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Malachi O'Doherty

Why coronavirus means it will be a long time before a politician calls for cuts in health service spending

Malachi O'Doherty


The pandemic is a great equaliser; it forces us to make our society more equal in order to survive

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NHS spelt out on the Black Mountain to show support to NHS workers during the coronavirus pandemic in Belfast on Friday, March 27th 2020 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)

NHS spelt out on the Black Mountain to show support to NHS workers during the coronavirus pandemic in Belfast on Friday, March 27th 2020 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

NHS spelt out on the Black Mountain to show support to NHS workers during the coronavirus pandemic in Belfast on Friday, March 27th 2020 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)

Jeremy Corbyn, as a contender for the job of Prime Minister, was once asked if, in the event of us being nuked by Russia, he would retaliate by destroying Russian cities with Trident. He couldn't demonstrate the mandatory determination to waive all previous civilised norms and commit himself to unprecedented genocide.

That damaged his prospects, because, of course, you don't go anywhere in British politics if you don't believe in the strategy of deterrence, which says, if you are thinking of hitting us, don't bother because we will definitely hit you back.

What Corbyn did in baulking at that confident declaration of intent to commit a war crime and murder millions of people was not only to weaken his campaign. He actually invalidated the entire strategy of deterrence itself.

Because if you were Vladimir Putin and thinking of erasing London and Birmingham, you might be more likely to do that if you thought that Great Britain was governed by somebody who would not see much point in escalating a nuclear war having just lost about 15 million people.

So, I think deterrence as a strategy for a future war, in which the other guy fires first anyway, is total nonsense.

I know that people I regard as normally sane disagree with me on this. People I regard as normally humane cast their votes for politicians who are committed to the incineration of vast numbers of innocent people, not to win a war, but to avenge a first strike.

But I have to consider that they haven't thought it through, that they can endorse murder on that scale only because they don't think the occasion will arise.

Every so often down the years, and especially around the turn of the millennium, when the end of the world was in prospect, at least in prophecy and sci-fi, newspapers would run features on which threat was most likely to do away with us

We won't have to bottle out of destroying Russia, because Russia does believe we would go ahead and fire.

But if all we need is for Russia to believe that we have missiles pointed at them, why don't we spend our money on polyester rockets and good propaganda? It would be cheaper.

Then we would free up billions for meeting a global threat which does not respond to reason, or succumb to compassion: viral contagion.

Every so often down the years, and especially around the turn of the millennium, when the end of the world was in prospect, at least in prophecy and sci-fi, newspapers would run features on which threat was most likely to do away with us.

The shortlist always included nuclear war, asteroids, artificial intelligence and a pandemic.

Our governments put their best bet on nuclear war and, therefore, committed themselves to building the very instruments by which we would all be done in.

Now, imagine a world in which we had put those resources into defending ourselves against viruses.

Imagine one in which a party to government could not conceivably say something like: I will not shy away from cutting back on the training of nurses to save the health service some money.

Who said that? Edwin Poots.

It doesn't matter. For the last decade, the British people have been voting for governments that slashed the health service while mouthing platitudes about how safe it was in their hands.

The coronavirus has, I hope, prompted us to reconsider our priorities. One has to have particular pity for a country like the United States, which does not really believe in public health

So, you could get into government to cut the health service, but not to abolish a pointless obscenity like the Trident missile system.

We have to think of those poor boys and girls out in the oceans in their submarines who will press the button to destroy Russia, even as they get the news along with the order that they have no home country to return to. I hope they have a lot of canned food in their submarines.

The coronavirus has, I hope, prompted us to reconsider our priorities. One has to have particular pity for a country like the United States, which does not really believe in public health.

Political candidates there have ridden high by scoffing at the very idea that one voter's taxes might contribute to another voter's treatment.

This is an idea that is even dafter than deterrence. It assumes, like the famed Adam Smith, that the "invisible hand" of the market will look after all needs without stopping to consider how the market would do that.

It would do it in the same way that the laws of evolution would, by dispensing with those who don't fit. The system's fundamental incongruity becomes clear when there is a pandemic.

If people don't get treatment, because they don't have health insurance, then they keep going to work, or out onto the street to beg, while they are infectious. The pandemic, as the great equaliser, requires us to equalise our societies to survive.

And we have seen amazing changes. A Tory government is paying most of the wages of people who must stay away from work.

The impact appears to be liberalising, because it is forcing governments which privileged the market to see that we are all responsible for each other

This from the party which, when economic factors stripped people of their jobs, held those same people to account as work-shy malingerers and spongers who didn't want to work. Now, we see a deep alteration in consciousness.

Of course, it isn't only the conservative way of thinking that may be changed by this experience of shared danger.

The impact appears to be liberalising, because it is forcing governments which privileged the market to see that we are all responsible for each other. But with that insight comes an onus on the individual too.

Today, we all have our freedoms curtailed in a way that we never imagined in our lifetimes that a British or Irish Government would enforce.

The police are on Twitter, telling us not to go to the beach, but to stay at home and there is no countervailing voice saying this is tyranny, though that is what we would call it in other circumstances.

We understand and most of us comply and we do this not just so that we avoid infection ourselves, but because we don't want to be the one that brings it home to a loved one and causes a death in the family. That's how serious this is and we have grasped that.

How these lessons in shared experience and shared responsibility stay with us and change us is yet to be seen, but I suspect that it will be a generation at least now before any politician is rash enough to think that there are votes to be won by cutting back on public health.

As for defending ourselves against the Russians that's important too. It's just perhaps not quite as important as having enough ventilators, face masks, doctors, nurses, intensive care beds and all the other things whose need a generation of politicians thought it clever to ignore.

Belfast Telegraph