Author Archives: ianjs2014

Rebooting the stalled domestic revolution: Sally Howard interview

Rebooting the stalled domestic revolution: Sally Howard interview
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
15 May 2020

A London-based journalist specialising in gender, human rights and social trends, in March Sally Howard published The Home Stretch: Why It’s Time To Come Clean About Who Does The Dishes.

A brilliant and inspiring book that attempts to “reboot the stalled domestic revolution”, Ian Sinclair asked Howard who does the dishes today, the impact of key life events and how coronavirus might change things.

Ian Sinclair: Many people may think there is broad equality in the UK in terms of housework today – certainly compared to the past. Can you summarise what the evidence tells us about domestic labour today?

Sally Howard: There’s a common misconception, fuelled by our onus on women’s gains in the public sphere (closing the Gender Pay Gap, for example, and equalising women’s representation in politics), that the feminist revolution on the home front has been fully achieved. And yes British males today contribute much more in terms of domestic effort than their 1970s counterparts: 18 hours a week compared to the one hour 20 minute contribution of 1971 man. However, British women still put in 60 percent more effort into these often mundane and repetitive tasks – 26 hours a week of cooking and cleaning, not to mention the invisible domestic administration we now refer to as ‘the mental load’. More troublingly, male efforts appear to have gone into reverse since the 1990s, with today’s male contributing an hour less to these tasks, each week, than his 1998 counterpart.

IS: I was particularly interested in your assertion that key life events tend to reinforce traditional gender roles. Can you explain more?

SH: Yes, there’s a phenomenon I call ‘the Parent Labour Trap’ – the fact that no matter how egalitarian a heterosexual couple are before the arrival of children, multiple factors conspire, once children are on the scene, to ‘discipline’ men and women into traditional breadwinning and housekeeping roles. First amongst these is the Gender Pay Gap, which often means it makes sense for a woman to put her career on the backburner to prioritise a higher income. Then there is the persistent stigma against male early-years primary caring that leads to our poor uptake of Shared Parental Leave (only two percent of eligible British males exercise their right to share leave). As I argue in the book, hands-on male primary parenting is the foundation of establishing egalitarian domestic arrangements in a family household (as seen in the Swedish model, where state-funded ‘use it or lose it’ daddy leave quotas lead to a much higher uptake of male parenting leave and a consequent fairer division of domestic labour). There’s also a surprising societal resistance to non-traditional domestic roles in childed families, with 72 percent of respondents to the 2018 British Social Attitudes Survey saying mothers of pre-school children should stay at home or only work part time. Add the fact that men with children tend to be promoted more readily, and it’s very easy for even the most progressive couples to slide into traditional domestic arrangements. My book finds that the arrival of a child increases the domestic labour load by around three hours a day – all of that wiping up and toy- tidying – and that two hours and 40 minutes of these extra labours fall to women.

IS: You note the politics of housework was a central concern of Second Wave feminism in the 1970s, but has fallen off the feminist agenda since then. Why do you think this happened?

SH: Yes domestic labour – in fabulous activist movements such as Wages for Housework – was a central plank of the Second Wave feminism. Partly this was down to the fact that these feminisms were an outgrowth of the socialist left. Wages for Housework, for example, was inspired in the workerist movements that took root in Italy in the 1960s. By the 1980s mainstream feminism had, following theorists such as Catharine MacKinnon, turned its attention to gains in women’s legal rights and in the public sphere. On one hand the dirty business of housework became unsexy, associated with the housewives working feminists no longer wanted to be. On the other a lazy compact was made, with some middle-class women passing domestic labour to other subordinate women, often along race and class lines. In the 1980s we saw a huge rise in low-paid childcare and per-hour domestic cleaning as many women paid other women to account for the fact men aren’t pitching in more. Of course this offloading of ‘women’s work’ along race and class lines was a breathtaking failure of feminist solidarity.

IS: I particularly enjoyed the chapter on utopian visions and alternative communities seeking to address the issue. Can you talk about your favourite?

