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Matt Hancock in South London, December 2020. Photo: Flickr/Pippa Fowles

Matt Hancock in South London, December 2020. Photo: Flickr/Pippa Fowles

Alex Snowdon on the Tory game of Covid-shaming and the persistence of the Palestinian cause   

Who is to blame for the mounting crisis: the government or the people? This has been a major topic of discussion over the last week.

That public discussion was partly prompted by a YouGov poll on Monday that suggested twice as many people blame the public (58%) for the recent rise in coronavirus cases as blame the government (28%).

This poll needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. As with all polls, frame things differently and you get a different result. I am sure, for example, that more people would blame the government if asked who is responsible for hospitals being over capacity. That brings in questions of NHS funding and the more obviously political decisions that affect such a crisis.

There is a wealth of evidence that large numbers of people do hold the government responsible, to a great degree, for the current situation. Boris Johnson’s approval ratings have fallen steeply since last April. So have the ratings for people’s approval of the government’s handling of the pandemic. That reflects a widespread sense that the frighteningly high levels of infections, hospital admissions and deaths were preventable.

In as much as the blaming of ordinary people is a widespread phenomenon, there are three major factors.

Most obviously, the government has adopted public-blaming as a conscious strategy to deflect attention from its own policy failings. This can be utterly shameless. See, for example, the NHS-branded public health poster that asks people whether that takeaway coffee they might be having could cost lives. How about tightening the restrictions – so that it isn’t possible to buy a takeaway coffee to begin with – instead of blaming people who are simply following the guidelines?

A second factor is the role of the media. Examples of rule-breaking are far more newsworthy than the mundane business of people quietly following the rules. We all have a tendency to notice the exceptional over the everyday. The media’s news values reflect this. This is, however, overlaid with an ideological drive by right-wing media to pin the blame on violations of the rules while going soft on the government.

Finally, there is the absence of opposition in the political mainstream. Keir Starmer’s approach throughout the pandemic has been to sometimes criticise aspects of the government’s record – often belatedly – while allowing the overarching framework to remain intact. The dominant narrative remains unchallenged. There is no attempt to offer a coherent alternative. Any opposition is over details not the big picture.

Polling has in fact repeatedly shown that people have been ahead of the government – and frequently ahead of the official Opposition too. Majorities think the government was too slow to introduce the current lockdown and should now adopt stronger measures to make it work.

Interestingly, 61% said that nurseries and early years setting ought to close. That is in direct opposition to education secretary Gavin Williamson, who recklessly made them exempt from the decision to close schools to the vast majority of pupils. This broad public support for lockdown measures – and often for an earlier or tighter lockdown - has been a pattern since the first lockdown was introduced last March.

It is noteworthy, too, that all the evidence points towards very high levels of compliance with the current lockdown. There certainly is lockdown fatigue, but people are abiding by restrictions despite it.

One poll found that 92% of people believe they are abiding by the rules more than the average person. By the laws of mathematics they cannot all be right, but it says something about the disjunction between perceptions (influenced by media coverage and political messaging) and the reality.

A high proportion of cases of social mixing during this lockdown as forced upon people. Many non-essential workplaces have remained open, with workers feeling obliged to go into work.  They should be forced to close and the workers ought to be given 100% pay while furloughed. Financial pressures are driving a lot of the non-compliance with rules that does take place.

My hunch is that popular support for lockdown measures, and for complying with them, despite us being so far into this cycle of lockdowns is increasingly conditioned by personal experience. So many people have had the virus; so many people know someone who has died or been hospitalised by it. Increasing numbers have stories about someone they know whose hospital operation or treatment has been cancelled due to the massive strain from coronavirus.

This grim reality provides a wellspring for many people’s determination to stick to the rules. The tragedy is that our government has repeatedly failed to put public health first and take the necessary measures to save lives.

Israel: apartheid state

The vaccine rollout is the most hopeful current development, both in Britain and internationally. However, there are vast global inequalities in access to the vaccines. It was good to hear Jeremy Corbyn highlighting this deadly injustice in Sunday’s launch for the Peace and Justice Project. So far it has had disturbingly little media or political attention.

The most extreme and graphic illustration of this inequality is the Palestinian West Bank. Israel already has an impressive record of getting its people vaccinated. This does not extend to the Palestinians in its occupied territories though.

The inequality is stark and visible in the West Bank, where Palestinians are denied the vaccine while Jewish Israelis living in illegal settlements are vaccinated in large numbers. It is the latest example of massively different access to resources for Palestinians and settlers in the West Bank.

This is no aberrant policy decision. It is indicative of a larger pattern. Israel is a deeply unequal apartheid state.

This last week saw an important development for the global cause of justice for Palestine. Israel’s leading human rights organisation B’Tselem issued a report that declared Israel to be an apartheid state – and it provided serious analysis and evidence to back it up.

Most importantly, it calmly dismantles the pervasive myth that Israel is a liberal democratic state with an illegal military occupation attached. In fact the whole of historic Palestine – from the Mediterranean in the west across to the River Jordan in the east - is governed by an apartheid regime.

It is, according to B’Tselem, ‘organised under one principle advancing and perpetuating the supremacy of one group – Jews – over another – Palestinians’.

The narrative that Israel is an apartheid state, governing the whole of historic Palestine, is a vital alternative to the exhausted idea that we should restrict our focus to the military occupation. It provides the basis for articulating a one-state solution, i.e. a single, secular and democratic state across Palestine/Israel, geared towards freedom, justice and equality.

These are the aims of the global boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. They can only be fulfilled if we start by grasping the apartheid and colonial nature of what we are up against.

Thank you

Thank you for reading this briefing over the last six weeks, when I have had the unenviable task of filling Lindsey German’s shoes. I have certainly had plenty to write about!

These are difficult and turbulent times. I hope the briefing has offered some clarity and insight to help make sense of what we are going through. Lindsey will be returning to the weekly briefing soon. I, like you, look forward to reading what she has to say about the big political developments ahead.

Before you go...

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Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).

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