THE UK PASSED a grim milestone yesterday, as Boris Johnson announced that officially recorded coronavirus deaths have passed 100,000. Only five countries have crossed this number: ourselves aside, there is the US, Brazil, India and Mexico.
Attention will inevitably turn to the Government’s handling of the pandemic. Boris Johnson has taken “full responsibility”, while also adding: “We truly did everything we could.” Critics will dispute this, after a record of bungling that included prevarication over lockdown; the botched procurement of PPE; the decanting of sick elderly people from hospitals to care homes; the exams debacle; and the “world beating” test and trace system. Dithering over lockdown, alone, may have cost 20,000 lives and 30 percent of deaths in those crucial early months happened in care homes.
In hindsight, it’s impossible to deny that errors of judgement contributed to Britain’s macabre statistics. It’s impossible to ignore the contribution of disproportionate deaths among poorer communities, ethnic minorities and disabled people. Equally, there were specific British tragedies, such as the new variant outbreak that took such a toll at Christmas, that reflect both complacency and misfortune.
One interesting insight came from Professor Calum Semple, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies. He told BBC Newsnight that “bad luck” had contributed to Britain’s fate but also pointed to “decades of underinvestment” in the NHS and “a public health authority that’s been eroded”.
Rather too often, fingers are pointed at specific leaders or current events. Boris Johnson’s oafish aura makes him an easy target. Equally, a dedicated band of keyboard warriors seems determined to blame everything on Brexit, having concluded that everything was hunky dory in the United Kingdom until that one fateful day in 2016.
In truth, this disaster has been decades in the making. It is a product of underinvestment and crumbling infrastructure, reflecting successive governments committed to market globalisation at all costs, running back (at least) to 1979. This slapdash way of life became the “Anglo-American model” of governance, and its contributions to history range from the Grenfell Tower disaster to the collapse of political order during the austerity era.
Coronavirus spread through the cracks of that order and has contributed to its final disintegration. The costs are incalculable. 100,000 deaths impose the heaviest toll on bereaved families; and before this immediate crisis ends, experts predict perhaps another 50,000. Beyond that, many more will live with long-term physical health problems deriving from the virus. And the impact on the NHS means untold thousands missed out on or delayed other vital treatments.
Equally, the mental health impact of lockdowns, bereavement and economic collapse is difficult to even consider, because there are so few precedents. For some time, mental health services have been among the most studiously neglected components of Britain’s system of organised underinvestment. Demand will explode once this is over, and the system is bound to crack.
So Britain’s problem is not just clearing up the aftermath of the pandemic, but addressing decades of built up root causes. Try as you might, you won’t solve that by booting out the Tories and putting Sir Keir Starmer in power. Nor is it enough to simply call for abstract, formless resistance. A political revolution is needed, that would address a gaping democratic deficit and encompass political control over economic resources. With effective leadership, Scotland could be in pole position to begin that process.