SH: One of my favourites actually isn’t included in the book. The House of Nobodies in La Paz is a progressive all-gender feminist community where housework, undertaken by all members, is degendered, allocated by lottery and paid for out of a central pot. It’s a modern take on the ideas expounded by Wages for Housework: that attributing fiscal value to these tasks clearly designates them as ‘work’, rather than the natural-born gifts of woman’s love. I also love built community fixes to uneven division of labour, however, such as the utopian socialist society designed by self-taught architect Alice Constance Austin in the 1910s, in which ‘kitchenless homes’ were connected by a system of underground tunnels used for commuting, laundry and hot meal collection and delivery (from a large centralised city kitchen and laundry), as well as the transportation of supplies and goods. These utopian ideas might seem fanciful, but in fact we can no longer afford our inefficient nuclear family dwellings on environmental as well as social justice grounds. I argue for radical new ideas around post-fossil fuel communalism.

IS: You mention Canadian writer and activist Naomi Klein’s belief that transformative change is most likely to occur during and after societal crises. Do you think the coronavirus outbreak and the unprecedented impacts it is having on society could be one such crisis?

SH: Absolutely. On one hand we’re seeing worrying signs in terms of the impact of the crisis on gendered care work – as childcare and the cooking of three meals a day are abruptly shifted from the paid to the unpaid economy it’s women who are, in many cases, picking up the slack (a sharp rise in women’s unemployment in the US is likely to be matched by UK figures). On the other hand, this crisis is a brutal reminder that the care labour we all rely on to survive is not work that ‘just gets done’. Despite the blip of the 1950s, with its myth of the Perfect Housewife in her Ideal Home, the two world wars were huge system shocks that ushered in radical changes in social roles and set the ground for Second Wave feminism. I hope that this will be the case for the Covid-19 crisis, not least in terms of our increased appreciation for the ‘pink collar workers’ – the cleaners, nurses and carers – who are at the frontline of the Coronavirus battle and whose poorly remunerated labour is part of the broader picture of our social devaluation of ‘women’s work’.

The Home Stretch is published by Atlantic Books, priced £14.99.

“What we are going to see is cases are going to go up”: Professor Devi Sridhar on the UK’s response to coronavirus

“What we are going to see is cases are going to go up”: Professor Devi Sridhar on the UK’s response to coronavirus
by Ian Sinclair
19 May 2020

Professor Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, appeared on BBC Question Time on 14 May 2020. She had a number of criticisms of the UK government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak:

On lifting the lockdown: “I just think it is quite tragic we are in this situation. This issue about safety… could have been dealt with many weeks ago. Other countries have stayed open, they have stayed safe by actually having public health infrastructure in place to actually detect who had the virus that when you do travel you know you that actually you are not going to be exposing others. That actually we know who had the virus and who doesn’t, and we can make sure they are isolated. Listening to this debate, is it safe currently to go on public transport? I don’t think so. Is it safe to open schools? I don’t think so. Because we don’t have in place the basic building blocks of surveillance to actually know who has the virus. And if the lockdown starts opening up now before we have the infrastructure in place, it’s basically pointless. In the sense actually you should use the time to build the infrastructure that actually when you lift lockdown then you are in a better position than you were when you went in. And the thing I am trying to get my head around is in the past eight weeks that we have been in a lockdown which is costly, that has proved very drastic in terms of the economic and social effects, aswell as the effects on the non-essential services in the NHS, what has fundamentally changed in the past eight weeks to put us in a better position to open up? So what we are going to see is cases are going to go up… the virus is going to continue spreading and in a few weeks we are going to have this exact same debate again.”

On the economy vs. public health: “We keep putting the economy versus public health, and I think that is a mistake. These are both on the same side. Containment is good for the public health, it is good for the economy. That is what we are seeing from the countries that moved early, that locked down fast and that actually took the drastic measures, contained the virus, and then are able to open up now. And I think having these kinds of debates in February and March is what has created such confusion. So what is the government’s strategy? Is it to let the virus run through, try to stay within NHS capacity and basically think that is going to save the economy? We are learning that is not the right way. The right way is actually to get on top of this virus aggressively. We have to stay in lockdown longer. Stay in lockdown longer, do it right, ease it and it is a one way street. Right now the problem we are going to face is if we open it is not like the virus magically disappears. It is still going to be around. So what that means is it is going to continue spreading and at some point NHS capacity is going to be strained. We have already lost 60,000 people. I guess we are maybe 10 percent of the way through this if we are fortunate? We will find out soon. We have a long way to go.”

