on the Chinese-Indian frontier.

As during the original Cold War in the late 1940s and 1950s, critics can be conveniently dismissed as Communist sympathisers or dupes. Unsurprisingly, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden is responding to the confrontation with China by demanding that the US should take an even tougher stance towards Beijing, while the Democratic Party establishment are ever hopeful that their prolonged campaign to portray Trump as the creature of Vladimir Putin’s Russia will take fire and do him serious damage at the polls.

As with Trump’s claim that China is ultimately responsible for the lethal debacle of America’s handling of the coronavirus epidemic, I have always thought that Hillary Clinton’s claim that she lost the 2016 presidential election because of Russian interference was absurd. Every history of her disastrous campaign shows that she lost for obvious self-inflicted reasons such as not campaigning enough in key northern states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan – states that Trump won by a whisker.

The explanation for Boris Johnson’s U-turn over Huawei is simply explained by his inability to withstand American pressure as Britain leaves the EU and becomes even more dependent on the US. The kowtow to Washington over Huawei is the first of many such humiliations that come as an inevitable consequence of Brexit. Instead of getting back control of its destiny, Boris Johnson’s Britain will be more like Little Red Riding Hood lost in the global forest and menaced by every passing wolf.

There may be enough Chinese and Russian misbehaviour to justify retaliation, but threat-inflation has the great advantage of diverting attention from the British government’s incompetence in coping with the pandemic, a failure only excelled by the US and Brazil. Quite possibly Russian intelligence in the shape of cybergroup Cozy Bear has devoted great efforts to stealing secrets from western academia and pharmaceutical companies seeking to produce a vaccine against coronavirus. Less clear is why such information should be secret, unless these institutions and companies are planning to keep monopoly control over any vaccine produced, unlike the polio vaccine which the US made available to the world when first developed by American scientists at the height of the previous Cold War in the 1950s.

The heads and former heads of British intelligence agencies have been giving solemn interviews about how British security is threatened by Russian and Chinese machinations. The nature of this threat is never spelled out and intelligence chiefs can always claim that to do so would compromise confidential information that must not be disclosed.

I have always had doubts over the exalted claims about the excellence of British intelligence, which has become part of the British national myth. The saga of the breaking of the German Enigma codes in the Second World War has replaced the defeat of the Spanish Armada as a source of national pride and self-confidence.

Yet I have always wondered about those great British secrets that hostile foreign powers hunger to learn and must be protected at all costs.

British officials I encountered over the years during wars in the Middle East never seemed strikingly well-informed, but it was always possible that they were being singularly discreet or they were outside the loop of those privy to such vital information. Yet when the exhaustive Chilcott inquiry into British actions during the Iraq War was finally published in 2016, it concluded that Britain was poorly informed about almost everything that was going on in Iraq before and after it joined the US-led invasion. On the Libyan war in 2011, a scathing report by the House of Commons select committee on foreign affairs concluded that Britain lacked “accurate intelligence” or much idea of what was happening.

Four years later, the British government launched a bombing campaign against Isis in Syria amid much angry debate in which all sides took it for granted that Britain was in a position to do more than military posturing. But nine months into the much-debated bombing, a report of the House of Commons defence committee chaired by Dr Julian Lewis revealed that only 65 air raids had taken place over nine months because the RAF did not know where Isis was hiding. Nor was the government able to identify the 70,000 armed anti-Assad fighters on whose behalf Britain was supposedly intervening. No wonder that Johnson was so dismayed by the election of the experienced and critical Lewis as the new chair of the House of Commons intelligence and security committee, instead of Chris Grayling, his own notoriously blunder-prone nominee.

It is just possible to forget amid the threats and counter-threats of the new Cold War – and the intention is certainly that we should forget – that the world is failing to contain a pandemic that has killed half a million people. Never has global unity of effort been more necessary, whatever differences there may be, and its fragmentation more damaging. “How is it difficult for humans to unite and fight a common enemy that is killing people indiscriminately?” asked the director general of the World Health Organisation, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, wiping away tears of frustration earlier this month. “Can’t we understand that the divisions and the cracks between us are an advantage for the virus?”

He got his answer from the Cold War warriors the world over this week, and it was a resounding “no”.

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When Voltaire on his deathbed was asked by a priest if he renounced Satan, he responded: “Now, now my good man. This is no time to be making enemies.” Britain may not yet be on its deathbed, but it is politically and economically sick and this might be a good moment to follow Voltaire’s example and avoid taking on new opponents.

Instead Britain is joining a US-led confrontation with China over everything from the future of Hong Kong to the treatment of the Uighur and future British business dealings with Huawei. Both the concerns over the Uighur and the citizens of Hong Kong are important, but there is a good dollop of hypocrisy here since Britain managed to rule Hong Kong for many years without showing much interest in the democratic rights of its inhabitants, and concern over Chinese mistreatment of the Uighur is in marked contrast to British reticence over India’s ever-more oppressive rule in Kashmir.

Self-interest alone should argue that this is a poorly-timed moment for Britain to join a new cold war against China or anybody else for that matter. Relations are already bad with Russia, a nuclear super-power whatever the state of its economy, and Brexit ensures enhanced rivalry shading into hostile relations with the 27 nations in the European Union.

