Our cultural divide will complicate lockdown exit strategy

Interested in the end of the novel coronavirus lockdown? Noticing divergence in attitudes to the lifting of restrictions? In this note, I suggest a reason for the divergence:


Our cultural divide will complicate lockdown exit strategy

James Philips

Getty Images

1 May 2020

Exit from the COVID-19 emergency measures is getting closer.  Exit will be fractious.  Some of us will want the disease risk eliminated; others will prefer mitigation measures. The politics is about to get more difficult. 

The faultline of the different attitudes to exit will be cultural: between those who believe that people are vulnerable and that dangers must be controlled, and those who believe that people are resilient and risks can be mitigated but accepted.  

The culture of fear of risk began to gather momentum in the 1980s.  It has been written about increasingly since the mid–to–late 1990s.  According to Frank Furedi’s research (How Fear Works, Culture of Fear in the 21st Century), its origins go back to the aftermath of the First World War. 

We are accustomed to seeing this culture operate in areas such as relationships between adults and children; climate change; and impermissible dissent on university campuses and in workplaces.   

Well-intentioned activists often exaggerate the risks presented by their issue, in an attempt to drive public policy or behavioural change.  Emphatic warnings of imminent disasters work for them.  Sceptical or counter-narratives struggle to get traction. 

Responses to the risks of CO2 emissions are a marker of this culture.  Deep conviction that emissions pose an existential threat to people and the planet is more concentrated near the centre of our major cities than elsewhere.  The conviction is stronger within the state–funded sector than the private sector.  The conviction is strong in our cultural elite. 

The concentration of our cultural elite in the state–funded service sector means that its members are suffering less directly from the economic dislocation of current COVID-19 responses than other people.  And the cultural elite’s susceptibility to treat new risks as potentially catastrophic means that they will be strong advocates of aggressive measures: they will lean towards the New Zealand, rather than the Swedish, response. 

People whose livelihoods are being devastated (or will be devastated when the initial spending on the crisis cannot be sustained), and people who are not caught up in the elite culture of activism and fear, may be more likely to favour mitigation strategies: to lean towards the Swedish, and not the New Zealand, response. 

Even uncertainty about the origins of the novel virus serves the two narratives.  Those for whom ecological issues are paramount are likely to favour the version that has the novel virus transmitted from bats to people via pangolins.  It is dangerous to exploit the natural world and wild animals. 

Others might favour the biowarfare narrative.  The virus was manufactured in a lab in Wuhan with links to, or controlled by, the Chinese military.  The virus inadvertently escaped, and China’s response was slowed by the nature of information flows and controls in a one-party State.  It is dangerous to not be a realist in international relations. 

The quality of data and the assumptions used by advisors to government are also susceptible to divergent narratives.  We know that the data used for the initial response measures were very materially wrong.  Most significantly, they were distorted by gating criteria used in determining who would be tested.  Because our experts had to rely on flawed data, the assumptions which they used in their models were even more important than usual. 

As the quality of data improves on issues such as the proportion of infected people who are asymptomatic and the death rate from the virus, the assumptions in the models will increasingly be criticised.  With the benefit of hindsight, it will be possible to argue either that the modelers had to make risk-minimising assumptions; or that they exaggerated the threat, with dire consequences for many people. 

The Australian government was primed by disappointment in its response to the bushfire crisis to react vigorously to the next crisis, so it was no surprise to see it respond to the novel virus early and vigorously.  The political temptation will be to slow the exit to justify the initial response. 

Economic needs and popular frustration with the suppression of normal freedoms are likely to build and lead to a staged retraction of the emergency measures.  The exit will require acceptance of higher infection rates and more deaths, but in a context where it is known that the fatality rate is much lower than originally believed.  Better data will facilitate more targeted responses to the virus and disease.  

But the COVID-19 narrative and politics are likely to split along cultural lines. 

James Philips is a Sydney lawyer, company director and writer.