On testing: “A clear way to figure out how on top of it you are is through testing. So if you are testing people and less than two percent are positive, you know you are in pretty good shape. This is where South Korea and New Zealand are. If you are testing people and it is around five percent then you know you barely have a handle on it. If it is over 10 percent you have a huge problem. We are finding we are over 10 percent. And, of course, this leads to the question: where is this virus?”

How nonviolence reduces government-led mass killings: interview with Evan Perkoski

How nonviolence reduces government-led mass killings: interview with Evan Perkoski
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
6 April 2020

Ignored by the mainstream media, in 2018 Dr Evan Perkoski, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Connecticut, and Erica Chenoweth, a Professor in Human Rights and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School, published a very important study titled Nonviolent Resistance and Prevention of Mass Killings During Popular Uprisings.

With commentator Gary Younge heralding the 2010s as the decade of protest, and huge demonstrations continuing in places such as India, Chile and Iraq, Ian Sinclair questioned Perkoski about his co-authored report.

Ian Sinclair: Your report is informed by the seminal 2011 Columbia University Press study Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict by your co-author Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan. For those unfamiliar with the idea of nonviolent resistance, can you summarise the key findings of Chenoweth and Stephan’s book?

Evan Perkoski: Chenoweth and Stephan produced a ground-breaking book in 2011 that was the first to systematically compare the efficacy of violent and nonviolent resistance methods. In other words, it statistically evaluates how likely popular uprisings are to succeed – to remove a dictator from power or to gain territorial independence, for example – when using either violent or nonviolent strategies. They find that nonviolent strategies are nearly twice as effective. As to why, there are many possible reasons. Nonviolent uprisings tend to be bigger and more diverse since lots of people can participate; they are difficult to suppress owing to their size, but also because militaries might not follow orders to crack down on protesters;  and they are often seen as more legitimate by international audience. As a result, these uprisings can very effectively disrupt civic affairs and apply pressure to governments. Yet, Chenoweth and Stephan also find that nonviolent movements have to grow quite large if they are to succeed. Specifically, if 3.5 percent of a state’s population actively participates at a campaign’s peak, then success is almost inevitable. But that’s a lot of people: in the US, for example, that would require over ten million individuals to turn out.

IS: What does your report tell us about nonviolent and violent resistance and the incidence of mass killings during popular uprisings?

EP: We find that mass killings tend to occur less frequently when dissidents use strategies of civil resistance and nonviolence compared to violence. Specifically, nearly half as many cases of nonviolent resistance experience mass violence as do cases of violent resistance. There are a few reasons why. Nonviolence might seem less threatening to regime elites and their families, giving them a way out without using force. Nonviolent movements also probably make it easier for members of the regime, including soldiers, to defect to the opposition, which they might hesitate to do when the opposition is a violent insurgency. And nonviolent movements don’t give the regime any cover for resorting to violence. In other words, they make it hard for states to justify a crackdown to their domestic and international allies.

IS: What are the other key factors which influence the chances of government forces carrying out mass killings in response to an uprising?

EP: Overall, we find that the interaction between dissidents and states matters greatly when it comes to the onset of mass violence. For instance, while strategies of nonviolent resistance seem to be safer, so are movements that can elicit defections from members of the armed forces. We also find that those resistance movements seeking to overthrow the incumbent regime are at a greater risk of violence. Which makes sense: leaders in such cases have the most to lose – compared to a secessionist campaign, for instance.

But we also find that outside actors can have a big effect. One of our most consistent findings is that highly internationalised conflicts, where foreign states are supporting dissidents as well as the regime they’re fighting against, are particularly dangerous.

