Who are the corona tribes?
Even as Covid turns our world upside down, polarisation is creeping back
A friend tweeted a clip from a debate back in March about what was the best way to approach coronavirus.
The responses underneath are the really interesting thing. Back then, most of the FBPE types responding were entirely behind the expert scientist arguing for herd immunity, and hostile to the Silicon Valley tech guy calling for lockdown and suppression.
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Now, most people of that persuasion are furiously condemning the government for, at best, gross incompetence, and at worst mass murder; their policy is viewed as being specifically designed at sacrificing the poor so that the economy can get moving.
That’s a very crude simplification, and there will be loads of people who contradict the overall trend, but even as coronavirus has turned our world upside down normal political tribalism and polarisation has sort of returned. Overall, lockdown sceptics tend to come from the Right, and to be pro-Brexit; lockdown pessimists are from the Left and the more vociferous are very Remainy.
I’m not sure what word there is for them. Nelson Jones suggests ‘Exiteers’ and ‘Remain Insiders’. But these divisions must to some extent be less about personality traits being associated with political beliefs, and more down to Kevin Phillips’s explanation that “understanding politics is all about understanding who hates whom”.
Meanwhile a number of American Republicans have taken their cue from the tribal leader with behaviour so reckless and nonsensical it’s reminiscent of the Xhosa cattle-killing movement.
In contrast, a few Right-wing weirdos were very pessimistic about coronavirus from the start because they view the world as an inherently dangerous place, are conscious of tail risks (yes, it’s Taleb’s world now) and are hostile to, or sceptical of, globalisation.
That’s my category certainly, and I was for introducing quarantine back in February half-term when the disaster in Italy first emerged. But then I am pro-borders, and find the idea that “borders can’t stop people” to be so obviously untrue — borders can’t stop people if the people in charge find them unseemly, but states far less sophisticated than ours manage them if the will is there. But on a fundamental level I’m following my political tribal leaders; I have so little understanding of how diseases work, and how this is going to pan out, that I just have to follow the people I trust — and I tend to trust weirdos.
During times of crisis our atavistic brains come to the fore and so our instinctive opinions harden, but so does tribalism, which partly explains why we have the Remain and Brexit categories arguing over what is acceptable danger, and the conservatives are less risk averse.
The only comparable situation where the Right is more relaxed about danger is climate change, and quite a few of the most optimistic coronavirus people seem to be climate change sceptics. Matt Ridley thinks we may be close to herd immunity already, and that Covid might disappear soon. He’s a very intelligent man and I would love for him to be right, just as I would love him to be right about global warming, but he’s a cheery Whig and I can’t share his optimism.
Lord Sugar, the abrasive self-made entrepreneur, recently blasted the ‘negative UK press’ for blaming government for inaction against Covid-19. As new cases have begun to decline, and the crisis in hospitals to ease, from about beginning of May the new big issue for the media to latch onto has been care homes for the elderly, in some of which a third to half of residents have died. Though no epidemiologist, seven weeks ago, before the official ‘lockdown’, I did send an email privately to a GP friend warning that care home staff and residents would go down ‘like dominoes’. But what could the government or anyone else do? Without effective means to test for an often cryptic infection, no way to keep ‘distance’ from residents needing intimate care, and nowhere else to go because of our chosen ‘nuclear family’ lifestyle, in effect we had already made the choice and accepted the risk. There is a simple rule in nature: the more efficiency you seek the better adapted to your environment you have to be, making you less adaptable to changed circumstances. However confused or shambolic experts and governments may seem, their starting point has been trade-offs set by the rest of us. The same could be said to apply to the social inequalities we deprecate while tolerating in practice, because removing them would raise too many awkward issues.
Broadly speaking there are two tribes:
1: The public sector and the media, who continue to get paid whatever happens
2: The rest of us
The first group has nothing but contempt for the second, matched only by the contempt that the second group has for the first.
This division is most viciously apparent in the US, where Democrat governors and the media are determined to maintain the lockdown and destroy small businesses.
As I was saying, at greater length, in response to another article yesterday, there are actually three tribes: public sector, big business, and small business. For the most part, parties of the left govern in the interest of the public sector, parties of the right in the interest of big business, and nobody in the interest of small business.
It’s actually not true that the media “continue to get paid whatever happens”. Redundancies are a frequent occurence in newspapers these days, and the BBC had announced job cuts before the crisis hit. They’re presently on hold, but I’m sure they’ll happen eventually.
The public sector does, though.
Not really. Redundancies are common in academia, these days, and there have been plenty in the civil service, too.
