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It was the worst crime of Donald Trump’s years in the White House. In October 2019 he ordered US troops to stand aside, greenlighting Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria that led to the murder, rape and expulsion of its Kurdish inhabitants

Eighteen months earlier, Trump did nothing as the Turkish army occupied the Kurdish enclave of Afrin and replaced the population there with Syrian Arab jihadis.

It is, unfortunately, unlikely that Trump will ever stand trial but, if he does, then his complicity in the ethnic cleansing of the Syrian Kurds should top the charge sheet. This was an act of evil in itself and also the betrayal of an ally since American-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters had led the counter-attack against Isis, closing in on its last strongholds just as Turkey invaded Afrin.

Trump’s treachery provoked too little international outrage at the time but I am certain it was the direct cause of murders, kidnappings, disappearances and the expulsions of hundreds of thousands of people.

Tragedy on this scale blurs in people’s minds because they do not comprehend atrocities beyond their personal experience which devastate the lives of so many individuals. The perpetrators of extreme violence – and their facilitators like Trump – try to muddy the waters with implausible denials until the news agenda moves on and it is only surviving victims who remember the crimes against them.

I wrote much about the ethnic cleansing of the Kurds from their homes in northern Syria by Turkey in two separate invasions in 2018 and 2019, but without any noticeable result. It soon became impossible for independent reporters to visit Afrin or the Turkish-occupied zone around the towns of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain. But I was finally able to make contact last week via the internet with an eyewitness in Afrin who gives a grim but compelling account of her personal experience of ethnic cleansing.

Her name is Rohilat Hawar, a 34-year-old Kurdish woman with three children who had worked as a mathematics teacher in a school in Afrin City before the Turkish attack. She tried to flee in February 2018 “because there were Turkish airstrikes every day,” but she was refused entry to Syrian government-held territory through which she needed to pass to reach the Kurdish-controlled autonomous region.

She returned to Afrin City where her house had been looted and where she is now trapped. She says that Turkish-backed Syrian jihadi militias shoot anybody trying to leave: “A friend of mine was killed with her 10-year-old child last year while trying to flee.” At the same time, the militiamen make it impossible for Kurds to stay.

As one of the few Kurds remaining in her old neighbourhood where the houses have been taken over by Arabic-speaking jihadis and their families, she does not dare speak Kurdish in the street. She has found that the Turkish army considers all Kurds to be “terrorists”, but that the militiamen are even more dangerous, regarding “Kurds as pagans, disbelievers who should be killed on orders from God.”

Rohilat had no alternative but to put on a Hijab, which Kurdish women normally do not wear. She did not do so for seven months but was harassed and intimidated by jihadi neighbours from other parts of Syria. She appealed to a Turkish officer, but he said that she should respect the social norms in her neighbourhood. “So I had to put on the Hijab,” she said. “My children laughed at me and mocked me at the beginning, but they have got used to the situation.”

The surviving Kurds in Afrin are defenceless and are preyed on by roving militiamen. When going to the market earlier this week, Rohilat saw two Kurdish girls walking in the same direction. Two militiamen with guns on a motorcycle cruised slowly beside them. “Suddenly the motorcycle came close to the girls and the militiamen sitting on the back grabbed the breast of one of them,” says Rohilat. Both girls started crying. The militiamen got off their motorcycle and started kissing them and fondling their breasts, only leaving them when a crowd gathered and Rohilat took the girls to her home.

On another occasion, she was buying bread in the market, when she saw an Islamist gunman tell a Kurd working in a restaurant to leave the city. When he protested, saying he had nowhere else to go, the militiaman slapped him across the face and said: “You Kurds are pagans and disbelievers in God [though the Kurds are almost all Sunni Muslims].”

In the two formerly Kurdish zones in Syria, the cutting edge of the Turkish occupation is Arab militiamen, who are mostly jihadis from elsewhere in Syria. The Kurds in Afrin were largely farmers, cultivating fruit and vegetables and, above all, olives. But Rohilat says that the new settlers are city people “so they cut down the olive trees and sell them as firewood”. As a result, foodstuffs have to be imported and are sold at a higher price.

By turning over on the ground control of Kurdish populated areas to anti-Kurdish Islamist gunmen, the Turkish government ensures ethnic cleansing, but without appearing to be directly responsible. Until recently, the militiamen were paid $100 a month by Turkey, but they could supplement this by looting and confiscating Kurdish property while the Turkish army allegedly turned a blind eye.

But since August the militiamen’s pay has been reduced and Turkish army patrols are clamping down on looting. The aim of this is to persuade the militiamen to volunteer to fight as Turkish proxies in Libya and against the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. Many have been killed. Rohilat has seen numerous traditional mourning tents for men who died in the fighting abroad, though the bodies do not come back for burial.

Aside from the chronic insecurity, Rohilat has to cope with the rapid spread of coronavirus in Afrin since August. She herself has contracted the illness, having tested positive at a Turkish medical facility, but says she and many others will not go to a military hospital for treatment because few people who do go return alive. Instead, they stay at home, taking paracetamol and eating lentil and onion soup. She herself cannot afford to buy face masks, and can only buy bread because her children do odd jobs in the market and relatives in Turkey send her a little money every couple of months.

Grim though life is for Rohilat, she is one of the survivors while other Kurds have fled, live in insanitary camps, been killed, held for ransom or have simply disappeared. Nor is the Turkish campaign against the 3 million Syrian Kurds likely to de-escalate; on the contrary, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to launch another invasion that would in practice finish the job of cleansing the Kurdish population.

One piece of good news is that the replacement of Trump by Joe Biden significantly reduces, though it does not eliminate, the chances of the US greenlighting another Turkish incursion. As Trump and his poisonous crew depart, it should never be forgotten or forgiven that his manic policy in Syria inflicted endless misery on great numbers of people who once led happy lives.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Donald Trump, Kurds, Syria, Turkey 

Lockdowns are unnecessary if the use of masks is practiced by 95 per cent of the population, says Dr Hans Kluge, the World Health Organisation’s European chief. This is good to know, though it is a pity that the WHO did not make the point more forcefully in March as the pandemic was exploding across Europe and the world.

The necessity for face masks had been expressed at the time, but the advice to use them came from a source that European and American leaders dismissed as politically unacceptable. As Britain and other European states were going into lockdown, Dr George Gao, director-general of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention – the main Chinese public health body – was asked in an interview on 27 March about what he believed were the mistakes being made by other countries trying to control the epidemic. He replied that “the big mistake in the US and Europe, in my opinion, is that people aren’t wearing masks”.

