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The Guilty Men and the Little Hitlers: Part 2

The process of social forgetting that I predicted in Part 1 is now so far underway that – outside a small section of the left – it’s necessary to remake arguments that were simply obvious a few weeks ago.  So this is actually going to  be a series, each of which will be long enough to deserve a contents section.  In this post I’ll define what I mean by “the Little Hitlers”, and look at the crimes against science committed by one group of them, and narrate part of how this led to our current disaster.

The Little Hitlers

Unlike the more famous “Guilty Men” who it will be hard to forget altogether, and whom it is necessary to combat in the longer term, and by means of permanent and hefty print editions, because of their current ascendency in power, there is a category of individuals and organisations that will need to be taken on in the very short term, and who are liable to disappear from view more easily.  With this lot, online activism and record-keeping, and informal contact is the way to hold them accountable for their behaviour during the Covid-19 Pandemic. 

Sticking with the idea of using readily available egalitarian rhetoric from the anti-fascist struggles of the Second World War, I’m calling them the “Little Hitlers”. 

The Little Hitlers come in a variety of types.  The appropriate means of dealing with each will differ, as we’ll see.  Before we do though, it’s worth pointing out four definitional caveats:

Firstly, a big enough “Little Hitler” will deserve and demand mention amongst the systemically  “Guilty Men”, whilst the actions and strategies appropriate in confronting tiny Hitlers will still be necessary in confronting their masters.

Although I’ve used terminology that appears to refer exclusively to men, that doesn’t mean we should give credence to (allegedly) feminist theories that suggest the failures have been exclusively male.  To take only one example, the media’s uncritical adulation for an incompetent Westminster government has had significant contributions from women. 

Any other, similar, attempt to claim the whole set of individuals who are members of an entire population group as automatically good, and as “not guilty” in our current disaster, would be similarly ill-advised.

Finally, my definitions and labels here are for designed to inform practical purposes, rather than as some kind of final typology.  None have clear edges and none are final.  If they help you act effectively, great.  If not, bin them and do whatever works for you.  The same, obviously, applies to any of my suggestions of method.

The Little Hitlers of business as usual

The first group of “little Hitlers” who are going to need confronting are those that might best be called the “Little Hitlers of Business as Usual”.  Some of them are amongst the most famous of the guilty men.  But effectively combatting Covid-19 was delayed by weeks not only by a network of stupidity reaching to the very top, but also from smaller individuals and organisations who always had the option and information to shift approach – but chose to delay out of concern for personal power and corporate profit.

Constructing "the Science" of business as usual

There is only room here to recap a few of the most significant of the ways in which “the science” was abused in the service of established power.  

But recounting “what was known when”, even as briefly as is done below, shows that there was sufficient information available for useful action to minimise spread to have been taken far earlier than actually happened.  On this basis it is possible to identify “who could have helped”.  That is, which individuals and organisations contributed significantly to the delay by deliberate activity, knowledgable inactivity, or wilful obstruction.  Knowing this means it is possible to argue what action can and should be taken regarding those individuals and organisations to further the public good now; and to ensure that justice is done in the future on the basis of wrongs committed.

What was known when? The vital dates

2011

The 2011 UK government guidance on Pandemic preparedness sets out in black and white that the key government strategy for future pandemics will be giving up completely.  Like this:

That’s not the whole approach outlined there, obviously.  But it is symptomatic enough of the attitude of surrender and business as usual that permeates the entire document that we don’t really need to look too closely at the document overall right now.  Except to note that the “learning” the document refers to is from earlier Pandemic preparations that were considered not to be “proportionate”.  That is, they focused too much on saving lives rather than avoiding inconvenience.  The report therefore explicitly advises against having “worst-case” planning assumptions as the focus (page 8, since you ask).

There was no justification in this report for contemplating any pause in the ongoing part-privatisation, wage stagnation and underinvestment in the NHS.  The planned response was essentially to put publicity material telling us to wash our hands and hope; whilst keeping everything open to prevent us from panicking.   In addition, it recommends learning from “behavioural scientists” what the population is likely to do in the event of a pandemic.  Behavioural science, it should be noted, is not “science” in the same way as is physics or chemistry – it is actually, very precisely, sociology minus sociology’s hard-learned philosophical uncertainties about accurately predicting human behaviour.  And without Burkean conservatism’s reasonable scepticism about the idea of attempting to make human affairs a science in the full sense.