The inevitable consequence of this is a greater reliance on the US under a uniquely dysfunctional and divisive president Donald Trump, when Americans are more at each other’s throats than at any time since the Civil War. The very fact that Trump is president at all is evidence of an imploding political system that will take long to recover.

Skill in making alliances was at the centre of Britain’s rise to be a global power from the beginning of the 18th century onwards. The country was only isolated for brief and unwelcome periods, usually because continental allies had been defeated in war and could not be immediately replaced. Winston Churchill had his failings as a military strategist (witness Gallipoli in 1915 and Norway in 1940), but he made immense and successful efforts to forge alliances with the US and Soviet Union to win the war against Adolf Hitler.

It is this sort of Churchillian political realism that is so lacking in Boris Johnson and his government. They espouse a self-aggrandising populist nationalism that is provincial in its attitude towards the rest of the world and Britain’s position in it.

Many suspected that this might be the case during the Brexit crisis over the last four years. So much of what the Eurosceptics believed about Brussel’s iron, though incompetent, rule was demonstrably false that it was difficult to imagine them running the country. All the same, I wondered at the time if the Remain predictions of national ruin when Britain left the EU might be overstated.

This was what Johnson and right-wing Eurosceptic Conservatives and their media allies derisively dubbed “Project Fear”.

But, as it turns out, the proponents of “Project Fear” were more correct than they could have imagined about the negative things that were going to happen to Britain, though wrong about one important aspect of the threat.

It has since become clear that it was not so much Brexit as the Brexiters themselves that were the true danger. This might not have mattered quite so much if it had not been for a terrible piece of ill luck: on 31 January, the very day that Johnson and Dominic Cummings were congratulating themselves on taking Britain out of the EU, the coronavirus pandemic was hurtling towards them.

It soon emerged that jibes about the incompetence and poor judgement of Johnson and his lieutenants were all too true. Britain had more warning of the approaching pandemic than all east Asian countries and many European ones. Yet preparations were meagre, late and wrong-headed, producing one of the worst death rates in the world. Only the US and Brazil performed worse thanks to a similarly incapable leadership. As Ferdinand Mount wrote in the London Review of Books: “Bolsonaro, Trump and Johnson: these are men you wouldn’t put in charge of containing an outbreak of acne.”

The political style of all three is broadly similar, though adapted to differing political traditions. In common is the constant drumbeat of boosterism, mendacity and demonisation of opponents at home or abroad who are invariably blamed for anything that goes wrong. No mistakes are ever admitted and no apologies are therefore necessary. Their own achievement and that of their country are always “world beating”, even when their performance has been catastrophic.

The manic self-confidence of the three is frightening. It recalls the last scene in the film White Heat when James Cagney, playing a demented gangster trapped by police on top of a giant gas tank, cries out triumphantly “Made it, Ma. Top of the world,” just before the tank explodes into flames.

Despite weekly demonstrations at Prime Minister’s Questions of Johnson’s lack of grip and confusion of mind, many in Britain have still to take on board that their country is being run by a nincompoop during one of the worst crises in its history. Many others do understand this, which explains why the government, having once given the impression that the coronavirus epidemic was akin to the Black Death, is finding it difficult to persuade people that it is safe to go to a restaurant or a pub. Its lack of credibility is such that even when there is good news – such as the latest estimate by the Office of National Statistics that only 0.03 per cent of the population have coronavirus at present – people are still chary of taking a risk.

Such incompetence may be blurred at home by sympathetic newspapers. But it is glaringly obvious to the rest of the world that Britain has not only responded far less effectively to the epidemic than Germany and Denmark, but it has been outperformed by poorer places Vietnam and Kerala in India. A failure like this has political consequences within the British Isles as whole. A visibly blundering government in London strengthens Scottish separatism and, less obviously, has led Ireland, which until recently often pursued parallel policies to Britain, to move in different directions.

Britain is weaker because of its government’s miserable response to the pandemic and it will be weaker still when Brexit becomes a reality. A problem of having leaders like Johnson and Cummings is that they not only refuse to admit their mistakes to others, but they do not admit them to themselves, and consequently never learn from them. They won power as propagandists and, like many politicians with same skills-set, they believe their own words.

Even so it is astonishing and depressing to see these same leaders, whose ineptitude has been so patent during the epidemic, confidently step forward to reorganise everything in Britain from the BBC to the civil service. Given their dismal record over the last six months, even coping with an outbreak of acne would probably be beyond them.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Britain, China, EU 
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President Trump is making plain the degree to which the country remains divided by the American Civil War. His threat to veto the $718bn Defence Bill if it renames military bases called after Confederate generals harks back to 1861. His stand highlights the bizarre way that the US military has named its biggest bases, like Fort Bragg in North Carolina and Fort Hood in Texas, after Confederate generals like Braxton Bragg and John Hood who fought a war to destroy the US.

Critics suggest derisively that this tradition of naming military installations after defeated enemies should mean that future bases will include at least one named after Osama bin Laden, the founder of al-Qaeda, and another after Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Isis, both killed by US soldiers.

The fury generated by the dispute over the renaming of the bases and the removal of the statues of Confederate commanders underlines the contemporary relevance of the outcome of the civil war. A tweet by Trump gives a clue as to why this should be the case a century and a half after the Confederate surrender. “It was sad,” Trump wrote, “to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments.”