Published by James Philips

When his younger son was four years old, one Saturday afternoon James found himself – for the first time in years – with several hours in which he was not working for his law firm or doing things with his young family. He picked up a book of his choosing. It was a history book. James was born in 1960 in Sydney, Australia. His late elder sister, Petrina (known in the family as ‘Beans’) taught him to read before he went to school. He was sick with asthma and bronchitis for much of his childhood, and spent a lot of time reading – especially historical stories. He liked to argue for his views, too. His father, Peter, had studied law after returning from service in World War II, and many of Peter’s and his mother Sue’s friends were lawyers. James decided early on that he wanted to be a barrister (a type of attorney who represents clients in Court). His uncle Bill spent many hours restoring a rotting sailing dingy, in which James taught himself to sail while on the family’s annual beach vacations. At school he did well in math and science subjects, but also in English and history (which is where his heart was). He was captain of his high school debating team, and acted in several plays. He also produced and directed a play, and assisted in the production of others. One of his actors only suffered mild rope-burn when the harness that James had made for a hanging scene slipped… James won a scholarship to Oxford University straight after school. He was not as motivated in his studies there as he had been at school, and did not feel any connection to England. Those factors, and two people, had a big role in his decision to leave Oxford after four of the nine terms of his course in Politics, Philosophy and Economics. The first person was a wonderful woman whom he fell in love with, but who dumped him. The second was Margaret Thatcher, whose government put up fees for overseas students to a level which James could not afford. James then studied for a liberal arts and a law degree at Sydney University. He made his first investments in the share market while at university, using money that he borrowed on a credit card. After graduating, he worked at a law firm with some outstanding lawyers, who were passionate about excellence, about their clients, and about building the firm. He stayed at that firm for thirty years, becoming a partner, then head of Mergers and Acquisitions in Sydney, then co-head of Corporate, and a Board member for eight years. He loved being a solicitor (a type of attorney who rarely represents clients in Court), and never switched to becoming a barrister. More importantly, he met Julie Claridge there. James was smitten, and they became engaged after James’s eighth proposal. They were married and then blessed with two wonderful sons. Like many Australians, James and Julie love to travel. They resumed travelling when their younger son was three. Both boys were – mostly – fine with the twenty-four hour flights that Australians take. James and Julie encouraged intellectual curiosity in their sons, and helped to teach them how to participate in fact-based discussions and debates. Family discussions have been wide ranging since the boys were young. While at his first law firm, James was able to advise many local and offshore clients. He also helped the firm to grow its offshore business. He made a trip to Myanmar to test a recommendation that the firm should open an office there: he recommended that it should not. He advised the first company from the People’s Republic of China to list on the Australian Stock Exchange. He later made many business visits to the PRC. For more than twenty years he has been a visiting lecturer at the law school of the University of Sydney (currently ranked 12th in the world), teaching two topics on equity capital markets law. He wrote a long chapter for a leading subscription publication, on public merger and acquisition law in Australia. He has convened and spoken on many panels, and at many seminars and conferences. When he became head of Mergers and Acquisitions, to encourage some of his partners to take oral communication training, he took the training himself. He learnt a lot about the importance of preparation before every meeting and every presentation. His law firm was an innovator in teaching its lawyers to present complex advice concisely and with clarity. He is a director of a leading Australian think tank, and Chair of two real estate investment trusts. James and Julie have always lived on a pre-agreed amount, paid their taxes, made donations and used the rest of their income to invest. James sees investment as trying to apply knowledge about a range of topics to predict the future, and to pick future winners. At the end of the Great Recession, James and Julie sold their family home to take advantage of depressed investment asset values. After coming second in an election for Chair of his law firm, James moved to a global law firm where he became head of Corporate in Australia. There he sat in open plan, with a team of very capable and motivated young lawyers. He discovered that they did not know much about history or literature. In 2018 James decided to embark on a new project – to write a book about an important historical topic, in the hope that he could help to spread knowledge about what made the world as it is. He resigned as a partner from his law firm, and began work on his new mission.

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