Will the war against Covid-19 end the same way as most wars, with refugees evacuated by helicopter from embassy roofs even as the politicians declare victory?
By Graham Smith
The bellicose rhetoric surrounding the Covid-19 Coronavirus crisis has reminded me of how I came to take up journalism, nearly half a century ago.
The daily barrage of words such as the “war” on the invisible virus, with doctors, nurses and care workers battling on the frontline, puts me in mind of the Vietnam war. Like many hacks of my generation, it was the pioneering way in which the Vietnam conflict was reported which inspired (compelled?) me to put finger to typewriter.
My heroes were journalists like John Pilger and Peter Arnett, whose pursuit of the truth required them to ask the sort of questions which the US military preferred not to answer. Photographers like Sean Flynn and Tim Page took huge personal risks to evidence the official mendacity.
You can imagine my disappointment when it dawned on me that the most excitement I could expect as a cub reporter on the Cambridge Evening News was my monthly visit to Steeple Bumpstead parish council.
I was however familiar with how journalism had gone down in Vietnam, with the military’s press officers holding daily briefings to announce their estimates of the latest numbers of enemy killed. These briefings were known as the Five O’Clock Follies, and the journos quickly came to learn that no rumour could be taken as true until it had been officially denied. The question which kept coming back, and which was never answered, was “how will we know if we have won?”
Today we have our own version of the Five O’Clock Follies. I confess I now spend every day glued to my television set (there is nothing else to do) but I can no longer tell if I am watching the latest Downing Street briefing, or another episode of Pointless. One has a man in a suit, accompanied by a sidekick, telling us things which are fabulously irrelevant. The other is a game show presented by Alexander Armstrong.
Watching Health Secretary Matt Hancock talking about the distribution of Personal Protective Equipment to “frontline” warriors I was struck by how this would have been received by journos at the Rex hotel in Saigon in 1968. Mr Hancock’s claims were so far from the truth that I doubt he would have even tried it if the journos had not been at a safe, remote distance at the other end of their video links. By the time this particular episode of Hancock’s Half Hour got to the bit about doctors and nurses not wasting their PPE, I was desperate for another glass of wine, less I felt compelled to exert great violence towards my TV screen. What a depressingly predictable attempt to dodge the blame for Mr Hancock’s own corporate, bureaucratic incompetence.
The Covid-19 journos are not exactly covering themselves in glory. Occasionally we get a good question, but effective follow-ups are rare. What will victory look like? Not only does no-one know, no-one is even asking. The mainstream broadcast media luvvies are the worst. The Five O’Clock Follies are all about them, simply looking for the vainglorious clip they can use in the news later. The best questions are all coming from the newspaper reporters.
The Heath Service Journal asked a good question yesterday, about how NHS leaders are quietly investigating the unintended consequences of the war against Covid-19. How many heart patients are not getting treatment? What has happened to stroke victims? How many quality-added life-years are being sacrificed because of strategic judgements made in secret? To what extent has the medical profession been forced to abandon its core business of saving all lives?
Public Health England data published last week showed Emergency Department attendances had plummeted to around half of the normal levels. This included a reduction by about half in attendances for heart complaints. There have also been multiple warnings about fewer people coming to hospital when they were having a stroke.
The last helicopter out of Saigon, 1975. After more than decade of war, Americans were told that this was “victory”
So what will “victory” over Covid-19 look like? Will there be a peace treaty and a signing ceremony?
In my humble opinion, a good victory will be the permanent restoration of our National Health Service with Public Health at its heart. Public Health was once the cornerstone of civilised society. But in 2012, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government took it away from the NHS and gave it to local councils. The Tories saw this as an opportunity to cut funding. The Lib Dems thought it played to their ideological obsession with “local” control, failing to realise that they did not actually control anything.
The lockdown will gradually be eased. There will be a trade-off between economic interests and the acceptance that some people, particularly the elderly and the frail, will contract the virus and probably die. We will probably not worry too much, as long as we don’t count everybody, in much the same way that we are already not counting deaths in care homes. This is something that Public Health Cornwall should be doing right now.
Victory over Covid-19 should herald a return to the sort of well-funded public health campaigns of the 1940s, 50s and 60s: prevention always being better than the cure. This will mean taking public health back from Cornwall Council and re-integrating it into the NHS.
But I fear that the war against Covid-19 will end the same way as most wars, with refugees evacuated by helicopter from embassy roofs even as the politicians declare victory. I fear it is highly likely that Covid-19 will have the last laugh, long after Boris Johnson announces that he has sent it packing.