But which “history and culture” is Trump talking about? The US has two sources of political culture: one derives from Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and a popular revolution against a distant imperial power, the other flows from the slave states with their vastly different tradition. Much of what non-Americans find peculiar and contradictory about the US stems from the uneasy cohabitation of these two cultures, whose democratic and authoritarian strands alternately repel each other and blend together. Americans are often in denial about this tainted legacy, preferring to see their past through the lens of the intentions of the founding fathers and the struggles of the frontier, playing down the civil war over slavery that left 750,000 dead.

The version of culture and history that Trump defends is that of the American South and is primarily to do with contemporary relations between black and white. Most of the statues to Confederate war commanders were erected long after the war and unblushingly asserted white supremacy. Memphis, Tennessee, for instance, until recently boasted a statue erected in 1905 to the Confederate cavalry general Nathan Bedford Forrest, a plantation owner, slave trader and Confederate commander whose troops massacred some 300 black Union army soldiers who surrendered at Fort Pillow in 1864. He later became the first leader of the Ku Klux Klan. As recently as 1998, another statue to Forrest was erected in Nashville, Tennessee.

The reason that the “cultural wars” resonate so strongly in the US is that they have their roots in a real war and have little to do with quaint military nostalgia, like people in England who dress up as 17th-century Cavaliers and Roundheads to restage civil war battles. The real message those statues carried was that the south might have lost the civil war and slavery might have been abolished, but black people would still be segregated, discriminated against and denied civil rights.

Trump’s racism is blatant and unconcealed, but the culture he is pledged to defend encompasses far more than racial division. It includes a whole set of fiercely defended attitudes to women, gun ownership, abortion, evangelical Christianity, paramilitary policing, crime and punishment, affirmative action, and the role of government in society. This matters because of a surprising development in the US since the de jure granting of civil rights to black Americans in the 1960s. This was seen by many as the moment that the US put the past behind it and the toxic traditions of the Old South would disappear into history. But no such thing happened. On the contrary, the counter-reaction to civil rights was in many respects more powerful and influential than the original movement that had tried to break the racist status quo.

This counter-reaction was so strong that the south was able to expand its culture in the broadest sense to the north and west, far beyond the boundaries of the old Confederacy. As Godfrey Hodgson wrote at the turn of the century in his prophetic book More Equal Than Others: America from Nixon to the New Century, it had been “assumed that the South would become more like the rest of the country, [but] in politics and in many aspects of culture, the rest of the country has come to resemble the South”.

This “southernisation” explains many strange aspects of American culture that appear inexplicable, such as the way in which attitudes over everything from gun ownership to abortion have become a mark of identity. It also explains a lot about Trump’s rise to power, which caught most Americans, including many of his supporters and almost all non-Americans, by surprise. He is occasionally referred to as “the last Confederate president”, which is over-simple; but the description does point the way towards the identity of his base, whose loyalty is so impervious to his failures.

The beliefs and values that mutated out of the defeated Confederacy produced a distinct variant of American nationalism. It combined with right-wing conservatism in the rest of the country to produce a winning political formula used by Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump. A Democratic president like Bill Clinton seemed to be an exception to this, but in many respects his record only confirmed the trend. In 1996, Peter Applebome, The New York Times correspondent in Atlanta, wrote a book called Dixie Rising: How the South is Shaping American Values, Politics and Culture. In a passage quoted by Hodgson, he says, “Bill Clinton is coming out for school prayer along with sweeping Republican legislation shredding welfare” and “the Supreme Court is acting as if [the Confederate president] Jefferson Davis were chief justice”.

The title of Applebome’s book explains its theme. He concludes that “to understand America you have to understand the South”.

The same is true of Trump and Trumpism. Southern political culture, which has percolated to all parts of the US, is his political base, which explains why the fate of the statues and the renaming of military bases matters so much to him.

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The government’s controversial Prevent programme aims to stop individuals becoming terrorists, but it would be much more effective if it taught British political leaders not to engage in wars that become the seed-beds of terrorism.

Consider the case of Khairi Saadallah, the suspect in the killing of three people in a park in Reading who came to the UK as a refugee from Libya in 2012 and was granted asylum in 2018. An ID card reportedly shows that he had been a member of the Union of the February 17 Revolution, one of the paramilitary groups that had fought Muammar Gaddafi the previous year. Police and intelligence agencies say they have not discovered any current link between Mr Saadallah and jihadist organisations.

But that is not really the point: if David Cameron, Nicolas Sarkozy and Hillary Clinton had not launched the Nato-led war to carry out regime change in Libya in 2011, it is unlikely that refugees like Saadallah would have come to Britain the following year.

The same is true of Salman Abedi, the Libyan suicide bomber who killed 22 and injured 139 people, mostly children, in the Manchester Arena in 2017. Abedi was personally responsible for this slaughter, but the British government had relaxed controls on the movements of jihadi groups like the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group because MI6 saw them as useful local allies in getting rid of Gaddafi.