His opinion should have been taken seriously since China, notwithstanding the suppression of the Uighurs and democracy in Hong Kong, along with other east Asian countries, were succeeding in bringing the coronavirus epidemic under control. But instead of drawing on this experience, the new cold war against China ensured that any positive news from there was ignored, disbelieved or derided. China’s initial concealment of the epidemic was highlighted, and its success in containing it was disregarded. When China’s return to normality was mentioned, it was attributed to autocratic rule that could not and should not be emulated elsewhere. In point of fact, the Chinese achievement resulted largely from old-fashioned public health measures, with a heavy emphasis on test-and-trace and travel bans, pursued with great energy and with the mobilisation of vast resources.

Refusal to learn from a successful campaign against the coronavirus because it was carried out by a political rival was self-destructive for Europe and the US, but their response should not have been unexpected. Before the pandemic, we were already living in a deglobalising world where individual nation states jostle to enhance their power. Rule-based international institutions and coalitions from the WHO and WTO to the EU and NATO were ebbing in influence. The epidemic has only flood-lit the fact that re-energised nationalism is the spirit of the age from America to the Philippines and from China to Brazil.

The dominance of this trend has become clear since 2016, the decisive year that saw the UK voting to leave the EU, the US choosing Donald Trump as president, and Turkey transforming itself into a full-blown autocracy in the wake of a failed military coup.

But Covid-19 has given history a powerful nudge down the roads it was already taking. If a global threat like a deadly virus that knows no borders had emerged a decade earlier, it would probably have provoked a global response under the aegis of the US. But after the coronavirus emerged in Wuhan at the end of 2019, the opposite happened and it speeded up deglobalisation – and not just because of xenophobic rants by Trump or the mini-Trumps that have been popping up around the world.

Nor was it solely among populist nationalist regimes and autocracies that “health nationalism” has become the order of the day. A study, called “Geopolitical Europe in Times of Covid-19” by Mark Leonard of the European Council on Foreign Relations, notes that the shock of the epidemic provoked the same response by nation states within the EU as it did among those outside it: “It was clear that none of the great powers were looking to the multilateral system to provide an answer [to the epidemic]. As the death count rose, every country acted as if it was on its own, closing borders, stockpiling medical equipment, and introducing export controls.” This pushback against political and commercial globalisation continues, affecting everything from cross border migration, international travel and tourism to global supply chains and the distribution of vaccines.

Another nudge to history delivered by Covid-19 is the shift of the crucial arena of world politics from Europe to Asia. The EU is stumbling politically, displaying once again the weaknesses it showed during the 2008 financial crisis and the refugee crisis sparked by the Middle East wars. Brussels may appear like a behemoth to a self-marginalised Britain as it negotiates the terms of its exit from the EU, but the EU is itself becoming more marginal in the world.

Can any rough guide to winners and losers in the year of Covid-19 be drawn up at this stage? America and Britain are both bad losers: Trump and Johnson had been divisive and demagogic before the epidemic struck, but when it did strike it dramatically exposed the dysfunctional nature of their governments and their personal inability to deal with a real crisis. This sense of chronic breakdown is exacerbated in the US by Trump’s fraudulent claims to have won the presidential election, giving a toxic foretaste of a permanently divided and destabilised America.

For Britain the post-Covid-19 and post-Brexit future looks even bleaker than in the US. The latter is a superpower that can make gross mistakes in a way that Britain, as a smaller player, cannot afford to do.

Britain’s final exit from the EU was always going to be difficult, but coronavirus means that it is entering a particularly forbidding political landscape. Brexit in itself is not so peculiar: many nations have sought self-determination, propelled by dreams of getting back control, but Britain has traditionally relied on foreign alliances in war and peace. It has stood alone, notably against Napoleon and Hitler, only because its allies had been defeated and it had no other option.

Britain will try to re-glue its relationship with the US and Europe by becoming a doughty spear carrier for both in the deepening cold war against Russia and China. This explains Johnson’s £16bn increase in the defence budget over the next four years, despite the calamitous damage inflicted on the economy by the epidemic. Gestures like this and a bit of threat-inflation solidify alliances, but they are scarcely an original strategy: Tony Blair tried a similar approach with disastrous results by joining US military ventures in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Britain is facing one of the most serious crises in its history under the least serious leadership it has ever known. The Brexiteers turned out to be a bigger danger than Brexit. Every week brings fresh evidence of their blunders, shady dealings and blindness to the dangers of a deglobalising world in which Britain will be a small fish trying to navigate the political oceans.

• Category: Ideology • Tags: Boris Johnson, Coronavirus, Disease, Donald Trump 

Robert Fisk and I often used to discuss the merits and demerits of responding in print to personal attacks on us filled with provable falsehoods. The temptation to refute such falsehood is hard to resist, but we recognised that therein lies a trap because even the most persuasive refutation of a gross lie necessitates repeating the untruth and giving it greater publicity.

It was also self-evident that partisan critics were not going to apologise and retire in embarrassment if their mendacity or misinformation was exposed, but would simply replace one set of lies with another. The effectiveness of this brazen disregard for truth is demonstrated daily by Donald Trump who almost won re-election despite repeated exposure.

Robert, who died on 30 October, spent almost half a century reporting war and civil wars in the Middle East and elsewhere. He understood that people who are trying to kill each other will not hesitate to lie about each other, and about anybody, notably about journalists, whose information – particularly if it is true – they deem not to be in their interests.

It was all too easy to be demonised as a pawn of Saddam Hussein in 2003 if one said, as Robert frequently did, that the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq would end badly. Similar denunciations of partiality were directed against anybody who wrote about the Syrian conflict post-2011 as a genuine civil war, described the armed Arab opposition as being mostly jihadis, and suggested that Bashar al-Assad was likely to stay as leader, given the balance of power between those fighting each other.

Governments and other proponents of such views do not like to be contradicted and will put great energy into seeking to discredit those who do so. Robert knew this very well, writing that “armies at war – like their governments – are best observed with a mighty degree of scepticism, even cynicism. So far as armies and militias go, there are no good guys.” As a reporter, he worked on this grim assumption. He did not mean that he believed that good people did not exist, but he knew that they are almost invariably to be found among the victims of violence rather than the perpetrators.

Robert was obsessively energetic in investigating the truth about what was really going on and stuck to it, even when what he was writing was contradicted or ignored by other journalists. Probably it was this independence of mind which annoyed so much of the media. Over the years, I became used to listening to reporters spluttering with indignation over another front-page exclusive by Robert. At first, I used to keep silent, reflecting that hell hath no fury like a reporter scooped, and recalling the words of a distinguished American journalist friend who dismissed such bad-mouthing of Robert as “80 per cent envy”.

