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Brazil: Populist Pandemic

What do you do if you are in charge of dealing with the pandemic and the number of deaths is getting out of control?

Simple. Stop publishing the number.

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has been having a bad time with the pandemic. His default mode has been callous disinterest: when told in early May that the country’s Covid-19 death toll had reached 5,000, he said “So what? I’m sorry. What do you want me to do?”

When the number reached 30,000 dead early this month, he tried a philosophical tone instead: “I regret every death, but that’s everyone’s destiny.” But the victims’ families and friends remain unreasonably fixated on the question of why they had to die from coronavirus this month rather than of something else many years from now, and blame Bolsonaro for their untimely departure.

So on Sunday, with Brazil’s death toll about to pass 40,000 and become second only to that of the United States, Bolsonaro stopped his government from publishing the total any more.

From now on, only today’s number of infections, deaths and recoveries will be announced. No more awkward comparisons with other countries, no five-digit running total to confront him with his failure each day. And of course no attempt to establish the real number of deaths, which is almost certainly at least twice the official number since many victims never got to hospitals.

There is a temptation to group the three populist leaders of big Western democracies together, and they do have a lot in common. Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson removed a similarly damning piece of data from the daily press conference when the UK’s death toll per million overtook that of every other major European country. (It is now second-worst in the entire world.)

America’s Donald Trump, Bolsonaro’s idol, spent just as much time in the early months of this year belittling the gravity of the threat (Bolsonaro: “It’s only a little flu”; Trump: “It’s going to disappear. One day it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.”) None of the three men will wear a mask, and they are all compulsive serial liars.

Nevertheless, there are major differences. Johnson manages to sound as if he cares about all the lives lost, and Trump at least goes through the motions occasionally. Johnson eventually declared a lock-down, although much too late, and Trump at least went along for a while with the lock-downs declared by almost all of the states.

Bolsonaro, by contrast, openly condemned the lock-downs declared by the various Brazilian states and ostentatiously disobeyed them. He held rallies and took crowd baths. He swiped his nose on the back of his hand and then shook hands with a fragile old lady. He showed up at a barbecue on a jetski.

He has fired two successive health ministers since January because they were taking the pandemic too seriously and hindering Brazilians’ return to work. He joined a street protest calling for a return to the military dictatorship that finally fell in 1985. He regularly vilifies the poor, the left, indigenous Brazilians, gays and non-whites.

Like Trump, he hates the World Health Organisation, but unlike Trump he also accuses the WHO of encouraging masturbation and homosexuality among children. He is widely believed to have links with paramilitary groups associated with the mafia.

And he is currently presiding over a pandemic that will probably kill over 100,000 Brazilians without lifting a finger to stop it.

Yet in late 2018 he won the presidential election in the first round with 55% of the vote, and his character was hardly a secret even before the election. A recent poll showed that his popularity is now down to 32%, so Brazilians have noticed that something is wrong with him, but it still verges on the inexplicable. Or does it?

The electorate that voted for Bolsonaro in 2018 was little changed from the one that gave Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva, the absolute antithesis of Bolsonaro, two terms in the presidency immediately before him. Just as the American electorate that put Trump in office in 2016 was little changed from the one that elected Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.

They didn’t suddenly go blind when confronted with a candidate as fraudulent as Trump or Bolsonaro. They deliberately overlooked his flaws because he offered them something they needed. It was probably something economical or psychological, and not specific to any single country because the mood struck British and Brazilians and Americans at the same time. (And Hungarians and Turks and Filipinos and Indians too.)

What this tells us – and I’m sorry to be the bearer of this news – is that if that same something is still bothering the voters when the next election rolls around next November in the US, or in Brazil in 2022, or in the UK in 2024, the same person can win again, no matter how badly he misbehaves in the meantime.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 12. (“When…departure”; and “Like…mafia”)

Covid-19 Death Rates and Arrogance

Something has gone wrong in the ‘Anglosphere’, as the English-speaking countries are known in some other parts of the world.