It is disgusting how leaders like David Cameron continue to defend the launching of the 2011 Nato intervention in Libya. It was this that led to the ongoing war and the chaos that produced a wave of refugees who needed help and turned the country into a haven for jihadis like Abedi. Yet this predictable consequence of foreign intervention, be it in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan or Syria, scarcely receives a mention in the wall-to-wall coverage of murders such as those in Manchester, Reading or London Bridge. The media emphasis is on grief and “communities coming together”, a highly convenient response from the point of view of the British government as its own blundering role in turning Libya into place of permanent war is forgotten or is considered irrelevant.

Gaddafi was a dictator but however horrific the conditions under his rule, Libyans are now at the mercy of local warlords who are proxies for foreign powers pursuing their own egocentric interests. This week Turkey and Egypt, and the coalitions they lead, are close to an all-out proxy war as they face off against each other at Sirte, close to where Gaddafi was killed.

This all-consuming violence is not mentioned by the leaders who did so much to bring it about. David Cameron boasts in his autobiography For The Record that, thanks to his efforts, American, British and French aircraft stopped the advance of Gaddafi’s tanks. “Benghazi was saved,” he writes, “and a Srebrenica-style slaughter was averted.”

Cameron has not noticed that Benghazi was not saved at all. Its centre is now a sea of ruins, destroyed in the fighting between the anti-Gaddafi warlords. Cameron’s claim that Gaddafi’s forces were about to carry out mass killings in Benghazi was always dubious. A report by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee said that the belief that Gaddafi would “massacre the civilians in Benghazi was not supported by the available evidence”. His forces had reoccupied other rebel-held towns and there had been no massacre.

Cameron and Britain were not alone in destroying Libya. In a piece of self-glorifying bombast as revolting as anything said by Donald Trump, the US secretary of state Hillary Clinton crowed after the death of Gaddafi: “We came, we saw, he died.”

So did tens of thousands of other Libyans, but is it naive to imagine that Clinton, Cameron and Sarkozy ever cared much about what happened to the 7 million Libyan population? They were equally blind in looking after the interests of their own countries when they replaced a broadly secular authoritarian state in Libya with murderous anarchy.

These three politicians and other interventionists like Tony Blair and George W Bush defend themselves by saying that this is all hindsight. But it was not. I was in Benghazi and Tripoli during the six-month war to overthrow Gaddafi and it was patent that the violence would not end when he was dead. In the week that Britain recognised the rebel leadership in Benghazi as the legitimate government, the rebels had killed, and by some accounts tortured to death, their chief military commander, General Abdel Fattah Younis. Western governments and media had presented the opposition as liberally minded democrats. but an early proposal of the incoming post-Gaddafi transitional government was to put an end to the ban on polygamy.

Western leaders never suffered much political damage from their unforced errors in these wars in the Middle East and north Africa. The countries that were supposedly saved by foreign intervention might be wracked by endless conflict but they had disappeared from the news agenda. Voters at home never connected up terrorist butchery in their streets with wars fought in their name in far away places. I always thought it unjust yet probably inevitable that incompetent ignorant leaders, particularly in Britain, would never pay much of a price for what they had done.

But I was wrong. The same sort of over-confident amateur leadership that I had witnessed committing serial blunders from Basra to Benghazi finally had to face a real crisis in the shape of Covid-19. Their performance was as dismal at home as it had been abroad. Boris Johnson’s shambolic response to the pandemic, producing the worst death toll from the illness in the world aside from the US and Brazil, was foreshadowed by what David Cameron had done before in Libya. In both instances, unnecessary mistakes had calamitous consequences. Perhaps the British political class had become so used to piggy-backing on US political and military power that it no longer knew what to do when that power stumbled over the last twenty years or finally imploded under Trump.

Competence takes a long time to create and its disintegration can also be imperceptibly slow. Nobody in Britain was much interested in the fate of Libya as it was torn apart in an escalating civil war. Even when Britain is the victim of a small proportion of that violence, there is a reluctance to put any of the blame on past British actions. The pretence is that somehow shouldering any responsibility lets the perpetrators off the hook. In reality, both the relatively limited number of British casualties stemming from its Middle East wars and the horribly large loss of life because of coronavirus have a common source: a political class that is hollowed out and no longer copes successfully with real crises.

• Category: Foreign Policy, Ideology • Tags: Britain, Coronavirus, Libya, Terrorism 
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Conservative leaders snigger at protesters seeking the removal of statues memorialising those whose fortunes came from the exploitation of slaves.

The leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, implied facetiously this week that such demands are on a par with seeking to knock down Stonehenge on the grounds that it once could have been the site of human sacrifice. He was speaking in response to a puerile question from the Conservative MP Sir Desmond Swayne, who got into trouble last year for blacking his face, who suggested that a measure be introduced to remove “all remaining trace that there was a Roman civilisation in this island.”

The flippancy of the exchange shows that both men feel that slavery happened a long time ago and does not stand out in history as a particularly horrendous crime, and that the demonstrations against those who benefited from it amount to a passing fad that need not be taken seriously.

They could not be more wrong. Does Rees-Mogg, who tends to wear his religious convictions on his sleeve, have an equally dismissive attitude towards the Crucifixion, which is, after all, a well-attested murder of an innocent man by torture committed by a colonial oppressor 2,000 years ago?

