Guilty of Murder & Going to Get Away with it?

PHOTO: DAN KITWOOD/GETTY IMAGES; ALEX WONG/GETTY IMAGES

Murder! — The unlawful premeditated killing of one human being by another.

It sounds simple enough, so where do your elected officials stand when politicians across the Western-world have said they are willing to let thousands die for the possibility of saving markets or of reaching herd immunity? Geographical factors of course have led some countries to feel the sting much more than others, but there is little doubt political decisions have been of major consequence. Those politicians taking a more populist stance have time and time again chosen to delay action, electing instead to ignore their own specialist scientific advice in the full knowledge that their decisions will lead to a climb in resulting deaths. Some estimates suggest that during the first wave, if the UK government had implemented a lockdown just a week earlier, resultant deaths would have been halved. Unjustly these deaths sanctioned ‘a necessary evil’ by those in power have disproportionately affected those already societally marginalised, vulnerable, poor or disabled. Yet those whose policies, actions or inactions have led to tens of thousands of deaths of society’s most vulnerable face no legal repercussions for these planned fatalities.

Boris Johnson’s initial plan was to let 100,000s die attempting to generate herd immunity whilst keeping days at the races in full swing. Whether through better judgement or noticing the electorate’s mixed feelings on the strategy, Johnson’s U-turn instead involved non-governmental organisations such as the FA taking action to shut down in the interest of public safety whilst government floundered. Whilst in power Johnson and his entourage have racked up an impressive list of U-turns and colossal failures in trying to curb a deadly pandemic with minimal effects on ordinary life or the economy, here are a few:

To the UK Government’s credit, its gamble on an immensely successful vaccine rollout has so far paid dividends with the administration bathing in pro-Brexit clout. They stand proudly ahead of their slower European counterparts. My fear is that a nation that has spent most of the past 12 months under severe restrictions may well be so blinded by the light at the end of the tunnel that past misdeeds and missteps may well be forgotten. As one hand of the government proudly pats itself in smug self-congratulation the other will act to covertly brush past blunders under the carpet. Despite orchestrating the omnishambles that led to the largest death toll in Europe and suffering the largest hit to GDP of any European nation, Johnson’s administration still have a clear lead in the polls outside of Scotland. If there is no legal precedent to hold those responsible for policy accountable for the repercussions and, since no exhaustive government inquiry has been carried out or will be by the party presiding over the past year, the only means to formally castigate the executive will be via the political process. American elections saw Trump’s catastrophic handling of the pandemic lose him the election but that was while deaths were mounting. In the UK the government has set out comprehensive and exhaustive fiscal plans at odds to their previous austerity prone agenda that have successfully saved jobs whilst attempting to keep the public safe. If the UK’s vaccination rollout continues to surpass expectation, the quick recovery to health (compared to Europe), coupled with an economic bounce back may send signals of robust policy choices and clear leadership to the electorate — Britain opens for business while much of Europe remains closed. Additionally, if the government hide behind the excuse of a tragedy never before faced by a government and elect not to address growing debt until after elections they may have dodged a potentially fatal electoral bullet. For the opposition to overlook these errors would be a calamity.

Regardless of whether there are swift domestic repercussions to outbreak mishandling, international reaction must be immediate in order to curb mass outbreaks, largescale lockdowns and more deaths. Unlike the people it preys on, the pandemic acknowledges no borders — it merely takes opportunities to infect and spread. Going forward, pressure should be directly applied through sanctions on nation-states failing to safeguard their population from infection, and indirectly through exclusions to trade and travel — pandemics can traverse the globe with all the speed and convenience of an intercontinental flight. It is in the global community’s interest to actively react to health crises and thus it is in a single nation’s interest to trap any contagion within its borders through domestic closures however, these come with significant pitfalls. As already seen, governments unhappy with the prospect of halting business and travel, decreasing tax revenue and losing face on the world stage may be reluctant to come enthusiastically forward with timely and accurate data. This has dire consequences for the international community — sidestepping this conflict of interest is key to avoiding coverups of future outbreaks, unaccountability of political leaders and vaccine resistant mutations.

There are legal avenues which can be taken in response to the gross negligence of political leaders — impeachment in the United States or Misconduct in Public Office in the UK. The two cases unsuccessfully brought against Donald Trump illustrate the difficulties in assigning accountability out of or in the midst of crises. In pandemic response, policy makers must exercise judgement abreast of real time developments battling in the murky unknown. Delayed scrutiny of decisions made by those with limited information wading through previously untrod waters may be a challenge to the application of legislative justice. In the UK, judicial reviews can however be an effective tool when dealing with non-criminal but illegal, unconstitutional, unfair or irrational governmental enterprise. Johnson’s 2019 decision to prorogue Parliament was subject to this mechanism — which found his suspension of parliament unlawful. This path is being taken by the Good Law Project who have successfully challenged the legality of influential positions and PPE contracts being awarded to firms with concerning links to Conservative politicians. Contracts were allocated through a ‘VIP procurement channel’ without competitive tender and without details being published in a timely manner and therefore bypassed lawful scrutiny. Another question arises with prosecution, who actually is to blame? Policy makers can only act on the information presented to them thus, if the framework within the civil service has delayed access to relevant data or provided incorrect analysis, is the decisionmaker (blinded by circumstance) truly the arbitrator of failure?

National and supranational bodies must learn from recent pandemic policy as considerable policy successes have been implemented around the globe in wildly differing political and geographical climates. Although the governments of America and the UK have had clear pitfalls in response there are countries that have faired much better. The torch bearers are New Zealand, South Korea, Finland and Denmark. China potentially treads these ranks too; whilst Wuhan was once at the epicentre of the pandemic the city’s effective policy measures and implementation meant that enforced lockdown was in place from January 23rd to April 8th 2020 — a fraction of the timescale of the ongoing European struggle. A case for a strengthening of supranational bodies is clear; 40 years ago, the WHO succeeded in tackling smallpox through a policy where “Solidarity plus science equalled solution!”. It spearheaded a 10 year vaccination program eradicating the virus that killed 300 million people in the 20th century alone but over recent years the WHO has faced new challenges and has significant obstacles to overcome. There remain ripples of international anger over the WHO’s disastrous handling of the 2014 West-African Ebola crisis where the organisation’s inability to handle the crisis resulted in the UN stepping in, questioning the future validity of the body. More recently its funding was shaken through the rise and fall of Trump. The WHO’s non-confrontational approach meant working quietly with the Chinese Government and thus played into China’s position of intolerance to foreign criticism and domestic dissent. Trump was angered by this silence and the refusal to acquiesce to the narrative emanating from the US which framed the epidemic in geopolitical terms, he thus cut funding. The ramifications of this ongoing rivalry question the future of impartial international health cooperation. If the stance of the WHO avoiding politics persists it is inevitable that health will be used as a propaganda tool, prey to spin while the WHO refuses to question state misinformation. Further to this is the case that if excess authority is dispensed under the pretext of following WHO & International Health Regulation guidance but is not questioned by those organisations, who then is culpable for a decline in liberty?

National democratic governments must prioritise implementable, flexible, long-term strategies lest the electorate turn on them for the failures at their feet. In the UK the patience for a government that didn’t listen to SAGE, didn’t listen to Chris Whitty, ignored Patrick Valance, were forced to instigate multiple lockdowns, presided over a hundred thousand deaths, allowed transmission and resultant new variants and who have paid no direct consequence is waring thin. Accountability must come from somewhere.

Andrew Armstrong is an acclaimed international artist based in the UK. Here he explores current affairs, culture and opinion