By that reckoning, 2 should massively outnumber 1, so why hasn’t 1 been overthrown by now?
We are now continuing the Leave and Remain battle by other means. All the Remainer newspapers and TV channels are enthusiastically attacking the government at every opportunity; their argument is that we must extend the lockdown indefinitely as any other policy would put lives at risk. They have been joined in this endeavour by various anti-capitalists and environmentalists.
Although the government has been resolute in promoting our exit from the EU, they appear to have lost their nerve with this pandemic; their sensible policy at the outset was quickly abandoned under pressure from the news media and now they are stuck with a country under perpetual lockdown and a collapsing economy.
Well, personally, I tend to lean more towards the political left, I am an ardent remainer, a multilateralist and I strongly believe that global warmth poses an existential threat to our planet. Like Mr Tegnell (and Mr Giesecke), I am sort of pessimist and I fear that no vaccine will be available soon. Furthermore I think it is unrealistic to believe you can suppress an endemic contagion and I fear a second wave of contagion after the summer. I think; therefore, that mitigation and its by-product, herd immunity, is the most appropriate strategy. I am not sure, but I have the impression that is also the strategy of Germany but, I suspect that “herd immunity” has become a concept which is over politically charged. The irony is that I end up believing in a strategy favoured by who is much more optimistic about the current pandemic.
The problem is neither tribe gets it. One is obsessed by how high the death rate is, the other looks at how small it is in the working age population and claims the young are being penalised to protect the old and the cure is worse than the disease.
The big issue is we face 2 societal level risks – our health and our economy and there is a complex relationship between the 2, whereby not striking the right balance gives us the worst outcome in both.
The virus has not and will not be eradicated anywhere in the world. A vaccine will help, but it is a long way off, if indeed an effective one is ever found. What we need to do is find ways to live with the virus that allow us to work and rebuild our economy, without overloading our health service. Not overloading our health service – which is one of the weakest in Europe, has very little to do with death rates from the virus. In the weeks around the peak most of the hospital beds were filled with 40 & 50 year old people with some 30 year olds in there too. Yes there were older people, but they were the minority who formed the majority of those who did not recover. Then there were all those people, young and old, who should have been filling those bed getting treatment for all the other conditions that would then enable them to live productive lives. None of this is the fault of the people who work in the Health Service and they deserve their weekly clap, especially those right on the frontline, who were in the trenches without all the proper PPE they should have had for weeks.
The only 100% guaranteed thing in life is death (used to be death and taxes until Richard Branson disproved the latter, but even he won’t evade the reaper). Some how we seem to have forgotten that. We need to reexamine our relationship with death to see it as the inevitable part of life that it always has been and always will be.
The big problem will come when people really look at their individual risk of dying, see how tiny it is and what they are having to give up to reduce that tiny risk. When they further realise that over time about 80% are going to get infected at some point and decide why should they wait for it when they might as well get it over with and get on with their lives regardless of what politicians and scientists say. At that point the Health service will go into total meltdown, far worse than anything we saw at the peak and we will probably need martial law to enforce a really severe lockdown, which completely trashes our economy for good. Only a country like North Korea could get away with doing nothing about a public health catastrophe on that scale.
What we need but do not have, is what Sweden has which is a compliant and socially responsible population that has a high level of trust in its government. Sadly we have a bitterly divided population, which instinctively distrusts politicians of all parties only slightly less than it distrusts the mainstream media. All this has been made far worse by the ludicrous and shambolic way we are now trying to lift lockdown. All those wasted weeks where no government servant was even allowed to discuss the lifting of lockdown! When we could and should have been having sensible conversations about the need to manage all the risks that face us in a balanced way; dispelling the myths and fears, whilst encouraging proper social responsibility. It would not have worked in our ASBO as a badge of honour communities, but it would still have been better than what we now see.
The distinctions are more varied than this article suggests, although I suspect the covid response still maps quite neatly onto the Brexit beliefs. For example, on the pro-Brexit side there are the Brexiteers, true believers in Britain’s ‘freedom’, who tend to rail against lockdown, and the Little Englanders, whose Brexit support is rooted in a dislike of outsiders, who now support lockdown and don’t want people from elsewhere in the country coming to their town or village to spread covid-19. I suspect there is a similar split on the Remain side; possibly between the FBFE crowd who now cry ‘you’re killing people’ if any sort of easing before a vaccine is mooted, and those who opposed Brexit because its a stupid and damaging idea, and now oppose the equally stupid kneejerk responses to the virus (rolling their eyes at ridiculousness like the fact that households in Glasgow can mix in the pub but not in their home).
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