Why does it matter who blames whom for the coronavirus?

Starting the conversation…

Suzanne Raine, Affiliated Lecturer, Centre for Geopolitics

The serious geopolitical consequences of catastrophic events such as famines, pandemics, depressions and wars are often caused less by the actual events than by the process of blame (both deliberate and spontaneous) which usually follows. Will people blame their own governments or will they blame the “other”? Will governments be tempted to cast blame on external forces to deflect any criticism of their own handling of the crisis? Throughout history there are examples of upheaval and conflict caused not by the event itself but as a repercussion fuelled by blame.

To predict likely geopolitical consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, we should ask who will get the blame and for what purpose

The 1848 revolutions arose when circumstances including poor harvests and economic depression caused people to turn on autocratic governments. The 2008 financial crisis led – slowly – to the election of nationalist and populist governments as the Davos bankers and “international elite” got the blame when the money ran out. Widespread famine and epidemic disease in Iran in 1917-19 killed at least million people and was blamed on the British, who were accused either of deliberate negligence or of diverting foodstuffs to the imperial war effort. What matters is not the right and wrong of the case, but the effect of the narrative which is created.

To predict likely geopolitical consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, we should ask who will get the blame and for what purpose. Donald Trump’s characterisation of the “Chinese virus” has been widely covered and to some extent retracted, but it seems for the moment to have had its desired domestic political effect. In some quarters China’s system of government will get the blame. For some, our global interconnectivity and interdependence will become suspect. Just on the edge of Europe Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić blamed the European Union for refusing to export medical equipment to Serbia, saying: “European solidarity does not exist. That was a fairy tale on paper.” Instead, Vučić said that Serbia would seek the help of China. For those countries already caught between Europe and the US on one side and Russia and China on the other, this kind of statement could be decisive. But blame could be as slow to manifest and as unpredictable and virulent as the virus itself, and is important irrespective of whether it is right.

Responses…

Nick Chater, Professor of Behavioural Science at Warwick Business School

It is tempting to think that the responsibility for the Covid-19 pandemic, and its ominous consequences for individual nations and the world, depends on causality: whose actions (or lack of action) made matters worse, or better.

Yet the psychology of blame works very differently. More fundamental is the question: who did (or did not) do what they were supposed to do? Here, what we are supposed to do is judged by implicit “social contracts” that we project onto the international order, individual nations, and interpersonal interactions. Because these ‘contracts’ are implicit, there is considerable room for debate about who was supposed to do what—and plenty of scope for different parties to attempt to push the blame on to each other.

Covid-19 seems to have jumped from animals to humans in markets for wild animals in China. Let us suppose that this crucial part of the causal story is agreed. But how far China is blamed for the outbreak depends on whether it is viewed as having done what it was supposed to do: having the right levels of biosecurity in place; alerting early; providing transparent information; suppressing successfully.

Western governments have locked-down too late to stop major outbreaks. Since the prevalence of the virus doubles roughly every three to four days, locking down a week earlier would have reduced the outbreak to ¼ of its current levels; locking down two weeks earlier would reduced it to just 1/16 (of course, this simple logic assumes that suppression is possible in the long-term).

But Western governments are not, yet at least, being blamed for allowing the outbreak to spread. Again, the question is not about causality, but about what the governments were “supposed to do.” We normally expect governments to take actions proportional to the crisis we are appear currently to be facing. Most people don’t seem, currently, to think that it would have been proportionate to lock down sooner, when cases were so few—so the governments are not blamed. This perspective may change in retrospect.

By common consent, though, governments are supposed to have personal protective equipment for medical staff, sufficient ventilators, and testing. So this is where the blame is currently focused. Indeed, if our governments fail on these matters, deflecting blame to distant causes in other nations may be extremely difficult.

Brendan Simms, Director of the Centre for Geopolitics

As Suzanne Raine has pointed out, the way in which the political responsibility for the coronavirus crisis is placed may be as important as the impact of the virus itself. Will it, she asks, be laid at the door of local governments, or blamed on ‘the other’. Historically, the record would tend to suggest the latter. During the Black Death, for example, people turned on the Jews, or blamed their own or wider society’s ‘sinfulness’. They did not, apparently, make the monarchy or the magistracy responsible, despite doing so on a range of other issues such as onerous taxation or failure in war.

It is too early to say what will happen today. For now, people and governments are simply too busy firefighting and dealing with the immediate challenge to look any deeper. But the moment will come soon enough, and when it does, the discussions will centre around first, whether governments responded adequately, and, secondly, where the responsibility for the start of the crisis lies.

The former debate will concentrate on whether governments reacted quickly and comprehensively enough, by moving to ‘lockdowns’ and securing supplies of critical infrastructure such as ventilators. The latter discussion will largely focus on the PRC and has already begun in outline. Cabinet Minister Michael Gove’s, for example, has spoken of the need for a reckoning with the PRC when all this is over.

We still do not know the exact details of what happened in Wuhan. If, though, it becomes clear that the virus began there in November and December, that the PRC government concealed the fact for six weeks during which it spread to a world unawares, might not the economic and political fallout be such as to achieve the ‘de-coupling’ from PRC that the Trump administration has been calling for?

Your view…

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