In later years, I would become irritated or bored by such venomous tittle-tattle, and started to ask those who expressed it to justify what they were claiming. Almost invariably they would look alarmed at being challenged and then repeat some third-hand piece of gossip, or say that they had been where Robert was and had not witnessed what he had seen. But when I probed further, it usually turned out that they had not been quite as close to the front line as he was and they had not stayed there for as long as he had.

None of this malicious gossip matters very much and falls into the category of partisan criticism that Robert and I counselled each other to ignore. Some of it surfaced in the obituaries of Robert, though most laud him as a magnificent reporter and historian. Certainly, he was the best journalist I have ever known. But there are some obituaries, negative in tone, which I nevertheless found interesting because they openly express a vision of what good journalism should be that is wholly contrary to what Robert practiced.

At the heart of this was relentless and meticulous eyewitness reporting of events, a refusal to see complex conflicts in terms of black and white, while not surrendering to moral indifference and keeping a sense of outrage when confronted with real evil. Above all, perhaps, he showed an unbending refusal to back down when what he said was being denied, denounced or ignored by politicians and the media.

Such an approach seems to me to be obviously right, but it is very different from the approach to journalism which is conveniently exemplified by an obituary of Robert appearing in The Times, for whom he worked for 17 years until joining The Independent in 1989. It cites, as an example of his partiality for victims over perpetrators, his account of the massacre of over a thousand Palestinian men, women and children in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut in 1982. It quotes his description of an “old man in pyjamas lying on his back on the main street with his innocent walking stick beside him, the two women and a baby shot next to a dead horse”. In one of the first eyewitness reports of this hideous slaughter, he wrote of the bodies of women who had been raped before being killed and “the armies of flies, the smell of decomposition”.

“The tragedy for Fisk was that this experience changed his perspective forever,” is the surprising conclusion of the obituarist, adding that when Robert went to Northern Ireland as correspondent in 1972 – the year of Bloody Sunday in which thirteen civilians were shot dead by the Parachute Regiment in Derry – “perhaps naively, he was shocked at the treatment of protesters by British soldiers”. In point of fact, it was outrage at such killings, another being the Armenian genocide of 1915, that motivated Robert and should surely motivate all journalists.

It is curious – and depressing – to find commentators who are still shocked by a journalist who criticised government policies at the time that they were being implemented, even when they have since become thoroughly discredited. Robert reporting from Iraq in 2003 was highly critical of the invasion and led, according to The Times, which appears to consider this a weighty point, to the long-forgotten British defence minister of the day, denouncing Fisk’s reports as showing him to be “a dupe of Saddam Hussein’s regime”.

Robert had great physical courage, something that is sustainable in short bursts, but is much more difficult to keep up over long periods of isolation and danger. Derring-do in times of war usually gets good notices from the press and from public opinion, but moral endurance is a much rarer commodity, when the plaudits are replaced by abuse, often from people who see a world divided between devils and angels and denounce anybody reporting less than angelic behaviour on the part of the latter for being secret sympathisers with the devil.

Real journalism is a simple business, but exceptionally difficult to do well. Its purpose is to find out significant news as fast as possible, disregard all efforts by governments, armies and media to suppress it, and pass that information on to the public so they can better judge what is happening in the world around them. This is what Robert did and did it better than anybody else.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: American Media, Middle East 

President Trump may be losing the election, but he is not the aberration in the history of America – one of the Creator’s least funny jokes – as much of the world would like to believe. At least 70 million Americans voted to put him back in the White House, despite witnessing his constant lying, open racism and lethal incompetence over the last four years.

Trump’s supporters did not choose him because they were hoodwinked about what he stood for, but because they wanted his lies to be true, shared his antagonism towards non-white people, and dismissed his incompetence as a media exaggeration or blamed its worst consequences on others.

Most of the Trumpian constituency – half of America – demonstratively backed him, though a proportion were either too embarrassed or too politic to admit their support for his toxic views to pollsters: hence Trump’s startling over-performance in the actual vote compared to the pre-election predictions.

Trump did not invent but he did energise the polarisation of American politics – rooted historically in the division between North and South, free and slave states, Confederacy and the Union – but the political arena now encompasses a much larger geographic area and a wider span of political culture. He successfully plugged himself into one side in this partisan division, envenomed it further, and became its Messianic leader who could do no wrong. His cult-of-personality is not going to disappear because he is out of office, nor will the adoration of his most fervent followers evaporate. But many who followed his victorious banner will edge away from him in defeat – there is some sign that Fox News is already doing so. Moreover, his braying tweets will lose something of their resonance when they cease to be messages coming from the most powerful man on earth.

I have often wondered what explains Trump as a political phenomenon, the most extraordinary of our era. I tried to think of any other politician in the world similar to Trump in the hope that an analogy might be illuminating. There are all too many populist nationalist autocrats popping up, but none is quite like Trump. Boris Johnson has been denounced as “an Old-Etonian version of Trump”, and there are some parallels, but the analogy breaks down because the politics of the two countries differs so markedly. An American commentator familiar with both countries once said to me that “everything in American political culture, at the end of the day, boils down to race, while everything in Britain boils down to class”. The adage is over-simple but useful.

I know of only one political leader in the recent history of the UK who resembled Trump and, unsurprisingly, he came from part of the country, Northern Ireland, where perceived racial and religious identity outscores class in determining political loyalties. The leader in question is Ian Paisley, the late Ulster Protestant leader, who even had a physical resemblance to Trump, both being big beefy men with a strong presence who instantly dominated a room, a meeting or a television studio.

Paisley in the small beleaguered world of Ulster Protestantism and Trump in his gigantic constituency of white non-metropolitan America had much in common. They projected to their followers a world divided between good and bad, loyalists and traitors, expressing total self-confidence in the rightness of their cause. Compare film of the two of them at rallies as they bellow defiance and demonise their opponents. Paisley gave a sense of empowerment to Ulster Protestants as they saw their superior status under attack from the disenfranchised Roman Catholic minority and from relentless de-industrialisation. Trump appealed to a loose coalition, glued together by race and evangelical Protestantism, consisting of Americans who see themselves as left-behind or under threat physically or economically.

Paisley shared another characteristic with Trump: his opponents despised him and made the mistake of under-estimating his political skills and instincts. Trump did the same, pulling off an astonishing victory against Hillary Clinton in 2016 and almost doing so again against Joe Biden this week. Such is the loathing of the Commentariat, American and international, for Trump that they had lulled themselves into wishful thinking about his imminent demise. Yet, putting aside the bombast, he has always been good at identifying his enemies’ weaknesses and his own strengths.

