Just hours after Boris Johnson insisted that schools were safe, he shuttered them as part of England’s third lockdown—the latest about-face underscoring the serious situation the UK faces. With reports that the NHS is “going through the toughest time in living memory” and urgent cancer operations being delayed, it’s hard not to lay some of the blame for the current crisis on the lost weeks trying to “save Christmas”. While Johnson eventually backtracked on his determination to relax rules over the holiday, the policy waffling sparked chaotic scenes of packed trains and motorways, which may well have accelerated the virus’s spread. Downing Street’s perilous hope of saving Christmas at all costs isn’t a uniquely British blunder, however–it’s part of a disturbing global trend which has taken shape in recent weeks.
In fact, every government appears to have an Achilles’ heel, an institution or tradition so beloved that policymakers are willing to sideline scientific advice in order to protect it. This was thrown into sharp relief by South Korea’s decision in early December to gather half a million students from all around the country for its day-long college entrance exam–a test which looms so large in South Korean society that the country, widely-praised for its handling of the first wave of the pandemic, was willing to lose its grip on the current wave. Christmas festivities clearly emerged as the UK’s own fatal blind spot in its pandemic management, while the US is struggling to give up its beloved sports matches.
A test worthy of disrupting air travel—and Covid management?
South Korea’s choice to go ahead with the test was particularly alarming for a country held out as an example during the early stages of the virus for its swift response banking on rapid implementation of testing and tracing along with a clear public information campaign. Even before the college entrance exam, that praise was beginning to seem premature.
Daily infections, below 50 until late summer, have now surged to near 1000, as South Korea has risen significantly on the global tables in the past couple of months. Fears are growing that health services may become overwhelmed during the winter period. The situation is particularly serious in the capital Seoul, home to roughly half of the country’s population, which South Korean health minister Park Neung-hoo recently described as “a COVID-19 war zone”.
Taken against this backdrop, the decision to go ahead with gathering hundreds of thousands of students from across the country looks like a huge misstep. It provides a perfect example, however, of how countries squander progress against the virus in the name of protecting a vital piece of their cultural fabric.
The high-stakes College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT), which maps out South Korean students’ academic and professional future, is undoubtedly such a cultural institution. The test is well-known for bringing the nation to a halt, including pausing international air travel so that students can focus on the listening portion of the test. This time, there might not have been much air travel to disrupt, but the exam may have shaken Korean officials’ already-tenuous grip on the third wave of coronavirus cases roiling the country.
Although measures such as temperature testing, mask-wearing and social distancing were put in place, many students expressed concern over the health risks, while public health officials were equally worried by the possibility that the testing centres could become virus clusters and exacerbate the worsening situation in the country.
Saving Christmas at a huge cost?
If the notorious examination loomed large enough to convince South Korea to disregard scientific advice, Christmas emerged as the clear stumbling block for policymakers in the UK. Despite some of the worst Covid figures in Europe, Boris Johnson’s government planned to allow for a five day “window” during festivities during which up to three households could gather.
The special Christmas dispensation was not only lambasted for the clear double standard—the UK made no such efforts for other religious festivals such as Eid, Yom Kippur or Diwali—but also sparked open alarm among policymakers and healthcare professionals alike. A review by a cross-party group of MPs accused the government of “gambling with the UK’s future”, while healthcare experts warned that five days of tighter rules would be needed for each day of easing.
Less than a week before Christmas, Johnson finally gave into the significant pressure, putting London and most of the South-east into Tier 4 and curtailing Christmas plans in the rest of the country. The change, however, may have been too little too late, as a mass exodus from Tier 4 areas may have contributed to spreading the new, more transmissible, variant of the virus around the country.
The football match must go on?
The US, meanwhile, has desperately tried to keep its televisions filled with sport despite evidence that poorly managed sporting events could constitute “biological bombs” for spreading the disease; a February Champions’ League match in Milan, for example, significantly contributed to the rapid spread of Covid-19 in certain parts of Italy and Spain.
The American obsession with sport, however, risks driving cases higher in order to keep the match on. In the summer, the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the National Hockey League (NHL) finished their suspended seasons in sealed-off “bubbles” where players were quarantined and games took place with no audience–restrictions which helped both leagues avoid any positive test results.
However, the National Football League (NFL) has resumed with fewer restrictions resulting in both players and team personnel contracting the virus. Worryingly, the NBA plans to start its new 2020-21 season with no bubble measures in place and fans allowed to attend indoor games where there is greater risk of the virus spreading—a move that has been criticised by some high profile coaches as premature and risky in a country that has struggled to control the virus, registering around 18.5% of worldwide coronavirus deaths.
Covid-19 has plunged the global economy into its worst recession since the Great Depression, so it’s understandable that nations are keen to return to normal. Educational exams, holiday festivities and entertainment like sports matches are important parts of our societal fabric. But with vaccination schemes offering hope on the horizon, it’s crucial that governments realise there are no “sacred cows” in a pandemic–no examination or holiday party is worth jeopardizing citizens’ safety.
*Gary Buswell is a freelance writer and a contributor to the New Londoners, Fair Observer, Geopolitical Monitor, and Expatica.