For much of the 20th Century, the idea that the United States of America was inherently different to other nations in its values and history gave rise to the idea of “American Exceptionalism”. American exceptionalism was used, implicitly and explicitly, to reinforce America’s foreign policy, economic trajectory and understanding of history.
In reality, every nation state claims a degree of exceptionalism along some historical or cultural lines. Yet, American exceptionalism became pejorative – fed by disastrous wars and the espousing of economic orthodoxies that have, at best, failed the majority of the citizens in the states it was adopted. Over the last five years, I believe we have seen the reemergence of a new type of exceptionalism in Europe, that of English exceptionalism. And nothing underlines this new trend like the UK government’s crass and risky approach to the novel coronavirus epidemic.
Slowing the tide
Before delving into how little the UK has done so far, I want to outline some of the extraordinary lengths countries have gone to in order to contain the virus, particularly in Central Europe. The measures in China are well-documented: the halt to public life, curfews and total lockdown in highly affected areas. In Russia, individuals in self isolation are under CCTV monitoring, with those deemed to have broken the rules of social distancing eligible for a prison sentence.
In Central Europe, the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia have introduced states of emergency, closed borders and slashed movement of people. Meanwhile, in Hungary, Viktor Orban rails against the foreigners and migrants who he blames for the spread of coronavirus, but even he in his stupor has joined his neighbours in declaring a state of emergency.
In many of the V4 countries schools are closed, public gatherings are limited and there is a sense of urgency in even the region’s most beleaguered governments. Even in Turkey, which is currently fighting a large scale war on its southern border and is dealing with a migration crisis on its northern border, has managed to take preventative measures, including free hand sanitiser dispensers in its main squares.
Although numerous barriers exist to getting accurate data on case numbers and spread, at the time of writing the World Health Organisation (‘WHO’) and the authorities of countries hit hard by coronavirus believe that these measures will slow the tide of the pandemic.
“Losing loved ones before their time”
Meanwhile, on our cloudy island paradise, where trade comes to us like an Atlantic shower, the UK government believes that we can do things differently. Membership of a trading bloc with the economic clout of China or the US was discarded with the blase arrogance of a country mired in the belief that its course could be entirely independent, unique and differentiated.
As Covid-19 spreads throughout the world, the UK’s bumbling health minister, Matt Hancock, has gone on television and encouraged people to wash their hands while singing the national anthem. On March 12, our Prime Minister gave an astonishing speech admitting that Brits would “lose loved ones before their time”, and yet instituted precisely zero guidelines on workplaces, public gatherings or businesses to slow the pandemic.
No lockdown needed like the rest of Europe, just tentative, advisory limits on ‘non-essential’ travel. Continued parroting of the same meaningless words “we are following the science” – as though other nations do not possess rational thinking, clarity or even that coveted commodity: science.
Even the scientific community that the government claims is providing the evidence base for its approach has been critical of the approach to coronavirus. An open letter has been signed by several immunologists eviscerating the government’s belief that ‘herd immunity’ can be achieved without significant social distancing. Another letter from a group of doctors calls for the release of the studies and data that the government is using to support its case.
Beyond retorting that people would get bored of social distancing if instituted too quickly, the government has been silent against these calls. Perhaps they should consider that boredom may well be the antidote to mass death.
Botched approaches and unclear advice
Within the UK, some nations have attempted to take more measures. Scotland’s parliament has issued guidelines on gatherings of over 500 people to not take place. Despite having only 45 cases as of the March 15, Northern Ireland has moved to close almost a dozen schools. It is really in England that the superiority complex seems to come into a world of its own.
On the one hand, there is some degree of panic amongst citizens as toilet roll is stockpiled and supermarkets are raided. On the other, large numbers of pubs, bars, clubs, schools and conferences remain open and frequented. Public transport runs as normal, albeit with a minor decrease in usage. There’s a feeling dictated from the top that we don’t need to resort to the measures applied in Europe.
The government’s botched approach and unclear advice means millions of Londoners travelled to work this week as normal, coming into contact with dozens of people and raising their risk of contracting or spreading the virus. Brave professionals working in schools and hospitality risk their health and that of those around them to serve communities as government refusal to shut businesses ruins insurance claims and compensation routes.
A deadly mistake?
So while the V4, the US and many countries around the world take drastic measures in the face of this once-in-a-generation pandemic, the right-wing, Brexiteer UK government, drags its feet. While Slovakia closes borders, the UK refuses to close pubs. While the Czech Republic limits mass gatherings, the UK government announces daily coronavirus-related press conferences with dozens of journalists packed into small, humid rooms for extended periods of time.
The belief that we in England can plot our own course outside of a powerful trading bloc, damaging capital flows and inter-state geniality, will likely be proven to be mistaken. However, the belief that we in England can deviate from internationally effective strategies in fighting a pandemic is not just mistaken, but will prove deadly.
By Avram Liebenau
Avram was a political risk analyst at a consultancy company in London and did a degree in Russian and History at UCL with a focus in Russian and Eastern European economic history. Check out his latest articles right here!