The accuracy of his political instincts is confirmed by the detailed exit polls in the presidential election. He was quick to grasp what many Americans, who might potentially vote for him, really wanted, compared to what they were assumed to want or had told pollsters that they wanted.

The coronavirus epidemic was billed as the dominant Trump-destroying issue of the election, but the poll’s most surprising feature is the degree to which it was decided by the economy and race. Trump may have been damaged but he was not sunk by his appalling record of incompetence during the pandemic. A survey shows that four out of 10 voters said that coronavirus is the biggest issue facing America, but, when it came to voting, a much smaller proportion said that it had determined their choice of Biden or Trump.

This was very different from what the Democrats had expected. Trump’s miserable response to coronavirus was supposed to be their ace card and so, in some respects, it was, as the number of people infected surges to a record 121,000. The Democrats played up the illness, motivated by both genuine fear and political calculation, with Biden staying at home, assiduous mask wearing, the eschewing of rallies and – up to late-in-the-day – limiting their door-to-door canvassing and voter registration.

They under-estimated the degree to which poorly paid workers and small businesses might fear joblessness more than Covid-19. Trump’s attempts to dismiss the illness were irresponsible, but the apocalyptic headlines in the press and on television exaggerated its severity the other way – the pandemic is killing a great many people, but it is still not quite the Black Death.

Trump’s basic message that any good done by health restrictions was outweighed by the economic damage sounded all too convincing to many. In places like Las Vegas, dependent on hospitality and entertainment, Trump’s political advertising was all about the non-existent Democratic plans to impose a total lockdown that would devastate the local economy

How far will the Trumpian coalition survive his exit from the White House? The Republican Party has just shown its strength by holding on to its majority in the Senate and making inroads into the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives. Pundits issue ominous warnings about the abiding strength of Trumpism. Yet cults-of-personality like Trump’s that are enhanced by power are also vulnerable to its loss. He himself will see this as he makes his last desperate efforts to fend off defeat.

• Category: Ideology • Tags: 2020 Election, Coronavirus, Donald Trump, Joe Biden 

By claiming victory in the presidential election while it is still in the balance, President Trump is following what could be called “the Turkish playbook” in his determination to stay in the White House.

This approach is a rerun of the strategy employed by several populist national leaders across the world in recent years to stay in power by prematurely claiming a win at the polls, and then manipulating the final result in their favour through their control of state institutions, such as election supervisory boards and the courts.

Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is alleged to have done this successfully on several occasions, notably in the referendum that vastly expanded his presidential powers in 2017, winning a ballot that his critics say the majority had voted against.

The extent to which Trump succeeds in curtailing the counting of votes in crucial states, such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Georgia, will be a measure of the degree to which the US is on its way to becoming an “illiberal democracy” like Turkey, Poland, Hungary, India, Brazil and the Philippines.

Trump is seeking to build up momentum behind a sense that he has already won a great and inevitable victory. He benefits from a change in the political mood after exaggerated expectations were disappointed of Joe Biden winning in a landslide. Trump tried the same tactic in the mid-term elections in 2018, vigorously downplaying the extent of the Democratic successes so that it was several days before it became clear that the Democrats had, in fact, regained control of the House of Representatives.

It is not yet evident that the strategy of Biden and the Democratic Party leadership – focusing on winning back enough of their traditional voters in the midwestern states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan – has failed. They believed that the great mistake of an overconfident and ill-advised Hillary Clinton in 2016 was to divert attention and resources away from three traditionally Democratic states that were then lost to Trump by the hair’s-breadth margin of 80,000 votes. An overconfident Clinton had not even visited Wisconsin after her nomination.

Biden and his campaign team are being criticised for focusing too much on these states and not concentrating enough on non-white minorities, notably the Hispanic vote in Texas and Florida. At the virtual convention nominating Biden, there was not a single speaker from Texas, though Trump only won the state narrowly. Democratic activists in Georgia, still a possible Biden gain, say that they were kept short of resources.

A Biden victory is still possible, and even probable at the time of writing, but the sweeping successes that the opinion polls had predicted with some confidence never materialised. The question is, why not? The most striking feature of the vote is that the coronavirus epidemic, and Trump’s gross mishandling of it, turned out not to be the dominating issue that it had been forecast to be. Instead, it was the economy, racial differences, and law and order that were the central issues for Trump voters.

It has been a longstanding mistake of the American media to underestimate Trump’s skills as a politician and, above all, as a ferociously energetic and effective campaigner. He is unsurpassed at dominating the news agenda, uncaring about the offensiveness or absurdity of what he says, so long as it grabs attention and gets high ratings on television and social media. Contemptuous of his crassness and mendacity, the media has nevertheless hung on his every word – even when they condemn those words as open racism and lies.

Hillary Clinton and, to a lesser degree Biden, have waited in vain for Trump to self-destruct in 2016 and 2020, but this has never happened. Instead, they made the mistake of allowing a political vacuum to develop, which he was swift to fill.

Again, this is not an uniquely American phenomenon, since an ability to dominate the news has been typical of right-wing populist leaders all over the world in the last 25 years. The earliest example of this trend is probably Benjamin Netanyahu, who first became Israeli prime minister in 1996 (losing and regaining office several times in subsequent years).

The American pundit class and probably a majority of educated Americans regard Trump with such hatred, as the man who is ruining their country, that their judgement of him is often distorted. They hope that every breath of contrary wind will capsize Trump, and the onset of the coronavirus epidemic in America early in the year appeared to be the hurricane that would do the job.

Trump’s efforts to minimise the illness appeared doomed to fail, given that 225,000 Americans had died of it, but he kept repeating that there was little to be frightened of. He dismissed lockdowns and other health measures as doing excessive damage to the economy and his argument clearly struck home.

Biden has the disadvantage of being an apotheosis of the Washington establishment, however many times he emphasises his working-class origins in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Of course, Trump’s claim to be the multi-millionaire tribune of the people is even more absurd, but he is more convincing at playing the populist card than Biden. This does not mean that he will inevitably win the election, but he has got far closer to doing so than most people imagined 24 hours ago.

• Category: Ideology • Tags: 2020 Election, Donald Trump, Joe Biden 

I first met Robert in Belfast in 1972 at the height of the Troubles when he was the correspondent for The Times and I was writing a PhD on Irish history at Queen’s University.

