The battle against Covid-19 is often compared to real war. The analogy encourages a âwe are all in it togetherâ solidarity and suggests that it is unpatriotic to criticise or oppose government decisions.
Yet the comparison should not be entirely dismissed as self-serving bluster by political leaders because a war and a pandemic have many points in common. Both are matters of life and death for people who will not forgive those in charge that get them into a calamitous crisis or cannot get them out of it. Witness how Tony Blair was ultimately capsized by the Iraq War, and how President Donald Trumpâs re-election chances are being hit by his grotesque mishandling of the pandemic.
Watching the antics of Trump and the blunders of Boris Johnson in failing to cope with the virus, I have the same feeling I had repeatedly over the last 20 years when reporting on wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Libya. In all cases, arrogant assumptions of competence and strength were brutally exposed by complicated and dangerous realities on the ground.
The spectacular ineptitude of Trump and Johnson masks the extent to which the decline of the Anglo-American political elite long predates their arrival in power. The consequences of these long-term failings for the US and UK only became clear this year as the number of their citizens dying has soared above the figure for comparable powers. Trumpâs comic opera boasts about âMaking America Great Againâ and Johnsonâs puerile boosterism for âGlobal Britainâ sounds more and more pathetic.
Governments of all stripes see wars, natural disasters and, most recently, epidemics as an existential threat to themselves, but also as an opportunity. Get it wrong and they may put themselves out of business for good. Get it right and they could strengthen their grip on power for decades. Frequently, they come spectacularly unstuck because of an exaggerated idea of their own capabilities. They underestimate their enemy, be it a human agency or a virus, and flounder when combating a real threat.
Most governments are good at producing plausible policies, but are alarmed and found wanting when these supposed strategies have to be implemented. Politicians are often poor at the complex business of âoperationalisingâ policies and taken aback when they discover that the results of past mistakes cannot be put right on the night.