The New Observer UK Society How not to fix Coronavirus

How not to fix Coronavirus

The UK government’s response to Coronavirus seems to be an excellent model for both Illich’s and Foucault’s analysis of contemporary society.

What is the response? At the moment in the UK the response includes the following elements; a “top-down” Test and Trace system – which was built from scratch bypassing all local public health teams and which is run by a collection of private businesses and management consultants (with some limited participation in the laboratories by public bodies) [1]. A system of surveillance and penalties; increasingly draconian. (These new penalty systems have been characterised by widespread abuse by the police – who, in fairness, probably have not had time to train their constables). [2] A complex tiered series of lock-downs including heavy restrictions on businesses and individual movement and liberties. And, an enormous slush fund – paying people out of future wealth to do nothing. (Which fund has been subject to massive levels of fraud). [3]

Illich first. From Illich’s perspective the Test and Trace system is an excellent example of a “right-wing” and “top-down” organisation. It seeks to manipulate and control. There is talk of repeated tests – a classic example of building in forced use and addiction to the ‘service’. It is hierarchical – run from the top by (in somes cases US) companies who have no stake in local communities – who have simply been imposed on the population. Test and Trace has a budget of £12bn. The plan was to move from the Spring lockdown to a system of tracking and tracing. That the country is now back in lockdown (in effect – as more and more regions are added to the tiered lockdown system) is a mark that Test and Trace has failed. Completely. £12bn has been leached away. Right-wing systems are inherently wasteful. There are various reasons for the failure of Test and Trace. At the time of writing less than 50% of contacts of someone who has a positive test are traced. Of these a fair percentage are already living in the same house as the infected person so in these cases Test and Trace has achieved nothing; (the contacted people will already know). One reason for the failure of this system is precisely that it is top-down and imposed. An analogy from systems analysis. If you are tasked to introduce a new IT system in a company it is a given that as part of the process you should involve the staff who will use the system, in its creation. Even if such involvement is somewhat gestural it still makes a big difference. If you simply build a new IT system and impose it on users take up will be far lower than if you have consulted them. Any systems analyst worth his salt knows this. Test and Trace is failing because it is understood to be imposed on people from above. (Why did the management consultants who are being paid thousands of pounds per day to work on Test and Trace not know this? Of course the answer is they may well know that it is all a fool’s errand but who is going to turn down a fee of £5000.00 a day?) Top-down systems need to use coercion to ensure take up. Here we have the whole system of penalties (which apply to everyone other than the architect of the system in a particularly nice example of the hierarchical nature of this game).

From a Foucauldian perspective we can see that a whole new disciplinary system has sprung up in just a few months. A huge system of surveillance. The police set the tone when they used drones to track people going for a country walk. [4] There is an app which can track your movements and people with whom you have been in contact. (In fact the ability of the app to provide medically meaningful distance information between contacts is very limited but that point is not given much thought. It is an app and it tracks). People are encouraged to report on their neighbours for violating the new systems of restrictions of liberties. Police officers stop and challenge people going about their business. Test and Trace gathers information from people who have tested positive and uses this to restrict the liberty of others. And the system is enforced with a system of penalties. The system of penalties is itself characterised by abuse and misuse. [2] – Of course some of these mechanisms may have a valid medical purposes; this is consistent with Foucault’s analysis. Nonetheless, it is a huge disciplinary system.

The UK government’s response to coronavirus shows a singular lack of awareness of societal determiners. The response follows the patterns predicted by the two foremost analysts of modern societies – Ivan Illich and Michel Foucault. Undemocratic, wasteful, coercive, disciplinary and punitive – but with some productive effect.

But, the overall assessment has to be that it is not making much of a dent on coronavirus.