I was also taking my first tentative steps as a journalist, while he was swiftly establishing a reputation as a meticulous and highly-informed reporter, one who responded sceptically – and rigorously investigated – the partisan claims of all parties, be they gunmen, army officers or government officials.

Our careers moved in parallel directions because we were interested in the same sort of stories. We both went to Beirut in the mid-1970s to write about the Lebanese Civil War and the Israeli invasions. We often reported the same grim events, such as the Sabra and Shatila massacre of Palestinians by Israeli-backed Christian militiamen in 1982, but we did not usually travel together because, aside from the fact that Robert usually liked to work alone, we wrote for competing newspapers.

When we did travel together during the wars, I was always impressed by Robert’s willingness to take risks, but to do so without bravado, making sure we had the right driver and the car had petrol that had not been watered down. One reason he had so many journalistic scoops – such as finding out about the massacre of 20,000 people in Hama by Hafez al-Assad in Syria in 1982 – was that he was an untiring traveller. One friend recalls that: “He was the only person I’ll ever know who could, almost effortlessly, make up limericks about the south Lebanese villages, while he was driving through them.”

Yet there was a deadly serious reason why he was visiting those villages. When I was a correspondent in Jerusalem in the 1990s, they were the repeated target for Israeli airstrikes, which the Israeli military would declare were solely directed at “terrorists” and, if there were any dead and wounded, they were invariably described as gunmen who deserved their fate. Almost nobody checked if this was true – except Robert, who would drive to these same shattered villages and report in graphic detail about the dead bodies of men, women and children, and interview the survivors.

Robert was suited to Beirut with its free and somewhat anarchic atmosphere, a place always on edge and with people – Lebanese, Palestinian, exiles of all sorts – who were born survivors, though sometimes the odds against them were too great. Robert had a natural sympathy for their sufferings and a rage against those who inflicted them. His sympathy was not confined to present-day victims: for decades he wrote about the Armenian genocide, carried out by the Ottoman Turks during the First World War. He would publicise diaries and documents about the mass slaughter of the Armenians, stories which other correspondents felt it could be better left to the historians.

But Robert was more than a journalist cataloguing present-day developments and woes. He was a historian as well as a reporter who wrote, among many other books, The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East. I never finished my PhD in Belfast because the violence became too intense for academic work, but Robert did get his doctorate from Trinity college for his thesis on Irish neutrality in the Second World War. My point is that Robert was more than a person who covered “the news”, since his journalism – for all his scoops and revelations – had such depth because he was, in many respects, “a historian of the present”.

He was also, of course, a magnificent reporter who bubbled with nervous energy, often shifting his weight from one foot to the the other, notebook in his hand, as he questioned people and probed into what had really occurred. He took nothing for granted and was often openly contemptuous of those who did. He did not invent the old journalist saying “never believe anything until it is officially denied” but he was inclined to agree with its sceptical message. He was suspicious of journalists who cultivated diplomats and “official sources” that could not be named and whose veracity we are invited to take on trust.

Some have responded to his criticism with baffled resentment: during the US-led counter-invasion of Kuwait in 1991, one embedded American journalist complained that Robert was unfairly reporting on events, knowledge of which should have been confined to an officially sanctioned “pool” of correspondents. Another American journalist based in London in the early 1980s once said to me that Robert was a magnificent writer and reporter, but the American had been struck by the number of his colleagues who grimaced at Robert’s name. “I have thought about this,” he told me, “and I think that 80 per cent of the reason for this is pure envy on their part.”

We saw more of each other after we both joined The Independent, Robert in 1989 and myself in 1990, on the eve of the first Gulf War. I was mostly in Iraq during the fighting and Robert was in Kuwait. Twelve years later we met in Baghdad after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and drove out together over land across the desert to Jordan. I recall that we were stopped for a long time on the Jordanian side of the border because Robert had secured, from the wreckage of some police station, in Basra in southern Iraq, a file of laudatory poems written to Saddam’s ferocious police chief in the city by his underlings on the occasion of his birthday. Some of the Jordanian officials thought that these craven offerings were hilarious, but others found the documents mysterious and kept us waiting for hours at the bleak border post while they waited for official permission to let us cross.

As we grew older, we grew closer. We had similar doubts about the beneficial outcome of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011, having seen similar optimism about the invasion of Iraq in 2003 produce a paroxysm of violence. Neither of us believed that Bashar al-Assad and his regime was going to fall, at a time when this was conventional wisdom among politicians and in the media. To suggest anything to the contrary got one immediately targeted as a supporter of Assad. The sensible course was to ignore these diatribes and Robert and I used to counsel each other not to overreact and thereby give legs to some crudely mendacious tales.

Over the last 15 years we talked almost once a week about everything from the state of the world to the state of ourselves, supplementing phone calls with periodic emails. A life spent describing crises and wars made him more philosophical about the coronavirus pandemic than those with less direct experience of calamities. In one of the last emails I received from him, he wrote that “Covid-19, unless it suddenly turns into a tiger, will be seen as just another risk to human life – like car crashes, cancer, war, etc. Human’s don’t necessarily fight disease, injustice and sorrow. They just survive and bash on regardless.”


Pundits and polls are at one in predicting a victory for Joe Biden over Donald Trump in the presidential election, portraying the vote as a non-military rerun of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, when the north defeated the south in what is regarded as a turning point in the civil war. The violence will be less this time round, but the hatred between the antagonists is at a similar level.

A comparison with the civil war is appropriate because the confrontation between Trump and Biden echoes the armed conflict a century and a half earlier. White America had broken up into two nations then and, to a significant degree, it is two nations now. Trump’s core support is in the south and rural areas; Biden’s is in the north and metropolitan cities.

The match between the two periods is not perfect and the geographical boundaries that define the two different American national identities have changed. Yet, at the core of Trumpism is the white male evangelical Protestant brand of American nationalism that originates in the south and, since the Civil Rights Act of 1965, has blended with and largely taken over the Republican Party. It has transmuted into a radical American nationalist party, its ideology a toxic combination of racism, chauvinism, messianism, social conservatism and free market economics. It enhanced its political punching power by becoming the vehicle for the grievances of the white working and middle class, whose social and economic security has crumbled under the impact of globalisation and new technology.

It was a strange alliance of billionaires and the left-behind that propelled Trump into the White House in 2016, and it would be good to believe that it will face its Gettysburg moment on Tuesday. Battered by almost four years of Trump’s megalomaniac rule, a majority of Americans from Black Lives Matter supporters to long-standing members of the establishment cannot wait for this to happen. Conservative columnist George Will wrote confidently this week that we were seeing the moment when “the Donald Trump parenthesis in American history closes”, while the Republican Party that enabled his rise was facing a political massacre.