But it’s not only the dynamics of the uprising that affect whether mass violence happens, either. Certain types of states are especially likely to kill their own civilians, and this includes non-democracies, military-based regimes (where the military controls the state), and those that are generally less developed.

IS: Can you give a real world example of this playing out in a recent struggle?

EP: One of the cases where we’ve seen some of these dynamics play out in a terrible way is Syria. In some ways it fits with our findings, and in other ways it doesn’t. In terms of it fitting, this is a highly internationalised conflict with foreign states supporting both dissidents and the regime in very overt ways. Syrian dissidents are also seeking to overthrow the Assad regime, which might explain why Assad is willing to use lethal force – specifically, to stay in power. Dissidents and the regime are also engaging in direct battles against one another which can help explain the high level of civilian victimization. Of course, dissidents initially began protesting the regime with nonviolent means and only escalated after the regime began its campaign of brutal repression. This shows how it is important to remember that cross-national statistical findings will not always explain every case perfectly, and they are instead most useful for identifying broader patterns that will generally – but not always – hold true across contexts.

IS: If resistance campaigns who receive external support are more likely to experience mass killings by government forces, are there any practical steps concerned citizens and organisations in the US and UK can take if they want to assist resistance campaigns in other countries?

EP: In our research we focus on a very specific type of foreign support: namely, overt material assistance. While we find that this particular type of engagement can make violence more likely, this does not necessarily mean that all forms of engagement should be avoided. States and other interested groups might therefore avoid sending money and arms, and instead provide training materials, to help develop organizational capacity, support dissidents through acts of diplomacy, and to use their leverage to isolate and sanction any regimes that resort to violence. Doing so would also send a powerful signal to other states that such behaviour won’t be tolerated.

Nonviolent Resistance and Prevention of Mass Killings During Popular Uprisings is published by the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict, and can be downloaded for free from https://www.nonviolent-conflict.org/nonviolent-resistance-and-prevention-of-mass-killings/.

Book review: Nonviolent Resistance and Prevention of Mass Killings During Popular Uprisings by Evan Perkoski and Erica Chenoweth

Nonviolent Resistance and Prevention of Mass Killings During Popular Uprisings by Evan Perkoski and Erica Chenoweth
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
April-May 2020

Influenced by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan’s seminal 2011 study Why Civil Resistance Works, this short report looks at the circumstances surrounding mass killings – the intentional killing of 1,000 or more civilians in a continuous event – by government forces during popular uprisings.

‘The strategic interaction between dissidents and regimes is central to the occurrence of mass violence’, argue Evan Perkoski, an Assistant Professor at the University of Connecticut, and Chenoweth, a Professor at the University of Denver. In addition, they note the ‘characteristics… of campaigns play a significant role in explaining the likelihood of mass atrocities.’

Using a data set of 308 resistance campaigns between 1950 and 2013, and illustrating their findings with a number of case studies, they conclude ‘nonviolent uprising are almost three times less likely than violent rebellions to encounter mass killings, all else being equal.’ They put this down to a number of campaign-level factors: nonviolent resistance is less threatening to the physical well-being of regime elites, thus lowering the chances of violent retaliation; government crackdowns on nonviolent protestors often produce defections amongst the armed forces; and ‘the likelihood of mass killings is greater when foreign state provide material aid to dissidents’, something violent insurgencies tend to rely on.

There are, of course, structural factors which influence the likelihood of government violence – regime type and whether mass killings have occurred in the past, to name two – though the authors note these are ‘slow-moving’ and therefore provide ‘little actionable information’ for activists.

This ‘counterintuitive paradox’ – that those campaigns which remain nonviolent and unarmed with no significant foreign support are safest from mass killings – has huge implications, both for those participating in popular uprisings and for peace and anti-war activists in the UK. For example, the research suggests those who have supported sending arms to the Syrian opposition forces, including activists who would identify as being on the progressive left, are pushing for a course of action that increases the chances of the mass killing of civilians.