Smaller English-speaking countries are coping with the Covid-19 emergency quite well. New Zealand’s coronavirus death toll so far is eighteen, and Australia’s is 83. Even Canada, despite being next-door to the United States, has only 2,500 fatalities.

But the two big English-speaking countries are taking worse losses to the coronavirus than anywhere else. The United Kingdom has 20,000 dead already, and the United States will hit 60,000 by Wednesday at the latest. At the current daily death rate, the US will reach 100,000 in about two weeks.

Last month Sir Patrick Vallance, the British government’s chief scientific adviser, said that keeping deaths below 20,000 would be a “good outcome”, but the final British death toll in this wave of the pandemic will probably be between 30,000 and 40,000 people – the highest loss in Europe.

The United States is almost as bad. Early this month President Trump congratulated himself for his belated conversion to lockdowns, boasting that “The minimum [predicted] number was 100,000 lives and I think we’ll be substantially under that number.”

American infection rates are still going up, so that is highly unlikely. But even if the US stops at the ‘minimum’ level of 100,000 deaths, that would mean Americans are dying from Covid-19 at eighty times the death rate that Chinese citizens suffered before Beijing got the virus under control. Or, if you doubt China’s statistics, at 1,515 times New Zealand’s death rate.

Other English-speaking countries, including those that use English as a common second language, like Kenya, India and South Africa, are not showing anomalous death rates. It’s just the US and the UK – so what might they have in common that none of the other English-speaking countries share?

Oh, wait a minute. Weren’t these two countries the superpowers that dominated the world one after the other for most of the past two centuries?

Might that have made them a bit arrogant? Unable to see the experience of other countries as relevant to their own situation? Reluctant to follow the advice of international bodies like the World Health Organisation (WHO)? Am I getting warm here?

Britain ticks all the boxes. It has a nationalistic government obsessed with the ‘greatness’ of the country’s past and unable to grasp the reality of its modest current stature. Hence the Brexit project, for example, but exactly the same attitude is manifest in its coronavirus policies.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was saying “Test. Test. Test.” as early as January. In early March, however, Britain defied the conventional wisdom and all but abandoned both community testing and contact tracing (which is the other essential part of the ‘Test’ strategy).

Instead the UK wandered off into the lethal fantasy of seeking ‘herd immunity’ by letting infections rip, ignoring what first the East Asian countries and later all the other European countries were doing. It only panicked in late March when it realised that its National Health Service would collapse under the weight of so many deaths.

It finally declared a lockdown after all its neighbours, and it is paying the price for the delay with its death rate. This was sheer arrogance at work, with only a slight tincture of ignorance. And even now, with pressure growing for an early release from the lockdown, the UK government is still playing catch-up.

The United Kingdom is only now starting to work on building an organisation to test on a national scale (hundred of thousands of tests a day), trace the contacts of infected people, and isolate them all in order to break the chains of transmission. Yet you cannot safely ease the lockdown until the testing and contact tracing network is up and running.

Wrong at every step, Prime Minister Boris Johnson must be very grateful to have Donald ‘Lysol’ Trump to make him look good by comparison. The American president’s sins of omission on coronavirus are why the US has one-third of the Covid-19 infections in the world, with only one-twentieth of the world’s population.

Trump downplayed the threat as long as he could, then became a last-minute advocate of lockdown. He has now moved on to being the liberator of the American people from lockdown (without any contact tracing, of course). The problem with him as a leader is that he is not only arrogant but flighty and astoundingly ignorant.

But his flightiness and ignorance are merely personal attributes, and Boris Johnson is not ignorant at all (just lazy). What the two men and their respective countries both have in abundance is an arrogant exceptionalism that is leading them into increasingly grave errors.

As Joseph de Maistre remarked, “Every nation gets the government it deserves.”
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To shorten to 675 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 14. (“Instead…deaths”; and “The United…running”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

A New Ireland?

