Letters: January/February 2022 edition

Whether spotting a mistake or objecting to a plain bad argument, readers tell us what we are getting wrong
December 9, 2021

Shift happens

Pivots are uncomfortable. We are in the middle of a major paradigm shift away from the postwar model of economic and social policy. Tom Clark’s piece, based on his interview with Carlota Perez, was inspiring. Perez moves from a simple critique of the old to engaging with some of the big contours of a new settlement. And as Thomas Kuhn said, transformation is driven by “the proliferation of competing articulations, the willingness to try anything, the expression of explicit discontent, the recourse to philosophy and to debate over fundamentals.”

Paradigms matter. As Perez says, they keep markets together. But it is not just markets. Across public services, the paradigm of privatisation and efficiency drives has dominated for the last 30 years. This shaped policy, but it also had a profound influence on culture: hospitals were redefined as autonomous organisations with a mission to grow and be “world class,” rather than part of a collaborative system designed around communities; rail passengers were redesignated customers; the provision of social care (be it a bath, having a meal heated or being put to bed) was submitted to competitive tendering for the lowest price. We saw the downgrading of the very idea of “public service,” with a reliance on economic incentives and regulation for those who worked in education, health and local government.

A key issue as we build the new paradigm for public services will be who governs. Leadership matters, but many of the most interesting ideas are challenging some of the fundamental power balances. Work in the US and UK by Madeleine Bunting, Anne-Marie Slaughter and Hilary Cottam, drawing on the rich legacy of feminist economics, is looking to re-imagine care. This work understands human thriving not in terms of maximising individual material gain, but as a shared enterprise in which caring and being cared for is intrinsically valuable.

Care has been marginalised, feminised and racialised; it must be moved centre stage. We need a model where economics works for society, not society for economics.

Anita Charlesworth, Health Foundation

Provincial privation

Hephzibah Anderson’s fabulous essay brought to life a subject which is almost always ignored.

My family moved into rural poverty in the southwest when I was 12 and the article describes pretty closely what we experienced. I was acutely aware of the “other” countryside, though—the hunting, shooting and second home set.

I moved away to east London (the properly poor one, not gentrified Shoreditch) to go to university and have lived here ever since. I am now approaching retirement and could not consider moving back to the country—food and travel are just far too expensive. I would not say I have financially prospered in the city, but I have certainly suffered a lot less because of the infrastructure and facilities available.

The poverty in the countryside now is worse than that which I remember—there is less access to work or housing. I have just come back from a break in Cornwall and the privation (if you know what to look for) was breathtaking.

All the surveys have clearly identified it as an issue people are angry about, south to north and urban to rural. Yet I suspect this government has no real interest in “levelling up,” which is just another buzz phrase.

Laura Holland, east London

Law of war

David Allen Green is entirely correct to highlight the slow, troubling and deliberate decline of accountability of our military and intelligence personnel.

As a former soldier, I was deeply concerned by the Overseas Operations Bill, which effectively sought to grant members of our Armed Forces immunity from prosecution. Opposition MPs worked hard to ameliorate the worst aspects of the legislation and succeeded in at least ensuring war crimes were removed from its scope. No one is above the law—a principle that remains true whether or not someone wears a uniform.

The same applies to ministers and our intelligence services, which is why I have taken the government to court following its refusal to establish its long-promised independent inquiry into UK complicity in torture and rendition post-9/11.

We owe the men and women who serve us a massive debt. The government must recognise that reneging on our legal and moral obligations is not the manner in which to repay them.

Dan Jarvis is Labour MP for Barnsley Central, Mayor of South Yorkshire and a former British Army major

Enough to go round

Gordon Brown is right. Twenty months on from the WHO declaring the pandemic, the majority of scientists and policymakers agree we have the means to end it—but only if we address the unequal distribution of vaccines. While around 70 per cent of the total population of the UK is fully vaccinated, accounting for over 110m doses, less than 1 per cent of Haiti’s is.

Although the previous two waves of Covid-19 only caused 24,233 confirmed cases and less than 1,000 deaths in Haiti, the low vaccine coverage risks combining with wider vulnerabilities. The early effects of climate change, natural disasters, and socio-economic crises have contributed to clustering in the cities. We need to multiply the number of doses available and develop effective strategies to distribute them. Haiti received 500,000 doses from the US through the Covax initiative in July. While members of the G7 pledge more resources to end Covid-19, it is worth holding on to the principle that no one is safe until all are safe.