It is the tendency of fervent Brexiters like Rees-Mogg and Swayne to be ignorant not only of the history of other countries, but of the real history of their own. The campaign to remove the statue of Henry Dundas in Edinburgh may seem to be a time-wasting and eccentric excursion into obscure historical alleyways. In fact, it raises the veil on one of the grimiest corners of British history, which is the military campaign fought by Britain on behalf of slave owners in the 1790s to crush the great slave revolt in Haiti, (then called Saint-Domingue) ignited by the French Revolution. The British Army lost 45,000 out of 90,000 troops sent in this war, largely as a result of yellow fever and the fierce resistance of the former slaves. Casualties were heavier than all the British wars against Napoleonic France.

The episode was largely omitted from British history books. Unsurprisingly, countries, like individuals, focus on their virtues and successes and like to forget their crimes and defeats. What Rees-Mogg and Swayne are really saying is that the crime of slavery is not so gross that the virtues of those who perpetrated and benefited from it should not be celebrated, whereas the attempts to memorialise their atrocities get short shrift.

The description of what slavers did as “atrocities” is not an exaggeration. Appreciation of the savage reality of slavery is clouded among white populations by films like Gone With the Wind which emphasise sentimental attachments between master and slave. One way to understand what it was really like is to recall how Isis enslaved the Yazidis in northern Iraq and Syria in 2014, murdering men, women and children and selling thousands of women into sexual slavery.

Terrified women held in Isis jails waited to be raped and sold to the highest bidder. “The first 12 hours of capture were filled with sharply mounting terror,” says a UN report on what happened in one jail. “The selection of any girl was accompanied by screaming as she was forcibly pulled from the room, with her mother and any other women who tried to keep hold of her being brutally beaten by [Isis] fighters. [Yazidi] women and girls began to scratch and bloody themselves in an attempt to make themselves unattractive to potential buyers.” The reference comes from With Ash on their Faces: Yezidi women and the Islamic State by Cathy Otten.

Isis did not behave very differently from the slave traders and plantation owners in the West Indies and the US in the 18th century. The best-informed guide to what life was like on a slave plantation in the Caribbean at that time are the books written by James Ramsay, an Anglican clergymen and former navy surgeon who worked as a doctor for 19 years in the plantations on the British-ruled islands of St Kitts and Nevis. Finally forced to leave by the plantation owners because of his evident sympathy for the slaves – he let them worship in his church – he retired to Kent to describe his experiences.

Ramsay records the endless round of punishments inflicted on the slave to force them to work cutting sugar cane for 16 hours or more a day. He says that an experienced slave driver could use a cart whip “to cut out flakes of skin and flesh with every stroke.” When a surgeon refused to amputate the limb of a slave as a punishment, a cooper’s adze was used to sever it “and the wretch then left to bleed to death, without any attention or dressing.”

As in Isis-held Iraq and Syria, sexual slavery was a common feature of plantation life. Ramsay says that slave women were “sacrificed to the lust of white men; in some instances, their own fathers.” He adds that white women on the plantations, presumably members of the family of the owner, would hire out their maid servants as prostitutes. Contrary to the romantic cinematic image, the real-life Scarlett O’Hara might have been paying for her ball dress with money gained from the rape of her maids.

One does not have to spend long in the US or the Caribbean without discovering that the deep wells of hatred and fear created by slavery have not disappeared over the years. In the US, this is reinforced by the legacy of the Civil War which still divides the country to an extraordinary extent, underpinning racism and de facto segregation. More surprising is the fact that in the years since black people supposedly won civil rights in the 1960s, the rest of America has become more like the South in its political culture than vice versa. President Johnson had promised not just “equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and a result,” but the results never came.

President Trump differs from other recent presidents in being a fairly open racist and supporter of violence by a militarised police force. Protesters are denounced as “terrorist” much as they are in Turkey, Egypt, Sri Lanka and other authoritarian states. Once the US was the sheet anchor stabilising governments and regimes, but now it is the turmoil in the US that is sending waves of instability across the world. This is not the way it worked in the 1960s. As Britain slides out of the EU under a right-wing government it will have nowhere else to turn but the US and potentially share in its turbulence. Quips about Stonehenge and the Roman Empire show how far the ruling party in Britain is from understanding that it is only experiencing the first tremors from the US meltdown.

• Category: History, Ideology • Tags: Blacks, Britain, Political Correctness, Slavery 
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Britain is failing to cope with the Covid-19 epidemic as well as other countries in Europe and East Asia have. Out of 62,000 excess deaths in the UK, says former chief medical officer Sir David King, “40,000 excess deaths could have been avoided if government had acted responsibly”.

The failure is devastating: on a single day this week, 359 people died from coronavirus in the UK – more than the number of deaths in all 27 EU countries over the same 24 hours. The UK is starting to exit lockdown while the epidemic has not been brought under control, despite all the economic self-destruction.

Two main reasons explain why the crisis in Britain turned into a calamity. Firstly, the political consequences of Brexit turn out to be more lethal and swift than any potential economic damage. It is now clear that the worst outcome of the turmoil over leaving the EU has been to land Britain with a leadership of spectacular incompetence during one of the worst crises in British history.

