Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Monday, 9 November 2020

COVID, the US election and media balance


I want to start with my last post. It contrasted a minority of countries that were good, were not too bad and the majority that were terrible at handling the pandemic. What surprised me was how willing people were to believe that each of the good countries had some special attribute that explained their superior performance, rather than accept the more obvious explanation that they had more practice at handling pandemics, or just had better governance. These countries that have handled the pandemic well knew that you needed a good TTI operation, you needed to keep case numbers low, you needed strong border control and in most cases that if you lose control of case numbers you lock down quickly and hard.

The UK has failed on all these counts. The experts learnt not to underestimate the virus after the first wave. They recommended a short lockdown in the early stages of the second wave. This is just the kind of thing that the good countries in my classification from last week would do. Johnson (or was it Sunak’s with a veto?) rejected their advice, using the spurious grounds that he was balancing health against the economy. You are balancing nothing when you leave R>1. Johnson and Sunak were wrong and we now have to have a month long lockdown, at least.

One of the consequences of this failure to deal with a second wave is that people get restive about lockdowns. Almost no one likes a lockdown, and restrictions on social life together with constant precautions against the virus get to people. They certainly have begun to get to me. Yet despite this, in the UK most people still support the current lockdown, even among 18-24 year olds. But there are also signs of lockdown fatigue: while a YouGov poll gave only 3% who didn’t support lockdown in the Spring, that figure has risen to 23%.

One important factor behind this growing antagonism to lockdowns is the anti-lockdown crusade that I talked about in an earlier post. The vocal political minority that do not want lockdowns at all are implicitly prepared to see hundreds of people die, and their health services overwhelmed. They talk about protecting the vulnerable but these claims fall to dust on examination.

Some members of the anti-lockdown crusade may really believe they have a better way to save lives, but for most the motivation is different. There is a lot of talk of libertarian ideology, or right-libertarianism, and I’m sure some of the Tory MPs who voted against their government last week see their opposition to lockdown that way. But increasingly this looks like liberty for some, and the opposite for others: doctors and nurses who will have to treat COVID cases in overcrowded hospitals, the vulnerable (however defined) whose liberty is indefinitely postponed, and those who die for the short term liberty of others.

Among the population, there is no doubt that among the minority that oppose lockdowns there are some who are simply selfish. Something along the lines of ‘why should we not be able to do the things we enjoy doing for a year or more of our lives when we know it is unlikely that the virus will kill me’. In addition there are risk takers, who somehow think that they will avoid the fate of others.

Both selfishness and risk-taking is emboldened by those who question the wisdom of lockdowns when cases are increasing out of control. Politicians and the press attacking lockdowns give selfishness and risk taking an excuse they need for their behaviour. They also provide an excuse for those who want to ignore lockdown restrictions. This is why the media should be very careful not to suggest that scientific and public health opinion is evenly divided on the wisdom of lockdowns, because it is not. There are clear parallels with climate change. Unfortunately our media is ruled by political balance, which nowadays all too often means balancing the truth with lies.

This is not the only reason why people may oppose lockdowns. An imperfect safety net for individuals who are adversely affected by lockdowns can give a much more compelling reason why people might turn against the whole idea. If you see a lockdown destroying your business, running down your savings, losing your job or even making you or your children go hungry you have a strong motivation for arguing strongly against it. It is difficult to call this being selfish.

The safety net is far from complete in the UK. The Chancellor has stubbornly refused to increase statutory sick pay for those who have been advised to isolate themselves. But in terms of safety nets the UK is far better than the US. I have seen a few remarks along the lines that without COVID Trump would have easily won the US election. I’m not sure that is right for two reasons.

The most obvious is that without COVID Biden would not have made COVID central to his campaign, and would instead have focused on other issues where Trump is weak. However a second reason is that Trump may be getting strong support from those that don’t want their businesses to close, who don’t want to be thrown out of work and don’t want to rely on an uncertain stimulus cheque.

We can see that to some extent in the national election exit polls. When asked about the issue that mattered most to people voting for each side, three issues stood out for Biden voters: racial inequality, the pandemic and health care. For Trump voters it was the economy followed by crime and safety. The contrast between racial equality for Biden voters and crime and safety for Trump voters is pure culture war. Social liberals rejoice over the black lives matter movement, while social conservatives see it as a threat.

The more interesting contrast is between the pandemic and the economy. The economy, normally near the top of most lists of voter concerns, comes fifth out of five for Biden voters. The pandemic has taken its place, and rightly so because the economy is not going to fully recover while the pandemic rages unchecked. In contrast among Trump voters the economy completely dominates the pandemic as a top issue, perhaps because measures to deal with the pandemic are seen as a threat to their livelihoods. [1]

While the broadcast media, at least in the UK, plays “both sides” games with the pandemic, contrasting the expert consensus with the anti-lockdown crusade as if each has an equal claim to truth, the mainstream US broadcast media stopped playing these games with Trump’s claims about voter fraud. It was impressive to watch CNN fill in the gaps between new votes coming in telling viewers why all votes should be counted, and Trump’s claims had no basis. (Yes, I know I had better things to do.)

These big media organisations (excluding Fox) were fortunate that Trump telegraphed what he planned to do well in advance, so they had time to work out their response together. When it came their response was emphatic, to the extent that most stopped broadcasting Trump’s speech when he started making these claims, telling viewers that such claims had no basis in fact. It is quite something to stop broadcasting a sitting President when he starts telling lies, although by then they knew he was not going to be President for much longer.

That is something to build on. Why not be equally emphatic about voter suppression, widely practiced in the US and coming to the UK. What is the essential difference between claims of widespread voter fraud and climate change denial? What is the difference between claims of voter fraud and claims that lockdowns don’t work and are unnecessary when cases are increasing? How can the BBC justify not following this example? Once media organisations start recognising that balance does not apply when one side is lying, why not stop balancing truth with lies more often?

[1] (added 10/11/20) Another example of how lockdowns can be unpopular comes from the Czech Republic, where it is widely believed that a lockdown was postponed until after senate and regional elections had taken place.  

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