The report helpfully ends with several practical steps interested external parties could take when considering how to support popular uprisings. These include trying to steer protests “toward strategies, actions and dynamics that are associated with a lower odds of mass violence”, and sharing knowledge and skills rather than providing direct financial or material assistance. External forces can also undermine the cohesion of the repressing government forces by offering exile to leaders or supporting defections – a course of action more appropriate for powerful governments rather than grassroots activists.

Nonviolent Resistance and Prevention of Mass Killings During Popular Uprisings was published by the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict in May 2018.

Book review. The Home Stretch: Why It’s Time To Come Clean About Who Does The Dishes by Sally Howard

Book review. The Home Stretch: Why It’s Time To Come Clean About Who Does The Dishes by Sally Howard
By Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
27 April 2020

HOUSEWORK, and who does it, was a key concern of the Second Wave Feminism of the 1970s, the time of the international Wages For Housework movement and Ann Oakley’s influential Housewife study.

Since then the issue has dropped off the agenda of mainstream feminism, Sally Howard, a London-based journalist, argues in her brilliant new book.

Certainly men do more domestic labour than they used to – an average of just one hour 20 minutes in 1971 compared to 17 hours a week in 2016, according to the UK Office for National Statistics. However, even this improvement lags far behind the 36 hours women spend, on average, doing household chores today. Indeed, the unfair distribution of work persists even when both partners are working (I should say we are talking about heterosexual partners – same sex relationships seem to result in different outcomes).

This “second shift” that women have to work is exacerbated by marriage and having children – what Howard calls “the Parent Labour Trap”. These key life events tend to reinforce traditional gender roles, she explains, with tasks defined as female usually daily, monotonous and menial, and so-called male tasks, like gardening and DIY, usually “occasional and dispensable”.

Understandably, many privileged women have sought to escape the unequal workload by employing domestic labourers – usually poor non-British women – something Howard opposes. She notes, incredibly, “there are more live-in domestic workers in London today than there were in the 1890s.”

It’s a wide-ranging treatise, with fascinating explorations of the history of Home Economics, how technological changes have impacted women’s’ lot (spoiler: not much) and the rise of “cleanfluencers” and “instamoms” on social media today. The chapter on utopian visions and alternative communities is particularly interesting – I had never heard of self-taught architect Alice Constance Austin and the feminist, socially-egalitarian Californian city she was commissioned to design in 1915. It was never built but the plans featured a radical layout of “kitchenless homes… connected by a system of underground tunnels used for commuting, laundry and hot meal collection and delivery (from a large centralized city kitchen and laundry).”

Turning to how we might “reboot the stalled domestic revolution”, Howard argues “many of the great successes of feminism have come in moments when boots were on the ground”. For example, the legendary 1975 women’s general strike in Iceland, in which 90 percent of adult women left their jobs and families to march in the streets, led to equal gender pay rights being enshrined in Icelandic law a year later.

Inspiring, smart and wryly humorous, The Home Stretch deserves to become a landmark Feminist text.

The Home Stretch is published by Atlantic Books, priced £14.99.

Public opinion and coronavirus: the sleeping giant the government is afraid of

Public opinion and coronavirus: the sleeping giant the government is afraid of
by Ian Sinclair
Byline Times
1 May 2020

“All politicians recognize the force of public opinion”, Richard Gregg wrote in his 1934 book The Power of Nonviolence.

There is evidence this truism applies to the coronavirus outbreak in the UK. “Conservative backbenchers voiced concern in private about the government’s failure to roll out testing faster, saying there was anxiety that the public mood could turn against the government if it appeared there was no end to the lockdown as a result”, the Guardian reported on 2 April. “One senior MP said the party would be watching the polls closely and that he was ‘frankly amazed’ that Johnson’s popularity was holding up. A bit like the virus, there might be a two-week lag before the public comes to fully realise that the government is failing to get the testing issue under control, they said.” The source continued: “The death toll will become totemic. If we get thousands of people dying every day for several days, who knows where this will go. It is frightening, and the prime minister looks like he doesn’t know what to do.”