2013

There’s some updates added to the Pandemic Preparedness Strategy document.  Particularly, there’s this one.  Although it refers to studies and evidence showing that school closures and the restriction of mass events can stop and slow transmission of Pandemic influenza, it manages to argue against taking them seriously.

How?

Because they are not “new”.  In an astonishing demonstration of the arrogance of bad science, the authors say more study is needed with better design, whilst the vast proportion of historical evidence available is ignored because it’s, in a word, “historical”. 

I wish I was joking:

“limited – and mainly historical – evidence indicates that restrictions of mass gatherings can reduce transmission when part of a package of other public health interventions including isolation and school closures.”

Let’s be 100% clear here.  Of the 1990 studies they surveyed, there was no evidence in any of them that restricting mass gatherings would cause a Pandemic to spread faster.  Because it wouldn’t.  But there was evidence (historical evidence) that showed that the failure to restrict mass gatherings would cause a Pandemic to spread faster. 

The UK government’s trusted scientists, for whatever reason, chose to actively downplay the science that was screaming in their face, and to just lazily recommend “More studies of appropriate design and power” to “generate an improved evidence base to support policy making on this subject”. 

They even concluded their efforts by suggesting a “comparison group such as non-exposed individuals”.  That is, they seriously put forward the idea that there should be funding for studies on the transmission of Pandemic Flu – amongst people with no exposure to Pandemic Flu.

It appears, if this is anything to go by, that there was some unfortunate sociological mechanism amongst the UK scientists preventing them from taking their obligations to public health as seriously as they should have.  It’s even possible to suspect these last remarks of being part of a strategy aimed at securing funding for revisiting known facts, whilst freeing politicians from the burden of acting upon them.  I really hope that’s not so.

2016

Nothing changed in 2016, although there was a clear warning.  Because in October of that year Exercise Cygnus happened.  This was an NHS England exercise to find the likely effects of an influenza Pandemic on NHS resilience planning.  In other words, it tested whether the NHS would break during a global flu.  The exercise found, unambiguously, that it would.

Councils and NHS boards working on the basis of the that information came up with proposals to “incorporate the learning from that exercise”.  What they should have been doing was panicking and shouting to anyone who would listen that there was not enough PPE for NHS staff.  In case you missed the importance of this, let me state it again in italics. 

Cygnus found that there was not enough PPE for NHS staff.

This wasn’t the only lack it found, by any means.  There wasn’t enough preparation for mass vaccination, for dealing with excess community deaths, for dealing with problems in social care environments, for acting jointly with NGOs & Army and Fire Services.  Perhaps most tellingly, weaknesses in strategic decision-making also appear to have been identified.  But little was done.  Especially, it appears nothing was done that would mean civil servants or senior NHS managers challenging the Conservative austerity programme.  The Telegraph was told that:

A similar attitude underlies most of the instances of American refusal to deal with pandemic warnings – although this reddit page appears credibly, in the American case, to put the fault squarely at the top of the Trump administration.  That is, with Donald Trump himself.  Officials knew the possibilities, warned about them, and were ignored and fired. 

2017

Or, as was the case with the warning given by Doctor Anthony Fauci in 2017, they were ignored because their knowledge was based on work for the Obama adminstration. In the UK, by contrast, the officials whose job it was to give the warnings tended to perceive their role as official advisers as consisting in enthusiastically enabling the decisions of neoliberal policymakers; and where warnings were given, they were given tactfully and in private.

It’s worth noting that senior public health scientists and epidemiologists in the UK should – assuming that they were keeping their knowledge base as up to date as you’d expect from scientists of this status and salary level – have known about Fauci’s public warnings.

2019

Sir Patrick Vallance finally delivers a National Security Risk Assessment document to the UK government that warns of the prospect of pandemic influenza.  This was, apparently, lengthy and detailed and warned against complacency.  It recommended stockpiling personal protective equipment, sorting purchase orders for other vital stuff, arranging contact tracing procedures and sorting out dealing with the excess deaths.  Of course, it was already too late to warn against complacency, with a culture of complacency embedded even amongst some of the scientists well paid to know better.

