Will bad leadership on Covid go unpunished?

Don’t blame the UK’s Covid death toll on our rule-averse culture, writes Robert Webb. Philip Clayton fears the government’s blunders will be rewarded, while Adrian Paterson traces literary references to an earlier pandemic

I cannot agree with Michele Gelfand’s assertion that cultural factors in our willingness to follow rules explain the stark difference between how different countries perform in dealing with the Covid-19 virus (Why countries with ‘loose’, rule-breaking cultures have been hit harder by Covid, 1 February).

Having lived in Australia, I cannot imagine any nation of more independent rule-breakers, yet it has had fewer Covid deaths in total than the UK currently has in an average day. And historically, the British have accepted severe restrictions in their liberty – for example, identity cards, rationing and blackout rules during the second world war.

What most badly performing countries have in common is poor leadership, inequality, and underfunded or inequitable health provision. Leadership that either denies or does not understand the science is hardly able to present a convincing argument for people to follow rules that would benefit the population as a whole.

In countries like the US, Brazil and the UK, compliance has been deliberately politicised by leadership and fringe groups, and conspiracy theories have been allowed to propagate unchecked. It is this that is the main determinant of outcomes in this dreadful crisis.
Robert Webb
East Coker, Somerset

• I sympathise with the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK campaign (There is a way to make this government face justice over the Covid tragedy, Journal, 31 January), but it is clear that the reckoning with the government’s actions will be like the Hillsborough disaster: the truth won’t emerge for 25 years or more.

Already more than three years have passed since the Grenfell disaster, yet nothing has been done to properly compensate the victims or deal with the breathtaking number of buildings that have been clad in similar lethal materials.

Now, incompetent companies are sprayed with billions to carry out Covid-related work nationally that world-class experts like Prof Allyson Pollock had said from the beginning should be done locally, and would have cost a fraction of the sums given to the corporations. In March last year, she wrote that centralisation would kill people. It has. Most of the current cabinet will pay no price for their lethal incompetence, and most will end their careers clothed in ermine.
Philip Clayton

• Jonathan Freedland’s sensitive piece (History suggests we may forget the pandemic sooner than we think, 29 January) says “the great writers of the age, the Hemingways and Fitzgeralds, all but ignored the plague that had descended” in 1918. But as Elizabeth Outka’s 2019 book Viral Modernism attests, traces of the Spanish flu epidemic surface everywhere in modernist writing – once criticised as elitist.

Virginia Woolf wrote from personal experience of influenza in her essay On Illness. The “blood-dimmed tide” of WB Yeats’ The Second Coming was “loosed” while his pregnant wife was dangerously ill with Spanish flu. And James Joyce altered Ulysses so that Leopold Bloom contemplates how disease employs what would now be called the viral effect of advertising: “Scarlatina, influenza epidemics. Canvassing for death. Don’t miss this chance.”

A contagion of misinformation on social media, only partly combatted by governments’ grim slogans, suggests death’s canvassing is still with us. These writers knew well that diseases are fought with words as well as vaccines.
Adrian Paterson
National University of Ireland, Galway


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