More explicitly, a “cabinet source” was quoted in the Telegraph on 18 April about the government’s so-called “exit plan” from the lockdown: “They [the government] are waiting for the public to change their mind. We didn’t want to go down this route in the first place – public and media pressure pushed the lockdown, we went with the science.”

So there you have it: according to a “cabinet source” the public played a key role in forcing the government’s hand in introducing the national lockdown on 23 March. A new Ipsos MORI poll suggests public opinion is shifting against the government on the timing of the lockdown, with 66 percent of people saying the Government acted too late in taking stricter measures, up from 57 percent two weeks ago.

Beyond the present crisis, recent history is littered with examples of public opinion and public pressure impacting the actions of government and corporations.

For example, last month the Telegraph reported Shell has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2050, with its Chief Executive noting “Society’s expectations have shifted quickly in the debate around climate change.” The Tory broadsheet provided the crucial context: “Oil companies have been rocked by the pace at which climate activists have demanded action, forcing them to burnish their green credentials.” The early years of the Coalition government provided another inspiring example of people power, with a Guardian headline in February 2011 explaining ‘English Woodlands Sell-Off Postponed After Public Backlash’. Luckily government plans to sell off a huge chunk of the public forest estate had been leaked in October 2010. A huge movement quickly rose up in defence of our woodlands: 38 Degrees organised an online petition that gained 500,000 signatures, popular local campaigns sprang up in the Forest of Dean and other locations and public figures, including the Archbishop of Canterbury and Dame Judi Dench, spoke out. Victory was achieved on 16 February when Prime Minister David Cameron told the House of Commons he was not happy with the government’s sell-off plans.

Going back to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, many people continue to believe the anti-war movement was ineffective. However, there is evidence to suggest the unprecedented large-scale opposition, though it didn’t stop the war, was heard in the halls of power and inhibited UK foreign policy.

In the week before the US-UK attack on Iraq the Spanish Ambassador to the United Nations noted Britain was becoming “nervous” and “exclusively obsessed” with domestic public opinion, according to the Guardian. This fits with British historian Mark Curtis’s belief that in 2002-3 the British public were victims of “a government propaganda campaign of perhaps unprecedented heights in the post-war world.” Indeed, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) was involved in a media offensive circa September 2003 – “aimed to convert the UK public to supporting the outcome of the Iraq war”, the Guardian reported. Leaked papers from a media seminar held in London reveal “the MoD’s main target is the UK public and media while [the main target] of Basra headquarters for British troops in the Iraqi people.”

The campaign was not successful. The British public continued to oppose British intervention, while Iraqi public opinion was strongly opposed to the British military occupation in Southern Iraq. In 2005 the Telegraph reported an internal Ministry of Defence poll had found 45 per cent of Iraqis believed attacks against the US and UK troops were justified (rising to 65 per cent in the British controlled Maysan province). Similarly, a 2007 Opinion Research Business poll for BBC Newsnight found 83 per cent of the adults surveyed in Basra wanted British troops to leave Iraq.

British forces pulled out of Basra in September 2007. Reporting from Washington DC in August 2007, the Telegraph’s Tim Shipman noted “the US military has no doubt, despite what [Prime Minister] Gordon Brown claims, that the pullout is being driven by ‘the political situation at home in the UK’”. The report quoted a “senior US officer familiar with [top US] General Petreaus’s thinking”: “Britain is in a difficult spot because of the lack of political support at home, but for a long time – more than a year – they have not been engaged in Basra and have tried to avoid casualties.”

This concern about domestic public opinion and casualties echoes what was happening in Afghanistan. With a UK general election looming, in November 2009 the Observer reported General Stanley McChrystal, the NATO commander in Afghanistan, “holds the view that Britain’s continued participation in Afghanistan will be more acceptable to an increasingly sceptical British public if troops are switched to less dangerous duties”.

The opposition of the general public to the UK’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, then, played a crucial role in constraining UK forces, almost certainly preventing them carrying out more aggressive operations in those countries.

