By Arab News
By John C. Hulsman*
Early in the COVID-19 crisis, I was asked for political risk advice on what to do by a major Western government. After going over the options, I ended my presentation by concluding that the government must, above all else, expertly communicate its program to its people. The example I used was that of the political magician, Franklin Roosevelt, who through his radio “fireside chats” — in which he regularly and clearly spoke directly to the American people about his efforts to navigate the Great Depression — miraculously maintained his administration’s credibility throughout all the ups and downs of the 1930s. The government representatives nodded sagely and then proceeded to disregard this absolutely critical point that I had made.
Presently, with the omicron strain of COVID-19, the virus is dying down as a world historical emergency. But you would never know that, given the shrill protestations of most Western governments, which have gotten used to people bowing to their will over these past two years as a result of their endless calls of the imminence of the coming apocalypse.
Even as the whole of the Western elite has proven itself not fit for purpose, given their countless policy errors in dealing with COVID-19, they have all succeeded in accruing ever more power, under the guise of emergency measures, forming an expert-led technocracy that will not readily relinquish its newfound centrality. The virus may be coming to an end, but the politics it unleashed are just beginning to be played out.
Once again, I have gone back to the ancient Greeks for guidance. In Aesop’s fable of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” a bored young shepherd repeatedly tricks the nearby villagers into thinking a wolf is attacking the town’s common flock of sheep. However, when a wolf does actually appear and the boy again, this time in genuine terror, calls for help, the villagers — severely doubting his credibility and believing it is merely another false alarm — do nothing. The sheep and the boy are both eaten. Aesop’s moral at the end of the story is simple and damning: “This shows how liars are rewarded.”
Incredibly, it has taken two full years for the Western elite to realize that the COVID-19 pandemic must be treated holistically in policy terms, with its economic, social and educational consequences being every bit as relevant as the many healthcare issues it raises. While the death toll has been horrendous and the hospitalization rates harrowing, the elite’s shrill calls that the present pandemic is somehow unique — calling for a suspension of reason as well as a suspension of basic liberties — is no truer than the young shepherd’s call that the wolf is at the door.
In the 20th century alone, the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1920, the Asian flu of 1957-58 and the Hong Kong flu of 1968-69 all erupted on a global scale, with the first, in terms of deaths, amounting to by far the worst pandemic in modern history. Far from being unique, pandemics, even in our modern age, tend to occur once a generation. They should not be cause for hysteria, leaving our brains at the door or the suspension of basic liberties.
Likewise, the Western elite’s continued doom-mongering is highly suspect. Omicron, in line with Darwin’s theory of evolution, has, in an effort to survive, morphed into a far more transmissible and milder variant. As a result, as I and many others have predicted, there will be a record number of infections, followed by a substantial drop in both hospitalizations and deaths — very good news indeed. This has come to pass with a study in South Africa (where omicron was first identified) in late December showing that the new strain has produced only a quarter of the deaths recorded in earlier cases. In the UK, people who come down with omicron are up to 70 percent less likely to require hospital treatment than those with the delta variant.
This turning of the COVID-19 tide has not been met with the joy it deserves. Instead, governments, desperate to avoid discussions about how they — in their monomania — have shamefully neglected children’s education and social well-being, are trying to change the subject from policy failures that will play out over decades. Far better to keep the state of emergency going, “just to be on the safe side.”
This is unlikely to work for long, as the credibility of Western governments couldn’t be lower. In America, the increasingly hapless Biden administration is set to be hammered in the autumn’s midterms, largely because the independent voters who determine elections no longer believe a word the White House says about COVID-19, so often has it changed its policies, demanding more centralized powers, even as US courts strike down the president’s vaccine mandate scheme for large employers as a potentially unconstitutional workaround Congress’s sole power to make laws.
Look for COVID-19 to wind down in the spring, even as it takes a good number of months more for Western elites to reopen their societies, as they desperately search for ways to save face before making a policy U-turn that is as obvious as it is overdue. We must not let them ever regain the credibility they have so deservedly lost over their authoritarian, hapless handling of the pandemic.
• John C. Hulsman is the president and managing partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a prominent global political risk consulting firm. He is also a senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the City of London. He can be contacted via johnhulsman.substack.com.