Boris Johnson emerges, when he does emerge these days, as the sort of shallow self-promoting buffoon that his critics, including many who know him well, have always said that he was. As his government’s failures multiply, his default position is evasion and denial: on the very same day that Britain (population 66 million) outpaced the whole of the EU (population 446 million) in fatalities, Johnson told the House of Commons that he was “very proud of what we have achieved”.

Much of the time it does not matter much who is nominally running a country with an effective civil service, but this is not one of those times. Judgements crucial to the lives and livelihoods of millions must be made, but at this critical moment, Britain is finding that it is run by a Gilbert-and-Sullivan type administration. The analogy is all too appropriate: Johnson, with his fake-patrician bombast and shady dealings, strongly resembles the Duke of Plaza Toro in The Gondoliers who “led his regiment from behind/he found it less exciting”. The sinister character and dubious doings of Dominic Cummings strongly recall those of the Grand Inquisitor in the same opera.

Almost everybody outside the government believes that at no point during the epidemic has the government been ahead of the game. It has always lagged behind and frequently headed in the wrong direction. The list of errors is long: underestimating the threat posed by the virus; failure to prepare for it through accelerated procurement; late and inadequate testing and tracing; sending untested Covid-19 carriers into care homes; failing to introduce face masks early on; chaotic preparation for a return to normal life and resumed economic activity. In combination, these mistakes may keep Britain in semi-lockdown for the foreseeable future.

Once, Britain had a reputation for having one of the world’s most astute political classes operating through one of its most effective administrative machines. No longer: the pandemic marks the turning point. Johnson and mediocre ministers have throughout conveyed a frightening sense not of malignancy but of amateurs at work, lightweights baffled by what is happening and unable to learn from experience.

Britain is paying a high price for the whole bizarre Brexit project, not so much because of the undoubted economic damage it will do to the country, but because of the inadequacy of the leaders whom it elevated into power. Anybody who seriously believed that Britain’s troubles stemmed primarily from membership of the EU was either a crackpot, a careerist or simply misinformed. Though claiming to see a golden future for global Britain, the Brexiters were unashamed “Little Englanders”, their isolationism neatly expressed in the apocryphal weather forecast, “Fog in channel, continent isolated”.

From the beginning of the crisis this attitude has hobbled cooperation with other countries or even learning from their experience. The Brexiters’ instinct to stand proudly alone in defiance of reality presumably explains the decision to impose a 14-day quarantine period on travellers arriving in Britain, where coronavirus is still rife, though they may be coming from countries where it has been largely suppressed. This reminds me of travelling to Russia and Iraq in the 1990s, at a time when the health systems in both countries had collapsed and diseases were spreading unchecked, and finding that all arrivals had to have an Aids test.

The second cause of Britain’s all too “world beating” fatality rate, to adopt Johnson’s famous boast, is the degree to which the operational capacity of the UK government has withered in recent decades. Ministers make self-confident claims about the delivery of testing, tracing, PPE equipment, an app to prevent the spread of the illness and other initiatives, but nothing happens or delivery is halting and unreliable.

Britain is discovering the hard way how far its administrative machine has been weakened by cuts and outsourcing. Central government has monopolised authority and resources and starved local authorities of both, though they should be on the cutting edge of “test and trace”. An editorial in the British Medical Journal of which the lead author is a professor of European public health, Martin McKee, succinctly sums up what has happened: “A hollowed out civil service has long turned to outsourcing companies, despite their repeated failures. Companies with little relevant experience have struggled to organise viral testing or contact tracing. The task of coordinating activities with existing organisations, such as NHS laboratories or local public health departments, is too complex for their business model.”

Testing and tracing are central to the government’s bid to contain the epidemic. This is scarcely surprising since Dr John Snow, one of the founders of modern epidemiology, first mapped cholera victims in Soho in London in 1854 in order to identify the origins of a cholera outbreak (it was a water pump producing polluted water). More sophisticated “trace and track” campaigns have since been used to suppress or contain epidemics. Such detective work needs well trained and experienced interviewers to get total strangers to disclose their movements and contacts. German health officials today credit a well-organised “test and trace” system for their success in bringing the epidemic under control in Germany by 17 April, just six weeks after the first death there from the virus.

In Britain, the recruitment of 25,000 contact tracers has been partly outsourced, 10,000 of them being recruited by Serco and its subcontractors. Directors of public health only learned on the morning of the announcement that the test and trace effort was being launched four days early. It will now only be fully operational by September or October according to its chief operating officer.

The main explanation of the government is that it, along with all the governments in the world, was surprised by the speed and ferocity of the virus. This excuse might have had some validity in February or even March, but not now. Coronavirus has now killed almost twice as many people as died in the Blitz – 32,000 – and most of them should still be alive.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Boris Johnson, Britain, Coronavirus 
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In October 2001 I was standing on a hilltop 40 miles north of Kabul watching US aircraft bomb the Taliban front line. The night sky was lit up with the flash of explosions and the sparkle of ineffectual anti-aircraft fire. It was fairly obvious who was going to come out the winner.

A few weeks later the US-backed anti-Taliban forces advanced south and captured Kabul without the Taliban putting up any resistance. It looked as if they had suffered a decisive military defeat which had ended forever their rule over Afghanistan. As their armies broke up, I drove to the southern city of Kandahar past ragged groups of Taliban fighters on their way home.