We must not “forget our own influence, the innumerable times we’ve swayed outcomes”, US author Rebecca Solnit wrote in 2016. Highlighting successful examples of people power in recent history such as the gaining of civil rights for African Americans and how women got the vote, she notes “in all these cases, the people who we mislabel ‘leaders’ only followed the will of the people.”

Returning to the coronavirus crisis, the Guardian reports rightwingers in the government and wider Tory party are pushing for an early exit from the lockdown – due to concerns about the economy. Other news reports suggest the cabinet is split on the issue, with Michael Gove, Rishi Sunak, Priti Patel and Dominic Raab favouring lifting the lockdown sooner rather than later, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock favouring a more cautious approach.

As former Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell recently tweeted: “Without mass testing & tracing & with a government that can’t even manage the supply of PPE” locking the lockdown “would be lethal, irresponsible & putting profit before people’s lives.”

So on the question of when to lift the lockdown, public pressure has the potential to leverage influence on government, strengthening the voices of those in government and on its scientific advisory bodies that are more hesitant about sacrificing lives at the altar of the economy. A new poll from Opinium suggests there is a broad public consensus on this, with 67 percent of respondents opposed to opening schools, 78 percent and 81 percent opposed to opening restaurants and pubs respectively, and 84 percent against allowing mass gatherings at sports events or concerts to resume.

It is no exaggeration to suggest the lives of thousands of Britons are hanging in the balance. After all a Financial Times’s analysis of Office for National Statistics figures estimates 48,100 people (as of 30 April) have died in the UK because of the outbreak, while epidemiologist Professor Neil Ferguson from Imperial College recently warned lifting the lockdown too early could lead to 100,000 deaths.

The question is will concerned citizens make their voices heard and force the government to take the most effective and humane action possible in these difficult circumstances?

Ian Sinclair is the author of ‘The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003’, published by Peace News Press. Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Burying the dead: the UK media and the government’s response to coronavirus

Burying the dead: the UK media and the government’s response to coronavirus
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
24 April 2020

On 10 April 2020, the UK government announced 980 people had died in hospital in the last 24 hours because of coronavirus. It was the country’s highest daily death toll so far.

It was exceeded in Europe only by France, where 1,417 died in a single day, though France’s numbers, unlike the UK, include deaths in care homes.

It is worth pausing for a moment to consider the UK figure: 980. How far back in UK history do we have to go to find 980 early deaths in a single day? World War Two? World War One?

With the bodies of the dead barely cold, the front pages of the newspapers the next day felt like a sick, surreal joke. Barring the Guardian and Scotland’s The National, no national newspaper’s main headline focussed on the record death toll. The BBC News website’s headline on 10 April – after the record death toll had been announced – was ‘Herculean Effort’ To Provide NHS Protective Gear, quoting Health Secretary Matt Hancock at the daily coronavirus briefing. There was nothing, nothing, on the BBC News website’s front page about the unprecedented mortality rate, as journalist Jack Seale noted on Twitter that day.

Incredibly, BBC Radio 4’s 08:00 news on 11 April did not mention the previous days’ death toll, though it did find space to report on the number of dead in the United States and the important news that Paul McCartney’s handwritten lyrics for Hey Jude were being auctioned. BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions also seems to living in a parallel universe, with recent episodes finding the guests engaging in polite disagreements, with gentle questioning from host Chris Mason, while thousands of bodies pile up throughout the country.

“I’m told BBC bosses are warning interviewers not to put ministers under pressure”, former BBC veteran journalist John Humphrys recently noted in the Daily Mail.

The 7 April was also a grim milestone for the UK – the 854 recorded deaths a daily record at that point. The newspaper front pages the next day were again a travesty, with nearly all exclusively focussing on the Prime Minister’s time in intensive care. He Stayed At Home For You… Now Pray At Home For Him, instructed the Sun. We Are With You Boris! shouted the Metro. Only the Guardian published a headline about the UK death toll.

Where is the anger? Where is the outrage? Where is the concern for readers’ welfare? Where is the detailed examination and questioning of government policy?