Great if this is true, but Trump has often succeeded against the odds, as he did against Hillary Clinton, because his opponents underestimate him. Crude and mendacious he may be, but he is an extraordinarily effective campaigner, much aided by the ineptitude of the Democratic Party leaders.

Fortunately, the breaks that went in his favour in 2016 are now going against him: the coronavirus itself, the consequent economic collapse, his own infection, and the virus sweeping through states that he needs to win in the last days of the campaign. Panicky headlines on the front pages of newspapers in Wisconsin are all about the surging epidemic there, making Trump’s efforts to play down the illness sound crazed and self-destructive.

A pundit like George Will, along with most of the media, wants to see Trump as a “parenthesis”, an appalling aberration in American history, but here they are on shaky ground. The election of Trump may have been one of history’s wild cards, but he is only facing defeat because of an even wilder card in the shape of the onset of an unprecedented pandemic. Late last year, he had a good chance of winning a second term on the back of a booming economy, given that few sitting presidents had been displaced when the economic winds blew in their favour.

No wonder Trump appears to rage against the virus itself, ludicrously belittling its virulence and deadliness, even though it has so far killed 225,000 Americans.

Yet the very fact that it has taken the coronavirus to defeat Trump is evidence, unfortunately, that he is not the aberration or parenthesis that his opponents think him to be. Conviction that he is stems from wishful thinking by many Americans – and a majority of commentators – who detest him as a satanic figure whose rise to power is a horrible historic joke. But such an interpretation, understandable though it may be, underestimates the strength of the forces that backed him and seriously misreads American history.

All countries where slavery was an important institution find it almost impossible to escape a legacy of racial fear and hatred that does not dissipate long after its formal abolition. This is as true of Caribbean islands, where slaves worked in the sugar plantations, as it is of the former slave states in America. Gettysburg was the political and military turning point of the civil war – or is so remembered because of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address – but the defeat of the Confederacy in 1865 did not mean that America ceased to have three different national identities roughly centred on the north, the south and the black community. Clashes and combinations between the three are what makes American culture different and interesting.

Trump fanned and exploited these racial and cultural divisions, but he did not invent them. The north’s military victory destroyed slavery, but it was replaced by the systematic apartheid imposed on black people by the Jim Crow laws. Discrimination was supposedly ended by the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, but the real benefits for black Americans were meagre and uneven, and the counterattack against racial equality had much success against such progress as was made.

At the beginning of the 21st century, it was calculated from official figures that one in three black men would go to prison during their lifetime. As Michelle Alexander wrote in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colourblindness: “Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of colour ‘criminals’” – and then engage in all the discrimination that had supposedly been outlawed.

Ensuring that black people have “felon” status and therefore cannot vote has been central to Republicans winning elections in states like Georgia, Florida and Texas – and may do so again on Tuesday. An important ingredient in Republican success in voter suppression has been the Democratic Party’s failure to combat it effectively. Indeed, Biden’s energetic role in passing legislation that criminalised a significant part of the black population is constantly highlighted by his critics. His supporters prefer to focus attention on the Supreme Court decision in 2013 that struck down a key provision of the Civil Rights Act and allowed Republican-dominated states to gerrymander districts, cut the number of polling booths, and otherwise limit non-white minorities ability to cast their vote.

Voter suppression on a mass scale may not be enough to see Trump re-elected, but its impact should not be underestimated: it was probably decisive in his winning the narrowest of victories in 2016 (much more important than anything the Russians could get up to). A landslide Democratic victory might give them the strength, though perhaps not the will, to reverse the cumulative disenfranchisement of minorities.

“America will never be destroyed from the outside,” Abraham Lincoln is quoted as saying. “If we falter and lose our freedom, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.” The prospect of such destruction came very close during Trump’s years in the White House and has not yet disappeared. If he stays there, of course, it will be a Gettysburg in reverse, fulfilling Lincoln’s dire forecast.


Debate rages on every television screen and newspaper front page about the fairness or unfairness of lockdowns and semi-lockdowns. The finger of blame for the failure to stop the spread of coronavirus is increasingly pointed at the chief of NHS Test and Trace, Baroness Harding, and at the health minister, Lord Bethell, serial blunderers referred to derisively by senior civil servants as “Laurel and Hardy”.

But putting the focus on the failure of the £12bn Test, Trace and Isolate (TTI) system misses a more important point that makes the furore over the new restrictions largely irrelevant. People are rightly outraged by the revelation that a myriad of private sector consultants, without experience of public health and paid up to £7,000 a day, should have orchestrated this fiasco, but their anger is a diversion from a more significant development.

The evidence is mounting that a sizeable part of the population is voting with their feet and opting out of the elaborate regulatory system that is supposed to prevent the spread of the epidemic. They do so because they have become more frightened of these restrictions ruining their livelihoods than they are of contracting Covid-19 in a serious form.

Government and media are so absorbed in a narrative that is all about these new rules that they have not paid enough attention to the limited degree to which people obey them in real life. Blindness about lack of compliance is pervasive, though it is self-evident that adherence to restrictions is ebbing fast. This week it emerged that only 59.6 per cent of the contacts of infected people are reached by phone and told to isolate by the TTI contact tracers.

The official explanation for this low figure is lack of capacity on the part of the TTI system, but another reason is that people who cannot afford to self-isolate, for job or family reasons, simply do not answer the phone when they see a number that they do not recognise coming up. Statistics showing that people really do behave like this were published last month in a groundbreaking survey by King’s College London of 30,000 people, which I have quoted before in this column but do so again because of its great importance.

The survey shows that, while 70 per cent of people say that they will self-isolate if they have Covid-19 symptoms, only 18.2 per cent of them actually did so. The same disparity is true of testing, with 50 per cent saying that they will ask for a test if they have symptoms of the illness, but only 11.2 per cent really do self-isolate. Of those contacted by the NHS and told to quarantine themselves, just “10.9 per cent reported staying at home or quarantining for the following 14 days”.

Chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said diplomatically that there is “room for improvement” in the TTI system, and even Boris Johnson seems to have noticed that it is not working properly. But the Sage report last month famously recommending a short circuit-breaking lockdown, also dismissed the whole TTI system as having only a marginal impact on the transmission rate of coronavirus. It said TTI has failed to do so because it does not contact a sufficient number of potentially infected people, obtain test results early enough to be of use, and too few of those who are contacted adhere to the self-isolation rule.