Except that they had not really been defeated and, 19 years later, the Taliban are closer than ever to regaining power in Afghanistan as the US withdraws the last of its troops. Under an agreement between the Taliban and the US signed on 29 February this year, the number of US soldiers in the country, which once exceeded 100,000, dropped to 8,600 this week and the remainder should be out of the country before the middle of next year.

The final withdrawal of US troops may come even earlier than that because President Trump would like to declare that he has brought back all American troops in Afghanistan before the US presidential election on 3 November. He tweeted on Wednesday: “Bring our soldiers back home but closely watch what is going on and strike with a thunder like never before, if necessary.” The Pentagon is none too happy about this, but keeping US troops in the country for a few more months, after almost two decades of failure, is not going to make much difference.

The return of the Taliban should not have come as quite such a surprise. When I got to Kandahar on my journey south from Kabul in 2001, I asked a local man if I could meet some of the surviving Taliban commanders. He said this would be no problem. We drove to his village not far from the city where we met half a dozen tough, confident-looking Taliban who said that they would go back to war if they were marginalised and not treated right.

By 2006, they had done just that and three years later their motorcycle patrols had cut the road between Kabul and Kandahar. The US increased the number of its troops and deluged the country with bombs and missiles. The US generals were always claiming that victory was just over the horizon, if only they had more forces and more time. They got both, but were unable to do more than hold the line against the Taliban, despite losing 2,400 US servicemen dead and 21,000 wounded.

The Americans were not the only ones to miscalculate. Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, the British ambassador in Kabul at the time, wrote in his memoirs that the worst mistake made by the Foreign Office in the previous 30 years was the invasion of Iraq, and the second worst was “its enthusiastic endorsement of Britain’s half-baked effort to occupy Helmand [in southern Afghanistan] in 2006”. Most of the 400 British soldiers killed in Afghanistan died in Helmand province in one of the most disastrous and ineffectual campaigns in British military history.

President Trump is trying to portray the US withdrawal as a peace agreement, but the peace he has agreed, such as it is, is between the US forces and the Taliban. Afghan government forces allied to the US have come under repeated attack. The crux of the peace agreement is the US withdrawal in return for Taliban assurances about their future actions.

There have been a few conciliatory signs such as an exchange of Taliban-government prisoners in the last few days. But elsewhere the war has gone on with the Taliban assaulting the northern city of Kunduz and making guerrilla attacks elsewhere. Earlier this month, Kabul witnessed one of the worst atrocities in decades of conflict when three gunmen, probably belonging to the local chapter of Isis, burst into the maternity ward of a hospital in the capital and shot to death at least 15 mothers, babies and medical staff. Most of the dead are reported to be Shia Muslims belonging to the Hazara ethnic minority who have long been a target of the fundamentalist Sunni Isis.

The Taliban denied involvement in the slaughter of the mothers and children, but they too have a history of anti-Shia bigotry and of persecuting the Hazara. In 2001, the Taliban famously blew up the 165-foot-tall 1,700-year-old Buddha statues in the Hazara heartlands in central Afghanistan.

There is a clue here to the future of Afghanistan and it is a grim one. Afghanistan is deeply divided by ethnicity, sect and tribe. Most Afghans I have spoken to over the years dislike the Taliban, though they may not like the spectacularly corrupt government and its forces any better. An attempt at a complete Taliban takeover will be resisted to the death by many, just as it was twenty years ago – which was why I was able to stay in an anti-Taliban enclave north of Kabul at the start of the bombing in 2001.

Could the outcome of the US-Taliban war, with Britain playing a bit part, have been any different? Militarily, the Taliban could never be put permanently out of business so long as they had the not-very covert support of Pakistan and could use Pakistani territory as their rear base and refuge. Trying to occupy Afghanistan has never proved a good idea for any foreign power. Reliance on a foreign sponsor like the US might prop up the central government, but this dependency robbed it of legitimacy and fuelled corruption. Billions of dollars in US aid and day-to-day expenditure meant that there was always plenty to steal.

Does anybody care about this in the US today when the 100,000 fatalities from coronavirus this year dwarfs the figure for American casualties in all its wars since Vietnam? Yet Trump’s gut political instincts are seldom wrong about what motivates the American voter; if he thinks that he will benefit from bringing back the troops, he is probably correct.

The American failure in Afghanistan is very real and it will be noticed in the rest of the world, preoccupied though people are by the pandemic. If the US is to retain the status of superpower, it needs to be seen as reasonably successful and competent in achieving its ends. On a much smaller scale the same is true of Britain. Nobody who witnessed the British state in action in the Iraq and Afghan wars will have been too surprised by its stumbling, poorly judged efforts to cope with the Covid-19 epidemic.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Afghanistan, American Military 
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Stop those non-humans who are writing and provoking our people,” says Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov in an Instagram video. The non-humans he objects to are journalists who criticise the Chechen authorities for mishandling their response to the Covid-19 epidemic.

Given Kadyrov has faced allegations of torturing and disappearing critics (which the leader denies), he leaves nobody in any doubt about how unwelcome journalistic questions should be dealt with.

