OPINION... 

STANDING OUT FROM the dreary haze of the lockdown, like a lighthouse on a stormy night, is the absolute nonsense that passes for news (sic) on facebook, its authenticity boosted because this ‘news’ been passed to us by ‘friends’!

Social media at it’s worst can truely be poisonous, causing people who are prepared to grasp any sign of good news to be crushed when the truth will out, as it invariably will!

Now that we have had around two months of this plague lockdown at full intensity, people are reviewing the situation. If you believe the media, especially facebook or the BBC, you may well feel on the edge of collapse. When I talk to friends abroad, that is what their media, which reflect ours, tell them is happening both here and there.

I am convinced this is misleading. Although many of the media’s stories are right, most of their tone is wrong. At the daily coronavirus press conferences, the established media have what they like best, a set-piece in which they can try to catch ministers out. Following the hierarchy beloved of our supposedly egalitarian trade, the first questions are always handed to the national broadcasters. They demand feeding. Ministers get trapped by their agenda, the faux-dramas about PPE, etc., the obsession with targets. My impression is that most people find these inquisitorial sessions pointless and depressing. Do they have to be every day? Do they have to drag on when there is nothing to say?

Goodness knows, many things remain grim. I think particularly of care homes, whose patients and staff enjoy fewer protections than those in hospital. In the worst cases, such homes have lost a third of their residents to Covid-19. For many who survive, April 2020 may be remembered as the most traumatic month of their lives. But, in the wider picture, we are coming through this.
‘Count your blessings,’ says the old rule. We should do so not only because it is good for the soul, but also because it will teach us some things we need to know. As we count them, we should recognise the insidious difficulty we all face.

Here are some of the bad things which could have happened, but haven’t. Early on, the reasonable worst-case scenario for deaths was half a million. On current showing, we might not reach that figure.

Similar calculations suggested that intensive care beds could be eight times oversubscribed, meaning that thousands of patients would die in corridors or be turned away.

Nothing remotely like this has happened. Somehow, 40,000 (UK) NHS beds were freed up. Most have not had to be used. No one seeking treatment has been refused it. Imagine if we had been so badly organised that when the Prime Minister became ill he could get treatment only by grabbing an ICU bed needed by another patient. We never got near that.

Other major blessings include the fact that panic-buying was quickly dealt with and everyone can get the necessaries of life; that more than enough ventilators appeared; that broadband provision has produced digital solutions unattainable five years ago; that HMRC can agree furloughing applications within two days and start paying in less than a week.

Behind all this lies one other blessing: we, the public are behaving well. Precisely because we are behaving well, we do not realise how great a blessing it is. Of course, we social distance, wait in queues, volunteer to help. Of course we don’t riot or try to insist on having medical treatments that can wait. Of course we try to keep our children amused, even educated, at home, to shop for the self-isolated, and check on the elderly parents we are not allowed to approach.

We have been asked to stay at home, protect the health system, and save lives. This is exactly what about 99 per cent of the population has tried to do. You cannot buy social discipline like that. You cannot even compel it. It is a cultural achievement, a mark of civilisation.

More controversially, I would argue that Governments have been sensitive to the importance of this social cohesiveness. At each turn, they have moved at roughly the pace their people could accept. Some argue we should have locked down earlier. They cannot be proved wrong, but remember that people need to understand why they should surrender their cherished freedoms before they agree to do so. If you think back to early March, they weren’t ready. I would not have fancied the chances of turning away the crowds at Cheltenham races. Yet the next week, because of changing facts, people were ready to sacrifice the UK Grand National.

One can fault Governments on many individual items, PPE shortages, useless antibody tests, bureaucratic logjams, but at no point, yet, has it come adrift from popular consent. The public want ministers challenged on difficult points, but, unlike the media, we have no desire to hound them. They were decisively chosen. We want them to get it right, not to gloat when they get it wrong.

Now we enter the next phase. Different messages are needed, but the same public consent. The success of various Covid provisions have been so great as to become almost embarrassing. Doctors in the health systems say that many of their colleagues outside the ICUs are bored. Some even go home early. The public have been so well convinced that hospital is a dangerous place that some hospitals are almost half-empty. “That’s never happened!” exclaims one bewildered doctor.