It is easy to see why people who are at low risk are not complying. A person under the age of 29, who is lucky enough to have a job during a time of soaring unemployment, must balance his or her very low chances of having coronavirus badly enough to make them seriously ill against the undoubtedly damaging impact of self-isolating. Many have every reason to dread testing positive and may instead keep quiet about their symptoms or about any contact they may have had with somebody they know to have been infected.

Personal risk assessments like this explain why infection is still rising in towns and cities where there have been partial lockdowns since midsummer. The government appears baffled by this and blames rowdies outside pubs and other anti-social elements for breaking the rules. Yet for much of the population – essentially the younger part of it – non-compliance makes complete sense. Theirs is not necessarily an “I’m All Right Jack” attitude, since those ignoring the restrictions may try to keep away from their grandparents. It was surely always inevitable that those minimally endangered by the disease would not accept economic ruin and partial house arrest once initial panic was over.

Lockdown sceptics may applaud the idea that Britain has ended up with a sort of variant of the Swedish approach to coronavirus by default and without knowing it. But the sceptics who argue that the economic destruction is too great and does not, in any case, stop the epidemic, spoil their case by downplaying the virulence of coronavirus as a horrible disease. Even those openly or covertly prescribing “herd immunity” – something that is probably unattainable – are not keen to volunteer themselves for early membership of a supposedly “immunised herd”.

When President Trump said in the presidential debate this week that people would have to learn to live with coronavirus, Joe Biden made the obvious retort that a lot of people were dying with it. A total lockdown could work, as it appears to have done in China, but only through a huge and permanent mobilisation of state resources, backed by a fair degree of compulsion. For instance, Chinese returning from abroad have to isolate – and to make sure that they do just that they are allocated a hotel in which to quarantine and not let out until it is over. It is doubtful if Britain – or any European state – has the mechanisms or the determination to do the same.

All epidemics generate fear – and in the case of coronavirus there is plenty to be frightened of. The fear may be greater in Britain because of its spectacularly incompetent government, visibly out of its depth, stumbling from one unforced error to another. But its ineptitude should not distract from the fact that there is no real alternative to a policy of restrictions because two-thirds of the population want them. A Sky News/YouGov poll shows that 67 per cent support a “circuit breaking” temporary lockdown, 64 per cent oppose different rules for young and old, and 61 per cent do not trust Boris Johnson to take the right decisions on the pandemic.

The government and its medical experts risk wrecking the economy in return for limited success in combating the virus, but what they are doing reflects a contradictory popular view that restrictions must be imposed – even when so many people will not, in practice, comply with them because they believe that their personal sacrifice is not proportionate to the danger they face.

• Category: Ideology • Tags: Britain, Coronavirus, Disease 

I was in Baghdad in 1998 during US airstrikes, watching missiles explode in great flashes of light as they hit their targets. There was some ineffectual anti-aircraft fire, the only result of which was pieces of shrapnel falling from the sky and making it dangerous to step outside the building we were in.

To my surprise I saw a reporter, a friend of mine with long experience of war, crawling into the open to use a satellite phone that would not work inside. When he returned, I said to him that it must have been a very important phone call for him to take such a risk. He laughed bitterly, explaining that the reason for his call was that his paper in the US had demanded that he contact some distinguished “expert” in a think tank in Washington to ask him about the air attacks.

Despite my friend being a highly informed eyewitness to the events he was describing, his editors insisted that he access the supposed expertise of the think tanker thousands of miles away. A more covert motive was probably to spread the blame if the reporter on the spot expressed criticism of the airstrikes.

I recalled this story when watching Boris Johnson and his ministers interact with his medical and scientific experts, Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance, sometimes deferential, sometimes dismissive. Naivety and calculation are at work here. Politicians grappling with crises, be it a war or a pandemic, are frequently over-impressed by experts with the right bedside manner and a command of the technical jargon. They are less good, and the same applies to the media, in knowing if this apparent expertise has real practical value in averting some pressing danger. Often it does not. A doctor or an academic specialist may know a lot about how the virus operates inside the body, but have no idea and no experience of how to stop it spreading from person to person in an epidemic. This is quite a different skill.

Politicians are feckless in choosing the right experts, in part because they may be out of their depth in a crisis. There is nothing wrong with this, so long as they plug into the expertise of somebody who really does know what to do and how to do it. Governments often pick the wrong expert out of simple ignorance and because he or she is there primarily to beef up the government’s credibility and provide a scapegoat in case things go wrong.

This strategy worked well enough from the government’s point of view during the first lockdown in Britain, but it is now crashing in flames as the scientists refuse to provide political cover for failed policies.

The manifesto of the mutiny is the Sage memo of 23 September, published this week, which recommended a circuit-breaking lockdown to prevent “a very large epidemic with catastrophic consequences”. Rejection of this recommendation by the government understandably got all the headlines, but towards the end of the memo there is an extraordinary admission that is surely more important than the row about circuit-breaking measures and the different regional lockdowns.

The justification for both is that they provide a pause button, which temporarily holds back the epidemic until a vaccine is discovered – which may be a long time coming. More immediately, closing down all or part of the country is supposed to win time so that an effective Test, Trace and Isolate (TTI) system can be put in place to prevent a resurgence of the virus.

This system was supposed to be at the heart of Britain’s response to coronavirus and the government is spending £12bn pounds on it. Ministers admit to its failings, but portray them as teething problems inevitable in such a big organisation created in such a short space of time. But look at how Sage, which has detailed knowledge of how TTI is really working, dismisses its performance in a single lumbering but damning sentence. This says that “the relatively low level of engagement with the system […] coupled with testing delays and likely poor rates of adherence with self-isolation suggests that the system is having a marginal impact on transmission at the moment.” Moreover, unless the system grows at the same rate of the epidemic, which it has since failed to do, then “the impact of Test, Trace and Isolate will further decline in the future”.

The grim significance of this judgement cannot be over-stressed since it means that the flagship of the Johnson government’s response to the epidemic has already capsized. And there is nothing mysterious about the cause of the TTI shipwreck, which stems from unforced and foreseeable errors by Johnson and his ministers. Many governments get it wrong when trying to choose between experts who know what they are talking about and those that do not. But in deciding to create a massive test and trace apparatus earlier this year, the government took the self-destructive decision to put this highly specialised business into the hands of amateurs with no experience.