Bertie Ahern, who was the taoiseach (prime minister) of the Irish Republic from 1997 to 2008, was a brilliant machine politician, not a nationalist or an ideologist. In fact, if you said the word ‘principle’ in his presence, he might have to look up the meaning. But here’s what he said after the Sinn Féin Party came first in last Saturday’s Irish election.

“I think a border poll (on the unification of the Republic and Northern Ireland, which is currently part of the United Kingdom) is inevitable. If you ask me when that is, I think it’s probably five years off at least….but it will be inevitable over this decade.” Are we about to see the final, peaceful solution to the 400-year-old ‘Irish problem’?

Not necessarily, but the long, frozen stability of Irish politics both north and south of the border is definitely dissolving. In Northern Ireland the Catholics have finally achieved the ‘revenge of the cradle’, displacing the Protestants as the majority population – at a time when, coincidentally, the turmoil of Brexit is making all the old certainties about the province’s ties to the UK open to question.

In the south, independent from the UK for a century and home to almost three-quarters of the island’s 6.6 million people, almost everybody is of Catholic heritage and matters have long seemed more settled. Politics was dominated by two centre-right parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, neither of which gave more than lip-service to the notion of unification with the North.

Nobody in the Republic wanted to hear about that. The ‘Celtic Tiger’ years (ca. 1995-2008) had finally made the Republic a prosperous place, after a long history of genteel poverty. Most of its citizens had no desire to see a united Ireland if it risked bringing the North’s chronic violence (‘The Troubles’, 1968-1999) to the south as well.

In these circumstances Sinn Féin, an all-Ireland leftist and nationalist party that operated as the political front of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) during the ‘Troubles’, had little attraction for voters in the Republic. It was Northern-dominated and linked to terrorism, and both of the major parties in Dublin refused to have anything to do with it.

And now, suddenly, Sinn Féin ends up with more votes than any other party in the Republic. What happened?

This political revolution is NOT driven by Irish nationalism. Few of the people who voted for Sinn Féin cared much about the North, or unification, or any of that old stuff.

They voted for Sinn Féin because they were fed up with high rents, housing shortages and long hospital waiting lists. Their only alternative was to vote for the same two old parties that have been passing power back and forth for a hundred years, so they ignored Sinn Féin’s IRA links and voted for it anyway.

Those links recently became easier to ignore because Gerry Adams, Sinn Féin’s leader for 35 years and simultaneously a senior officer in the IRA (though he always denied it) finally retired in 2018. His successor, Mary Lou McDonald, definitely has no blood on her hands, and she was born in the Republic, not in the North. She’s voter-friendly, not scary, and she got the votes.

Irish politics is clearly now a three-horse race, in the sense that Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael each got between 21% and 25% of the vote. But that leaves each of them with fewer than half the seats they would need for a majority in the Dáil (parliament).

Prospects for viable coalition-making were looking grim after the election, with both traditional major parties saying they would never enter a coalition with Sinn Féin. The only viable alternative was yet another deal between the two traditional major parties – but that is what the voters had just revolted against.

Now it’s looking a little saner, with Micheál Martin of Fianna Fáil saying that he’s open to talks with Sinn Féin. But the sheer tribal truculence of Irish politics is embodied in the very names of the Republic’s major parties: ‘Ourselves Alone’ (Sinn Féin), ‘Tribe of the Irish’ (Fine Gael), and ‘Soldiers of Destiny’ (Fianna Fáil ).

It will therefore take some time to make a deal, but one will be reached eventually, and it will probably include a place for Sinn Féin. Mary Lou McDonald, the Sinn Féin leader, said it plainly – “We are going to have a unity referendum” – and Fintan O’Toole, the best Irish political commentator of his generation, explained what that means in his column in the Irish Times.

“(The voters) have gone where they were warned not to go,” he wrote, “and in doing so they have redrawn the map of Irish politics to include territory previously marked ‘Here Be Dragons’.”