The collective failure of the media to report on the extraordinary number of deaths is even more frustrating when you consider there is voluminous evidence government inaction has led to this catastrophe.

“Something has gone badly wrong in the way the UK has handled Covid-19… there was a collective failure among politicians and perhaps even government experts to recognise the signals that Chinese and Italian scientists were sending”, noted Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of the Lancet medical journal, in the Guardian on 18 March.

Appearing on BBC Question Time a few days later he described the government’s poor response to the crisis as “a national scandal.”

“We knew from the last week in January [2020] that this was coming”, he noted, “And then we wasted February when we could have acted. Time when we could have ramped up testing, time when we could have got Personal Protective Equipment ready and disseminated. We didn’t do it.”

Anthony Costello, Professor of Global Health and Sustainable Development at UCL and a former Director of Maternal and Child Health at the World Health Organization, was similarly scathing about the government’s lack of action. “History won’t look kindly on Britain’s response”, he noted in the Guardian last month.

As is perhaps clear already, the Guardian has published important exposes of the government’s failings, aswell as a number of op-eds very critical of the government’s response to the crisis –from Horton, Costello and Professor Devi Sridhar, Chair of Global Public Health at the University of Edinburgh.

However, it has also published some potentially dangerous, arguably even reckless, articles. With the government being widely criticised for refusing to implement more radical policies to suppress the outbreak, on 14 March the Guardian’s science correspondent Hannah Devlin published an article titled Which Activities Are Safe And Which Should People Avoid? Quoting experts, the article suggested going to the pub, visiting the gym and attending a sports match were all OK. On the question of visiting elderly relatives, the article quoted one expert saying he would not stop visiting elderly relatives, and another saying “I really don’t think that’s a good idea”. Two days later the Prime Minister urged people to avoid pubs, clubs and theatres, and cease all “non-essential” contact with others.

Another serious error was made by the Observer’s science editor Robin McKie in a piece titled Five Months On, What Scientists Now Know About The Coronavirus, published on the Guardian website on 12 April. “As to the transmission of Sars-CoV-2, that occurs when droplets of water containing the virus are expelled by an infected person in a cough or sneeze”, he noted, apparently unaware that academic studies and news reports, including by the BBC, have shown transmission can happen through talking too.

Reuters should also be congratulated for publishing a hugely important, lengthy investigation into the advice and decisions being made at the top of government. Based on interviews with 20 British scientists, key officials and senior Tory Party sources, and a study of minutes of advisory committee meetings, public testimony and documents, the 7 April report highlights how the government’s “scientific advisers concluded early the virus could be devastating.”

Among the eye-popping findings, is that the SPI-M committee, the official committee set up to model the spread of pandemic flu, published a report on 2 March noting up to four-fifths of the population could be infected and one in a hundred might die – “a prediction of over 500,000 deaths in this nation of nearly 70 million”, Reuters note. Despite these alarming findings, Reuters found “the scientific committees that advised [Prime Minister] Johnson didn’t study, until mid-March, the option of the kind of stringent lockdown adopted early on in China”.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be so shocked by the British media’s performance. There are many examples of the propagandistic role the media plays, often showing minimal interest in the deadly consequences and victims of UK government policy, especially during times of national crisis. For example, the 2019 Institute for Public Policy Research study linking 130,000 preventable deaths to Conservative-Lib Dem austerity policies did receive some coverage, but has effectively been ignored since it was published. It has certainly not framed the national political debate as it should have. Similarly, the US-UK-led sanctions that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis between the two Iraq wars were of little concern to our supposedly free and critically-minded media. Ditto the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed during the 2003 US-UK invasion and subsequent occupation, with the media watchdog Media Lens recording how the two ‘Lancet’ studies into the death toll were effectively buried by our Fourth Estate.

Returning to the coronavirus outbreak, it is hard to escape a disturbing conclusion that should shame all UK journalists: the huge and unprecedented official death toll – currently standing at 18,738, though the Financial Times estimates the real number to be 41,000 – is, in part, the result of the failure of the media to hold the government to account for its woeful response to the coronavirus outbreak.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.