The cause of his rage was an article in the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta by investigative journalist Elena Milashina, who cited Kadyrov as saying that people who spread the coronavirus are “worse than terrorists” and “should be killed”. As a result of these threats, Milashina wrote that people in Chechnya with Covid-19 were hiding their symptoms because they were too frightened to seek medical help.

Authoritarian and proto-fascist governments around the world are using Covid-19 to excuse or divert attention from the arrest, jailing and disappearance of critical journalists. Kadyrov, who acts as a quasi-independent Russian viceroy in Chechnya, is simply more blatant and violent than his counterparts, from Viktor Orban in Hungary to Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey and Narendra Modi in India. In few such countries is repression new, but it is deepening by the day under a new guise.

Kadyrov’s actions in Chechnya are a crude but telling example of this toxic campaign against the independent media. The Chechen leader’s threats against Milashina was not the first time she has been targeted for her reporting in Chechnya: two years ago she broke the story of the “gay purge” in which gay men were being abducted, tortured and killed. This February she was assaulted in the lobby of a hotel in the Chechen capital, Grozny, where she was reporting on the trial of a blogger who had posted a film of luxury villas alleged to belong to people close to the Chechen leadership.

Governments worldwide claim that journalists are impeding their heroic struggle against coronavirus, but their real motive is more often to conceal the inadequacy of those efforts. Political elites everywhere fear that the pandemic will expose their incompetence and corruption, weakening their grip on political power and economic resources.

A report by Amnesty International, titled “Crackdown on journalists weakens efforts to tackle Covid-19”, contains a long and detailed list of offenders: new laws against disseminating “fake news” – the definition of which is to be decided by the authorities themselves – has been passed in Azerbaijan, Hungary, Russia, Uzbekistan, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Tanzania and in several Gulf states. The Hungarian leader Orban has amended the criminal code so journalists are threatened with five years in prison for “spreading false information” that would impede “successful protection” against the coronavirus.

Governments are highly sensitive to accusations that they are lying about the number of infections or fatalities: in Egypt a newspaper editor who challenged the official figures was disappeared for a month and a reporter who did the same in Venezuela was jailed for 12 days. In Bosnia, a doctor was charged with “misinformation” and creating “fear and panic” and faces a fine of €1,500 after posting on social media about the lack of ventilators and other equipment in a local hospital.

Leaders ignoring their own lockdown and physical distancing orders want to keep quiet about it: in Tanzania, the licence of the online newspaper Mawanachi was suspended after posting a photo of John Pombe Magufuli, the president, out shopping surrounded by a crowd of supporters.

The Turkish government has put extraordinary efforts into hunting down journalists and social media critics, 102 of whom are currently in jail, many accused of being “terrorists” or “spreading terrorist propaganda” – a charge often levelled in Turkey against any critic. No fewer than 64 social media users have been detained in recent weeks over posts about coronavirus.

No sign of dissent or independent information is too small to escape the authorities’ notice: when Ismet Cigit and Gungor Aslan wrote on a news website about two Covid-19 deaths in a local hospital, they were immediately detained and questioned. And even a short detention in Turkey could be a death sentence because overcrowded prisons are hotspots for the epidemic.

Most culpable are states such as India, whose security measures are preventing attempts to lessen the spread of the pandemic. In Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir, the lockdown predates the rest of the world, starting last August when Modi’s government revoked the special status of India’s only Muslim-majority state.

An internet blackout was imposed for 175 days and when it was restored it was in the form of the slow-moving 2G network. But even this, along with other communications, such as the telephone, is subject to sudden and prolonged blackouts nominally aimed at separatists, but in practice hampering or stopping the campaign to prevent Covid-19.

The Indian government has tried with some success to suppress local and foreign media reporting from inside Kashmir, but a special report by the Thomson Reuters Foundation from Srinagar, the largest city in Kashmir, reveals a health system damaged by the constant blackouts. “We were shocked that we had to work without the internet even for a week during the pandemic,” said one Srinagar-based hospital doctor, speaking anonymously, adding that the government had told health professionals not to talk to the press.

Tracking and tracing of Covid-19 victims is made impossible in Kashmir by interrupted communications. A health department official, again speaking anonymously, said there was no way of finding and testing victims during the blackouts, explaining that “it was impossible to trace the contacts of Covid-positive cases during those three days [in early May] as there was no way of reaching out to people”. Paradoxically, Modi has told everybody including Kashmiris to download a contact-tracing app on their phones as a prime means of identifying, testing and isolating those infected by the virus.

Journalists in Kashmir who report about the extent to which draconian security measures have hobbled efforts to suppress the epidemic find themselves accused of glorifying “anti-nationalist activities” and causing “fear or alarm in the minds of the public”.

Autocratic governments everywhere are becoming more autocratic and repressive regimes more repressive. They believe that they can get away with it: frightened peoples are looking to their governments to save them in this time of peril, and do not want to discover that they are ruled by incompetent people determined to serve their own interests and stay in power.

• Category: Ideology • Tags: Coronavirus, Free Speech 
Patrick Cockburn
About Patrick Cockburn

Patrick Cockburn is the Middle East correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent. He was awarded the 2005 Martha Gellhorn prize for war reporting. His book on his years covering the war in Iraq, The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq (Verso) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for non-fiction.

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