Instead of relying on experienced public health experts with a successful record in finding, containing and isolating people infected with HIV and TB, the government handed the project over to the private sector, pouring great sums of money into the creation of a new but, in Sage’s judgement, dysfunctional system. Documents released by the Department of Health and Social Care after a Freedom of Information Act request from Sky News, explains why so much was spent for such small returns. No less than 1,114 consultants from Deloitte, few of whom are likely to be public health experts, are now employed by the government to organise Test, Trace and Isolate with each of them earning a daily fee of up to £2,360. Other consultants, such as those working for the Boston Consulting Group, are even more munificently rewarded, earning as much as £7,000 a day or £1.5m a year.

The failure of NHS Test and Trace to cope with the second wave of the epidemic, as predicted by Sage, is already with us with only 62.6 per cent of those testing positive for coronavirus being contacted so that they can be told to isolate.Not that it would do much good if the call centres reached more people according to a King’s College London survey showing that only 18 per cent of those infected are isolating.

The moment when Britain might have successfully contained the coronavirus has probably passed. This would have been very difficult but not impossible, and it could only have been carried out successfully by a government of real competence, energy and expertise. There was no chance of this being done with Boris Johnson and his crew zig-zagging and blundering so spectacularly that their antics would provide rich material for a Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera, except that there is nothing funny about the unnecessary deaths of so many people. Nor is there any sign that they have learned from their mistakes. As one German statesman asked despairingly of a general during the First World War who wanted to press on with some calamitous offensive: “Where does the incompetence end and the crime begin?”

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Boris Johnson, Britain, Coronavirus 

The battle against Covid-19 is often compared to real war. The analogy encourages a “we are all in it together” solidarity and suggests that it is unpatriotic to criticise or oppose government decisions.

Yet the comparison should not be entirely dismissed as self-serving bluster by political leaders because a war and a pandemic have many points in common. Both are matters of life and death for people who will not forgive those in charge that get them into a calamitous crisis or cannot get them out of it. Witness how Tony Blair was ultimately capsized by the Iraq War, and how President Donald Trump’s re-election chances are being hit by his grotesque mishandling of the pandemic.

Watching the antics of Trump and the blunders of Boris Johnson in failing to cope with the virus, I have the same feeling I had repeatedly over the last 20 years when reporting on wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Libya. In all cases, arrogant assumptions of competence and strength were brutally exposed by complicated and dangerous realities on the ground.

The spectacular ineptitude of Trump and Johnson masks the extent to which the decline of the Anglo-American political elite long predates their arrival in power. The consequences of these long-term failings for the US and UK only became clear this year as the number of their citizens dying has soared above the figure for comparable powers. Trump’s comic opera boasts about “Making America Great Again” and Johnson’s puerile boosterism for “Global Britain” sounds more and more pathetic.

Governments of all stripes see wars, natural disasters and, most recently, epidemics as an existential threat to themselves, but also as an opportunity. Get it wrong and they may put themselves out of business for good. Get it right and they could strengthen their grip on power for decades. Frequently, they come spectacularly unstuck because of an exaggerated idea of their own capabilities. They underestimate their enemy, be it a human agency or a virus, and flounder when combating a real threat.

Most governments are good at producing plausible policies, but are alarmed and found wanting when these supposed strategies have to be implemented. Politicians are often poor at the complex business of “operationalising” policies and taken aback when they discover that the results of past mistakes cannot be put right on the night.

The record of the Johnson government is a caricature of this approach. It conveys an air of baffled amateurism as successive lockdowns and quasi-lockdowns flounder and fail. It does not see that attempts to transform the well-established patterns of behaviour of millions of people cannot succeed by simply announcing new regulations and threatening heavy fines for those who do not obey them.

For all the furore about new restrictions in the north of England, a more important question is how far people are complying with the old ones. There is strong evidence that pervasive non-adherence is the answer to Sir Keir Starmer’s question – unanswered by Johnson – this week about why 19 out of 20 areas subject to restrictions over the last two months are still showing a sharp rise in infections.

A convincing reason for why lockdowns are not working comes in a little-remarked survey by King’s College, London, showing a vast disparity between the proportion of people who say they will quarantine and those who actually do so. A survey of 31,787 people living in the UK between March and August reveals that 70 per cent of people who had not experienced Covid-19 symptoms in the previous week said that they intended to self-isolate, if they did develop these key symptoms, and 50 per cent said they would request an antigen test.

But the survey also shows that people mostly do not follow through on their good intentions. The crucial passage says that “of those that reported the key Covid-19 symptoms in the last week, 18.2 per cent reported that they had self-isolated and 11.9 per cent reported that they had requested an antigen test”. The reasons for the exceptionally low compliance with restrictions is that poor people find that they have to give priority to making a living and looking after children and other relatives. “While intention to carry out test, trace and isolate behaviours is high, our results show that adherence is low,” says Louise Smith, one of the authors of the report, which has still to be peer-reviewed.

The study suggests improved communications with people to explain the nature and risks of coronavirus and better financial support for those who should be isolating. But I think that ship has sailed and the moment has passed when people were ready to comply with restrictions that might lose them their job or prevent them from looking after their children or parents. Compliance with the first big lockdown was probably less than it looked at the time and it cannot be repeated because those who made sacrifices then can see that it did not work. They can also see no reason to suppose that further restrictions will be any more successful.

Confidence that the government knows what it is doing has plummeted since the first half of the year. Criticism has focused on the inadequacy of the government’s Heath Robinson “test, trace and isolate” system, but, even if this were to be radically improved, it will not work if a large part of the population simply cannot afford to follow the rules. The inequalities of British society mean that the virus will never lack for new hosts so lockdowns, however severe, will fail to suppress it.

The Johnson government, while happy to use the rhetoric of war, has never understood that only mobilisation of resources on a wartime scale can really suppress the virus and allow a return to normal life. China, one of the few countries that is not an island to succeed in suppressing the infection, only did so by tremendous efforts. When a woman in Beijing tested positive in July, 29 contact tracers reportedly took 24 hours, using payment information and taxi-hailing orders, to find and isolate 204 people who might have been infected.

The media’s total absorption in the pandemic ends up militating against understanding it because the 24/7 news cycle means that significant new information – like the KCL study on non-adherence to restrictions – gets submerged by a tidal wave of information. The greatest obstacle to knowing what is happening is not “fake facts”, as is often lamented, but the sheer quantity of facts that are available in the internet age.

Wars and epidemics alike produce a torrent of news that obscures decisive developments. In Iraq and Afghanistan, it masked the fact that wars that the Americans and British thought they had won were being lost. Much the same mix of wishful thinking and blindness to what is really happening on the ground now hides the reasons behind the failure to stop the spread of the coronavirus epidemic.

• Category: Foreign Policy, Ideology • Tags: Britain, Coronavirus 
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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