And so, by a useful irony, one of the first symptoms of an easing of lockdown came last month. The message, ...that many hospitals are now safe and that people should return for their cancer treatments and heart checks, and go to their GP if they are ill. Senior professionals are talking about “learning to live with Covid”, acknowledging that the invading power will not suddenly vanish, but can be worked round.

The first is that, as the scientist leading Sweden’s bold experiment with “herd immunity-lite” puts it, “We know so little”. The second is that the life, health and prosperity of our nations must not be held indefinite hostage by a virus, however nasty. The over-70s cannot be condemned to a life of solitary confinement, nor businesses destroyed, nor the young kept back from a start in life.

Governments therefore have to move cautiously, but move they must. We consented to lockdown because we could see why it was necessary. We shall consent to easing it for the same reason. The problem is that ‘It’s much easier to declare something unsafe than to declare it safe.’

We need to return to normal living now!

 

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Spanish economy falls 5.2% in first quarter, the biggest drop in nearly a century

THE BANK OF SPAIN estimates that GDP could retreat by between 6.6% and 13.6% this year due to the coronavirus crisis, which has grounded most business activity to a halt
Spain’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) fell 5.2% in the first quarter of 2020 as a result of coronavirus confinement measures, according to an advance report released by the National Statistics Institute (INE) on Thursday. This is the largest quarterly drop in nearly a century. The last time such a figure was seen was after the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), based on the estimates of specialist historians.
The biggest quarterly drop in recent times occurred in 2009, during the recession, when the Spanish economy fell 2.6% between January and March. The GDP is the best indicator to measure production in the country, and in turn, its wealth.
Trade, transportation and hostelry were among the worst affected sectors
In April, the Bank of Spain estimated that the coronavirus crisis would lead to a 4.7% fall in the first quarter. More alarm bells were sounded this week when the INE released figures on retail trade and active employment.
According to the INE, retail trade fell by 15% in March – a monthly figure that usually falls or rises by a few tenths of a point. This blow occurred despite the fact that Spain had only been under the coronavirus lockdown for two weeks, and that January and February were good months for business.
Last month, the INE released the EPA active workforce survey which shows that employment figures in Spain fell by 285,600 people between January and March – the greatest drop since the recession of 2012. The survey also found that the number of hours worked had fallen 4.25% in the first quarter.

Worst yet to come
The figures from the second quarter are expected to be even worse. The outcome for the year will depend on the deescalation of the confinement measures, which have been in place since the Spanish government declared a state of alarm on March 14 in a bid to slow the coronavirus outbreak. According to the government’s plan, which was announced on Tuesday, businesses will be able to gradually reopen under strict conditions. But there is still great uncertainty, and the Bank of Spain estimated in April that Spain’s GDP could fall by anywhere between 6.6% and 13.6% this year. This would be an unprecedented fall: during the recession, between 2008 and 2013, Spain’s GDP gave up 9.5 points.
In a press release, the INE said that it had gone to extra lengths to accurately represent the impact of the confinement measures on economic activity in the last two weeks of March. Most indicators only offer results until February, so the institute included other sources, such as the use of credit cards. According to the Spanish bank BBVA, consumption has fallen by half since the declaration of the state of alarm.
A breakdown of the INE figures indicates dramatic falls across all areas. According to the quarterly report, consumption fell by 5.1%, household spending by 7.5%, investment by 5.3% and exports and imports by 8.4%. Public administration was the only area to see a rise in spending, increasing 1.8% in the first quarter, a rise not seen since 2007.
The sectors worst affected were trade, transportation and hostelry, which fell 10.9% in the first quarter. Artistic and recreational activities dropped by 11.2%, scientific and professional activities by 8%, information and communication by 5.5%, and construction by 8.1%. Public administration, health and education rose by 0.8%. Financial and insurance activities experienced growth of 1%.

 

AN EPIDEMIC OF LIES

Xi Jinping has not had a good coronavirus crisis.

AS THE EPIDEMIC exploded and quarantines were ordered, he was even absent from the front page of the People’s Daily for about a week, which is akin to the Vatican Daily failing to mention the Pope. All very odd for a strongman leader who scrapped term-limits and inserted “Xi Jinping Thought” into the Chinese constitution, almost like he wants to all the praise and none of the blame.