Jean Hugues Henrys and Kenny Moise, Université Quisqueya, Haiti

I have witnessed first-hand the consequences of the vaccine nationalism described by Gordon Brown. Each time another small shipment of vaccines arrives in Mbarara in Uganda, I receive call after call from anxious family members in the community who are praying they finally receive immunity. But our health centres are forced to turn many people away after rapidly running out of intermittently available doses.

Although the former prime minister’s recommendations are well intentioned, an effective response by vaccine-producing countries and global institutions cannot be based on simply giving away “unused” or “surplus” vaccines, as if people from poorer countries can make do with the world’s leftovers.

With over 85 per cent of eligible Ugandans still in need of vaccination, and with increasing concerns that people may require annual boosters, international leaders must take much bolder action to massively scale up vaccine production in places like Uganda and to ensure that doses remain affordable for all.

Stephen Asiimwe, Kabwohe Clinical Research Centre, Uganda

Debating dignity

I’ve as much right as anyone to take offence at the Cambridge Union “Hitlergate” episode, described by Keir Bradwell on Prospect’s website. I’m an 81-year-old Jew, born in 1939 of an Austrian Jewish mother and an Italian Jewish father. They each came to London as refugees in 1938, where they met and married.

As they later explained to me, I lost many, many relatives to concentration camps. I might have been shocked had I been at the debate. I have no quarrel with Bradwell’s reported handling of the matter as president. But I do find John Cleese’s virtue-signalling reaction to the events small-minded and, as such, in bad taste.

Jonathan Burn-Forti, via email

Emission impossible

Andrew Adonis overlooks the main problem with “net zero”: it is unachievable. Rich democracies will find it impossible to limit consumption adequately, let alone develop green ways of generating the energy we have become addicts for (to power vehicles, heating, electronic gizmos, industry, lights).

The only really workable answer is a mixture of nuclear energy and reduced consumption. Both, however, are currently virtually impossible to achieve at the required scale. Replacing a BMW with a Tesla is a token gesture—“greenwashing.”

As parts of the world become effectively uninhabitable through global warming, there will likely be serious mass migrations, possibly meaning wars. I hope I’m wrong, but it will be my children, not me, who will find out.

Simon Cockshutt, Ealing

Lockdown casualties

I view the legacy of coronavirus from a different perspective to Philip Ball. Making difficult decisions in the face of uncertainty is a common feature of all crises. The pandemic was no exception but, sadly, much of the decision-making was conducted under a misapprehension (and, occasionally, wilful distortion) of the uncertainties involved.

The biggest uncertainty was the extent to which non-pharmaceutical interventions would curb the spread of infection. Instead, it was presented as fact that lockdowns and mask mandates would help achieve this; we now know that to be very much a matter of debate (to put it kindly) and yet faith in these measures persists, to the extent that those who dare to question their efficacy are treated as heretics.

None of this would matter if these interventions did not cause significant collateral damage. Yet given the conditions under which the majority of the world’s population lives, if there was one thing we could be certain of it was that people would die—of hunger, malnutrition, disease and malaise—as a result of them. In more affluent nations, the impact can be felt in postponed operations and disruption to education.

The justification for all of this has to be that many more people would have died without such interventions, which were predicated (as Ball’s article demonstrates) on the uncertainties surrounding the nature of the virus.

And yet, SARS-CoV-2 has actually been behaving almost exactly as any standard epidemiology textbook and a passing acquaintance with the characteristics of other seasonal coronaviruses would lead you to expect. It is headed towards endemicity (rather than eradication); its dynamics are determined by the waxing and waning of natural immunity against a background of seasonality in transmission; it was never any more virulent than the other seasonal coronaviruses (people were not specifically immune to it, so the vulnerable were especially at risk); and it evolved to evade natural immunity or to marginally improve transmissibility (which is all it needed to outcompete the prevailing variant).

The real long shadow of Covid-19 falls on those who were affected by the mitigations we imposed, not on the lucky few who sat at home on their laptops sipping Chablis and hoping that it would all go away if we diligently wore masks and lampooned anybody who dared to disagree. Much of this could have been prevented if life had gone back to normal as soon as we were able to protect the vulnerable, whether by shielding or through vaccines.