To shorten to 675 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 13. (“Nobody…well”; and “Now…Fáil”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

English Turkeys Vote For Christmas

Down on the turkey farm, the Scottish and Irish birds noticed that the smiling man in the festive costume was holding a hatchet behind his back, and hid. The Welsh turkeys looked confused and huddled together squawking. But the English turkeys marched bravely up to the chopping block, confident that this would be a Christmas to remember.

Boris Johnson’s big victory in Thursday’s ‘Brexit’ election was achieved almost entirely with English votes. Only 20 of the 364 seats won by the Conservative Party were in the other three ‘nations’ of the United Kingdom.

The United Kingdom will continue to be called that for several years, but this election has actually sounded its death knell. It was the votes of English nationalists that gave Johnson his victory, and they don’t really care if the UK survives. Just as well, because it won’t.

The English have been nationalists for around five centuries, but they were also content to share a broader ‘British’ identity so long as it gave them bragging rights on the world’s biggest empire. Once that was gone, a specifically English nationalism was bound to resurface eventually.

The resurgence of nationalism in Scotland and Wales was also inevitable, and in Northern Ireland it had never gone away. All those nationalisms largely defined themselves by challenging the domination of the English majority (83%) in the UK, but English nationalists obviously needed a bigger opponent to push against. They found it, inevitably, in the European Union.

The EU is not very credible as an oppressor, but it has been allotted that role by the Conservative Party and the right-wing, billionaire-owned media that dominate the English scene. From ‘Take Back Control’ to ‘Get Brexit Done’, the Conservatives’ slogans work in England, although they have almost no power in the other nations of the UK.

Three-fifths of Conservative Party members now believe that the break-up of the UK would be an acceptable price to pay for leaving the EU. A smaller majority would even accept the demise of their own party if that were the price of leaving. (The pollsters neglected to ask them if they were willing to sacrifice their first-born sons, but presumably their answer would have been the same.)

This unhinged English nationalism will hasten the departure of Scotland from the UK. Scotland will leave to get away from the English crazies and to stay in the EU, its path to the latter goal made easier because in 2017 Spain withdrew its long-standing threat to veto Scottish membership of the EU. A second and successful Scottish independence referendum is probably only two years away.

This election also revealed a majority for ‘Remain’ in Northern Ireland, and the shortest route to that goal would be via union with the Republic of Ireland (which remains an EU member).

That risks reigniting ‘The Troubles’ that ended 20 years ago, but the Protestant loyalists have been betrayed and abandoned by Boris Johnson, so it might work. All the options are now dangerous, and this one not necessarily more so than others.

As for Wales, it will unenthusiastically stick with England. After 600 years of being governed from London – twice as long as the other non-English parts of the UK – it has got used to it. Or at least lost the ability to imagine anything else.

And what about England’s future? It will formally leave the EU by the end of January, but this is just the start of Brexit Part II, the negotiation of a trade agreement with the EU. That would normally take many years, but Boris Johnson swears that he will end the negotiation with or without a trade deal by the end of 2020.

Maybe he’s bluffing again: he didn’t die in a ditch the last time he promised to do so if he didn’t get a deal in time. Besides, crashing out without a deal would be catastrophic for the British economy: half of all UK trade is with the EU. So many people think Johnson will make another sweetheart deal with the EU to save his skin, just like he did last October.

Not necessarily. Johnson pretends to be an amiable, scatter-brained clown, but he is actually a highly skilled political operator with close ties to hard-right British and American ideologues like Donald Trump. If he really shares their goal of opening the British economy up for asset-stripping, then crashing out is a way to achieve that goal.

On the other hand, Johnson is a man without fixed principles or ideology. His sole goal is the acquisition and retention of personal power, and that might require him to pay attention to the interests of the disillusioned and deluded former Labour voters who gave him this victory. He may not dismantle the British welfare state as far and as fast as his backers expect.

Don’t ask me which way he will jump. He probably doesn’t know that himself yet.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 11. (“The EU…the UK”; and “As for…else”)