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Home > Focus > The social Construction of Political Action - The Case of Corona Advice

The social Construction of Political Action - The Case of Corona Advice

by Jonathan Hankins [1], 25 March 2020

Following on from my previous comments within this ongoing discussion [2], and the questions raised by President Bassetti in his intervention [3], I would like to throw some more topics and arguments into the hat.

Here in the Netherland and also in the UK, news organizations are reporting that their respective governments are considering strengthening their approaches as some sectors of the population are not interpreting the spirit of the rules they have proposed to date correctly - shall we say. In the UK many newspapers contain photos of people in parks, playing, walking and cycling together while not respecting the need to distance themselves from each other to prevent the spread of the virus. Also here in the Netherlands local authorities took action over this (sunny) weekend as Saturday saw an influx of people to beaches and nature reserves, again described as incorrect interpretation of the spirit of the rules.

The Guardian (UK) ran a story on 23rd March [4] written by their Rome correspondent who describes how politicians in Italy confused the population as they seemed to underestimate the danger of transmission in the early stages of the spread, suggesting that people continue with their habitual lives and maintaining that the cities should remain open. Lifestyles should not be so affected they argued, and that the 'Italian way of life' would be able to continue.

This obviously led to businesses behaving rationally in times of looming economic damage, with bars offering free drinks and the Mayor of Milan urging people to not let the social life of the city die. This was not only an attempt to stem the tide of economic damage however, but a reflection of the ideals of what being Italian and what Italy is about.

The Netherlands approach can also be seen from this perspective, as the Dutch government call for responsible behavior rather than legislate a lockdown, presenting what is perceived as a democratic approach. This policy was given yet more authority as the king addressed the nation over the weekend. The full text is available here (in English) [5].

To summarize the intervention, the King very much describes a value-based idea of the 'Dutch way' as providing the model that will lead the country through these trying times, lauding the public for their fine action and proposing actions typical of what he describes as a helpful and considerate society. Once again though the population is left with uncertainties. We are constantly told to maintain a distance of 1.5 metres at all times, the national alert system even sending a message to everyone's mobile phones reminding them of this and not to travel, further detail however is more difficult to interpret.

For example the Dutch media is full of reports that the public has been advised not to visit nature reserves and beaches, even though this seems perfectly acceptable if the (newly legislated) rule to follow is based on distancing. In reality I have seen plenty of these reports on the news, but no specific governmental advice until this Monday. The carparks by the beach have been closed by the local authorities however in an ominous sign of further restrictions, with politicians complaining on TV and getting rather emotional because the population is not following their suggestions. The rules and requests are not black and white though, they require interpretation, leading to local authorities taking the responsibility from central government and rather reflecting events in the UK described last week.

As I write these suggestions have been given importance, as the government has passed powers onto local authorities that will allow them to issue fines to peole who do not follow these guidelines. The political line is that those few who do not follow the guidelines now risk paying a price. Details are still unclear, but what is certain is that businesses and individuals that flout the rules will be held responsible, in the name of the good of society.

Boris Johnson is also complaining about similar problems in the UK today however, with ministers threatening to tighten restrictions if the population cannot be trusted to behave responsibly.

This line has led to Bergamo (my long time adopted home town) being used as the hell scenario to be avoided at all costs. Video of military vehicles carrying bodies to other cities for cremation are everywhere, but they are used as a warning of what may be to come if the population does not do as suggested by the government. The result is that the city, and Lombardy, and implicitly the Italian way of life that the politicians were trying to protect, is depicted only in negative terms. The hospitals are not described in terms of the incredible work carried out, and the expansion of intensive care units and dedication showed buy overworked staff is passed over. The depiction is one of apocalypse, something to avoid through responsible behavior, with all of the moral implications that this involves.

One particularly painful example is the use of a telephone message left by a nurse from Brescia for her colleagues and presented on the national Dutch TV news [6], in which she is quoted as saying that 'we have to decide who lives and who dies'. This has been interpreted as people being turned away from the hospital, or refused treatment because of lack of capacity (presumably because of inaction or incorrect action in the past). It is taken out of context however, within the narratives painted by the media.

The nurse actually follows the oft cited line above with a muttered 'you know what I mean' to her colleagues, possibly referring to the application of a triage process of placing patients in an order for treatment (see this link for an explanation [7] from the British Medical Journal of how to operate in these circumstances). It's (out of context) use to support the narrative is easy to see.

Political questions are also coming to the fore regarding national choices as Belgium and Germany have adopted different rules than here in the Netherlands. This has led to Belgium restricting movement over the border for Dutch citizens, many of whom find their nearest (or cheapest) supermarkets over the border but who are turned away as they don't have what the Belgians see as acceptable reasons to cross the border. Some roads have been barricaded in rudimentary but effective ways, including simply leaving containers across the road that do not allow vehicle traffic to pass.

German police have also stepped up their checks on Dutch vehicles entering their territory, with health checks on vehicles entering and travel advice requesting their citizens not to cross the border into the Netherlands. As I noted in my previous posts, German tourism into the border town cafes and restaurants was given as one of the reasons for the closure of these types of businesses across the Netherlands, and the Dutch governmental travel advice not to travel anywhere outside the country unless strictly necessary includes all Schengen countries, so although not legally binding (as is the approach here) the call to not cross the border has been made. For the German perspective the government there is threatening to close the border unilaterally if the Dutch do not strengthen their rules on movement. They don't seem to appreciate the Dutch democratic approach that puts trust in the citizens rather than forcing them to comply with legislation (although today this model seems to be shifting slightly, with local government being offered the policing responsibility).

What I find personally interesting is the way that governmetal approaches seem to reflect the values that prevail in the collective imagery of these individual societies. For the Italians, the important factors stressed (certainly early on in the crisis) were related to sociality, food and the continuity of lifestyle. The Dutch approach relies on responsibility, mutual trust, democracy and belief that correct application of the social norms that the society is based on will allow the system and its infrastructure to cope with the crisis. The Dutch government's aim from the beginning was to avoid hindering the operation of the structure rather than to stop the virus, and to do this through justification and discussion rather than force. If I look over at the UK, the early responses seemed to reflect the idea that the nation as an organism would rise to the challenge, would be undefeated (it is not really clear how though) based presumably on historical ideas and founded in a popularized version of British history. This model seems to have overlooked the realities of the medical workers however, driven by political policy justified through a constructed and somewhat populist national identity. The new lockdown speech was full of Churchillian pomp and used miltary terms to call the population into battle.

All of which raises a lot of questions for EU governance and ideas of national sovereignty.

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Links in this document:

  1. 1] /schedabiografica/Jonathan Hankins
  2. 2] https://www.fondazionebassetti.org/en/focus/2020/03/in_response_to_on_policy_choic.html
  3. 3] https://www.fondazionebassetti.org/en/focus/2020/03/five_open_questions_about_the_.html
  4. 4] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/23/a-warning-to-europe-italy-struggle-to-convince-citizens-of-coronavirus-crisis
  5. 5] https://nltimes.nl/2020/03/20/full-text-english-dutch-kings-speech-coronavirus-pandemic
  6. 6] https://nos.nl/artikel/2326908-noodkreet-italiaanse-verpleegkundige-wij-bepalen-wie-leeft-en-wie-doodgaat.html
  7. 7] https://blogs.bmj.com/bmj/2020/03/09/covid-19-triage-in-a-pandemic-is-even-thornier-than-you-might-think/
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The social Construction of Political Action - The Case of Corona advice
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