Last November, I moved to Sofia in Bulgaria for work. For the first few months, I made friends and connections, started work on some fun new projects, and set about learning the language. Like everybody else, even as late as January this year, I was not expecting life to be so comprehensively changed by the global spread of COVID–19. But here we are at the beginning of May, when the trees in the square outside my window are coming into leaf, and things are very different from how I imagined they would be.
By now, I was expecting to be hanging out with my new Bulgarian friends, drinking coffee, chatting in my rudimentary Bulgarian, travelling to see other parts of the country. But it has turned out not to be. This is now week eight of our Bulgarian lockdown. And although measures are being cautiously eased here, there is as yet no end in sight to the horror that is COVID–19, here or anywhere else.
Friends in the UK sometimes ask me anxiously: isn’t it tough to be so far from home in such conditions? But on balance, I feel fortunate to be here. To date, Bulgaria has 78 COVID–19 deaths for a population of 7 million. This compares with 28,734 deaths in the UK for a population of 67 million. Relative to the total population, the death rate in the UK is over thirty-five times higher in the UK than it is here in Bulgaria. It is a staggeringly large difference.
And so this morning, I posted something on Facebook, noting the discrepancy. And I suggested that Borisov’s government here in Bulgaria might be doing a better job at containing the virus than Boris’s government over in the UK. It was not a particularly considered post, but the stark difference in the figures seemed worth remarking on. And I confess that I was angry: angry about that number of fatalities over in the UK, about all of those whose loved ones have died, about how these deaths might have been avoidable, about the astonishing claim made by Boris Johnson on the 1st May that somehow, thanks to the successes of the goverment, the UK has avoided, ‘the tragedy that engulfed other parts of the world.’
In response to my post, some friends judiciously pointed out that other factors than political competence might be at play. Bulgaria has a much lower population density than the UK (64 people per square kilometre, vs. 281 per square kilometre in the UK). The population in Bulgaria is in general less mobile than in the UK. Demographically, there are considerably fewer old people over here in Bulgaria. And there are differences in reporting that make it really hard to get a handle on how to compare data from different places.
All of these things are no doubt a part of the story. But the sheer size of the discrepancy — a factor of thirty-five — suggests this is almost certainly not the whole story. We were locked down here in Bulgaria when friends in the UK were still hanging out in pubs and coffee shops (and were I in the UK at the time, I would have no doubt been doing the same). The measures in Bulgaria were deployed much earlier than in the UK, and were arguably much stricter: Sofia, where I am living, has for the last few weeks been almost entirely sealed off. It’s been a rough two months for many people here, as elsewhere; but in terms of stemming the spread of infection, these measures appear to have been effective — at least to some extent, and for the time being.
Politics is inescapable
However, in response to my post, quite a few people were troubled. Several Bulgarian friends protested I was letting off the Bulgarian government too lightly (‘How dare you suggest that our government is doing a good job?’). Meanwhile, several UK friends complained I was giving the UK government too hard a time (‘How dare you suggest our government is doing a bad job?’). And still others argued that the middle of a global pandemic is no time for politics.
The argument makes a certain kind of intuitive sense. The virus is a horrible thing. It is a terrible responsibility to have to respond to events such as these. I would not want to be in power. I would not want the responsibility of either Boris or Borisov. And the challenges faced by govements everywhere are truly horrific. So shouldn’t we just let those who are in power — those who claim to know best, and who have the greatest ability to make the greatest difference — get on with things, without annoying them with all our objections and protestations?
But is a global pandemic really no time for politics? The idea that we could somehow dispense with politics is based on a too narrow view of what politics is. It is an idea that ignores the central role politics plays in human collective life. Politics is about how we go about the business of living together. It is about power, and how it is used. It is about the decisions made by those in power. And it is about the effects of this power on human welfare. If all these things matter, they matter even more in the middle of a global pandemic.
For their part, throughout the course of the pandemic, the British government have not ceased — not for a single moment — from doing politics. And the same goes for all other governments. This is not a criticsm. Governments neither can nor should dispense with politics: there is nothing apolitical about the kinds of decisions you have to make in these circumstances. Politics is not something you can put aside when the going gets tough. It is the very heart of the difficulties you face: sometimes part of the problem, sometimes part of the solution, but always inescapable.
And this is what troubles me about the idea that we ourselves shouldn’t, in these times, be doing politics at all, or that this is no time for politics. It ignores questions of responsibility. It stops us being able to think about the judiciousness or otherwise of the decisions made by the governments whose job it is to protect our welfare. We absolutely should question the reasons for those 28,734 deaths. We should raise legitimate concerns about the decisions that are made by those in power. We should ask for transparency and honesty. We should ask how power is being deployed, and about how collective decision-making can be done better.
The claim that in times like this we shouldn’t be doing politics is not an escape from politics. It is itself a political claim. It is a claim that stops us asking the questions that matter, or that prevents us from pointing out troubling data, and asking if things could be done better. This, in the end, is the heart of the problem with the idea that a crisis is no time for politics. In our collective lives, there simply is no place to stand outside of politics. We do not have the luxury of deciding between politics and its absence. The only decision available to us is between doing politics better, and doing it far, far worse.
Image: Almost deserted tram during Sofia lockdown. © Will Buckingham 2020.