31st December 2019

The Chinese government – possibly as much thanks to alert citizens on social media as to the efficiency of its own officials – notify the WHO of a new pneumonia of “unknown etiology”.  This is the date that the global race against Covid-19 begins. 

From here on,  other things being equal, the states where the politicians and scientists panic first will be the ones where the deaths are lowest.  Chinese scientists see the danger and work hard and fast to learn about it.

3rd January 2020

Courtesy of China’s national science facilities, the new disease gets a name (Novel Coronavirus-Infected Pneumonia), acknowledgement that it is being passed between humans, and full genomic sequencing.

China’s politicians, however, are not quite as aware of the urgency of the situation.  Instead of instituting national, panic-driven safety measures, they’re desperately trying to play it cool.  In particular, they’re telling Wuhan opthalmologist Dr. Li Wenliang to stop spreading panic through social media lies that “threaten the social order”, and force him to sign a confession to the effect that that’s what he’s done.  He goes back to work, catches the new disease, and dies early in February. 

The Chinese authorities, to be fair, managed to apologise to him whilst he was still alive. As we’ll see, this probably would not have happened here. 

9th January 2020

First death occurs.  But the Chinese authorities still take a little while to start moving towards the realisation that urgency is necessary. 

Because it is still ambiguous whether human-to-human transmission is actually happening, a whole load of bad decisions and non-decisions are taken on the basis that life should just go on as normal until it’s certain that things actually were really as bad as feared. 

Possibly the most important of these was Zhou Xianwang’s decision, as mayor of Wuhan, to go ahead with a massive New Year event as planned on the 18th January

By 21st January, Zhou Xianwang’s getting called out on national TV for making what was clearly a really bad decision on mass gatherings.  You want to know his justification, or would you like to just hazard a wild guess?

Yep, you got it.  “The science” said that it would be fine. 

Because China is a bit more explicit about the repressive nature of the State than the UK, he had to put it a bit more articulately than that, obviously.  He actually said that there hadn’t been “enough warning” from the scientists that the virus was transmissable between humans, so the event went ahead. 

Because it’s a country far away, and lots of us in the west are a bit racist and think the Chinese are nothing like as clever as us, it’s really easy to see that this logic is just bloody stupid. You can’t logically blame scientists for not giving a big enough warning if you fail to cancel a fucking humoungous party out of reasonable caution.

All credit to him  (or the Chinese Communist Party) though – he didn’t carry on blaming the scientific advice for long.  By the 28th January he offered to resign if it would help fight the outbreak more effectively.  He’s still mayor of Wuhan City at the time of writing, but it’s fair to say he won’t be getting many banquet invitations in the future.

By this time, the disease has moved way beyond the city of Wuhan, and, indeed, has made its way to Australia, Hong Kong, Macau, Thailand, America, Malaysia, Singapore, Cambodia, Ivory Coast and Sri Lanka.

The WHO is at this point debating whether to declare a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern”.  Despite the insane complexities and difficulties of coordinating the intersections of medicine and politics globally, they do this on 30th January 2020.

That’s exactly three months ago as I type this. At that moment – as I hope you realise from what’s been said up to now – enough is known about the deadliness and speed of spread of the virus that the effectiveness of  responses is entirely a political variable.  Whilst there were any number of questions about the science, it is clear that human to human transmission is occurring.  It’s clear that failure to take the new disease seriously has already led to cases spreading.  It’s established beyond any sane doubt that mass gatherings cause the infection to spread.  And politicians worried for their reputation already have a perfect object lesson in the dangers of inaction and complacency from the humiliation of Zhou Xianwang after the New Year Debacle in Wuhan.

This was not an appropriate time for keeping calm and carrying on.  It was the appropriate time for blind panic and the – amply scientifically justified – shutdown of normal human contact in order to save lives.

As we know, that didn’t happen.  At least, not here.

Whether “here” means “the UK” or “Wales”.   We’ll see next time how exactly how “the science” ended up being abused further in the service of political (but not literal) self-preservation.