Sunetra Gupta is a professor of theoretical epidemiology at the University of Oxford

Where Britain belongs

Armando Iannucci says that those who voted Remain in the Brexit referendum should not be “standing on the sidelines gleefully pointing out how awful it is.” But I don't gloat, I despair. Remainers, Leavers or the indifferent, we’re all suffering the consequences of the disaster.

I agree with Iannucci that it’s unlikely—in my lifetime at least—that we will rejoin the EU as a full member. But there is another option: rejoining the single market and customs union. Amid my despair at the continuing calamity, I have a glimmer of hope that will happen. And, rather than standing on the sidelines, it’s what we should be fighting for.

Janet Burgess, Canterbury

Waiting in the sky

I enjoyed the astronomer royal’s historical account of human interest in “Life out there,” in which he admits, with caveats, the possibility of other intelligent life in the universe with a head start of perhaps a billion years over homo sapiens.

The point he omits to make is that if a vastly more technically advanced civilisation shares the same curiosity about the universe as ourselves, then it is a reasonable deduction that “they” would find us sooner than we would find them, or even become aware that they had found us. This is not to suggest that we sit back and discontinue our efforts to find rudimentary life forms “out there,” but perhaps we will not need to hold our breath indefinitely for an even greater discovery.

Joe Goodridge, Bedfordshire

Poetic justice

It is a pleasure to have The Owl and the Nightingale in Simon Armitage’s sprightly translation. As Nick Spencer points out, it belongs to a vibrant tradition of debate poems in both Latin and English.

It’s interesting that so many of these, like Aesop’s fable “The Ant and the Grasshopper,” contrast two fundamentally opposed attitudes toward life. Alcuin wrote “The Conflict between Spring and Winter,” and later debates pit water against wine, Carnival against Lent, and the body against the soul. Sober wisdom and joyful abandon will never agree, yet a balanced life requires both. The debate can never be resolved.

My favourite example is the French “Dispute Between God and His Mother” from 1450, in which Jesus Christ himself sues the Virgin Mary before the pope in Avignon. He claims that in spite of the opulent homes she owns all over the world (the Marian cathedrals), his mother has left him penniless. But Mary, taking the Owlish role, counters that her son is a feckless ne’er-do-well. Like the Nightingale, he squanders everything he has. In an outrageous satirical ending, the pope sides with Mary, sentencing Jesus to pay all the court costs and maintain his mother’s servants for as long as they live.

Barbara Newman, Northwestern University

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In fact

The number of public toilets in the UK has fallen by 19 per cent over the past six years, from 3,154 in 2015-16 to 2,556 in 2020-21.
Observer, 14th November 2021

Puerto Rico has fully vaccinated 74 per cent of its population—a higher proportion than any other US state or territory.
Vox, 26th November 2021

After being declared “biologically dead” in 1957, the River Thames is now home to 115 species of fish and three kinds of shark (tope, spurdog and starry smoothhound).
Evening Standard, 10th November 2021

No prime minister in Pakistan has ever completed their five-year term.
Washington Post, 24th November 2021

In a study of US literary prizes since 2000, graduates of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop were 49 times more likely to win than those with an MFA from another programme.
Public Books, 15th April 2021

In England, one in seven pupils is now obese at the start of primary school and more than one in four is severely overweight by the time they leave aged 11.
Telegraph, 16th November 2021

More than 100,000 people worldwide have had their eyes scanned in return for money held in the cryptocurrency Worldcoin.
Ars Technica, 22nd October 2021

People in 17 advanced economies were asked what gives meaning to life. “Family” came top in 13 countries including the UK; South Koreans chose “material wellbeing.”
Pew Research Center, 18th November 2021

In the James Bond films, 27.1 per cent of women who sleep with him die shortly after.
Travel Medicine and Infectious Disease, November-December 2021

The NHS England waiting list for elective care has hit 5.7m people, about the same as the population of Denmark.
King’s Fund blog, 11th November 2021

In 1964, Leicester Hemingway (brother of Ernest) founded the micronation of New Atlantis on an 8 by 30ft barge floating off Jamaica. He aimed to sell stamps and coins to fund marine research but the nation was destroyed by storms within a few years.
Afar, 13th October 2021