Xi Jinping265Then the anger when the “whistle-blower doctor” Li Wienlang died was genuine, widespread and fierce. People who ordinarily never comment on politics were taking to WeChat to protest and memorialise him. On Weibo, the Twitter-like social media app, the top two hashtags were “Wuhan government owes Dr Li Wenliang an apology” and “We want freedom of speech”. Questions about China’s mismanagement of the coronavirus, including arresting those who were raising the alarm, suggested it might have inadvertently unleashed an epidemic throughout the world

This led to rather overexcited conjecturing about the possible decline and fall of the Communist party. Would corona virus be China’s Chernobyl? Would the scales finally fall from the eyes of 1.3 billion people?

Well, no, as it turned out. At times of heightened political conflict, heated commentary is allowed for a short time. I’ve seen it following the Wenzhou high speed rail crash, the downfall of Bo Xilai, the milk contamination scandal, and when the environmental documentary Under The Dome was released (then banned). Heated denunciation is permitted, as long as the central government remains off limits, until the hammer falls once passions are vented.

So while many were undoubtedly angry, the Communist Party had several levers to pull. A political institution that has survived three years of one of the worst famines in human history, 10 years of political chaos and brutality, and a bloody, televised assault on its own students, knows a thing or two about maintaining power.

The playbook was almost predictable. But it has also been eye-poppingly audacious.

First, local leaders were canned. Disasters need their scapegoats. Zhang Jin, the party chief of Hubei health commission and Liu Yingzi, its director, were both fired. Two days later Jiang Chaoliang, the party chief for Hubei, was relieved of his post.

Then the propaganda wheels began to turn. The fight against corona virus was presented as a great national endeavour. Other countries, the government said, should be congratulating China for its huge success. A book entitled A Battle Against Epidemic: China Combating Covid-19 in 2020, celebrating Xi Jinping’s great leadership, was prepared.

So far, so predictable. But then last month, foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian claimed that “confirmed cases of #COVID19 were first found in China, but its origin is not necessarily in China” and that “We are still tracing the origin”. On the same day China Daily tweeted that:

The Huanan Seafood Market is undergoing cleaning and disinfection work in #Wuhan#China. The wet market was once believed to be the origin of the novel #corona virus.

It is clear that the origin of the epidemic is Wuhan, where 67,466 cases out of a total of 80,565 in China have been observed (as of last month), and to where early initial cases in other countries and provinces were traced. But the Chinese government is clearly attempting to shift the story of its origin away from Wuhan, away from China, and away from itself. How can this be happening? And why?

The how is simple. Beijing maintains a strict monopoly on information. This has been tightened continuously throughout Xi’s reign. Foreign apps and websites have been systematically blocked; social media has been emasculated (Weibo, which once helped hold leaders to account, with users for example highlighting the expensive watches of political delegates, is now a shadow of its former anarchic self); academics and think-tanks with the slightest streak of independence have been silenced. What is often called ‘state media’ in China is in fact owned by the party, and its allegiance, as Xi Jinping made clear on a visit to the CCTV news station in 2016, resides there, rather than with the people.

In this strict information ecosystem, the only significant voice belongs to the party. This means even what seem like excruciating absurdities cannot be gainsaid. Which brings us to the why, why is the Chinese government pulling this 180° manoeuvre, in the face of all science and common sense?

It’s not just a matter of national pride or of shirking blame. The Communist Party positions itself as the rejuvenator of China, with Xi making great play of “the China Dream”. Implicit in this is delivering advances in public health and hygiene. Epidemics like SARS and corona virus undermine this both the Communist Party’s aura of competence and, more importantly, its claim to deliver modernity and development to China. Controlling this narrative is fundamental to the party’s claim to power. Thus, hints about China not being the origin of the virus allow China’s astroturfers (the wu-mao dang or “fifty-cent army”) to irradiate social media sites and infect them with disinformation.

And it works. Gerry Shih of the Washington Post quotes Xiao Qiang, a professor at the University of California: “Go on WeChat, go on Weibo, look on Baidu search, and it’s full of ‘look at all the other countries getting sick,’ or ‘the virus came from the United States,’ or all different levels of conspiracy theories.”

This is the point of disinformation: not so much to counterpoise the truth with another credible alternative as to undermine any sense of truthfulness at all. If everything becomes rumour, nothing can be believed, so government anxiety about being held to account fades. And another fine disinformation job is done, as truth is throttled amid an epidemic of lies.

 

 Welcome to May 2020, welcome to Streetwise Magazine

 

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