Tuesday, November 24

Offline: The crisis of political language


George Orwell, in his 1945 essay Politics and the English Language, wrote that “to think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration”. The Moscow press briefing held last week on the Russian COVID-19 vaccine quickly turned into a platform for national rivalry. The research, led by scientists at the N F Gamaleya National Research Centre for Epidemiology and Microbiology, found encouraging evidence of an immune response using their prime boost strategy of a two-component, human recombinant adenovirus vector-based vaccine. The study was small, non-randomised, uncontrolled, and did not include those most at risk of severe disease. The Russian team recognise these limitations and are proceeding with large randomised trials. The first results were released by Russian President Vladimir Putin on Aug 13. “I know that it works quite effectively”, he said, “forms strong immunity, and I repeat, it has passed all the needed checks”. At last week’s event, more big claims were made. The “poorly researched approaches” by “western” nations were criticised, and one speaker challenged western governments to respond to these alleged concerns—“would you please show your citizens” evidence about the safety of western vaccine candidates given the “poorly developed platforms” you are using, he said. “It doesn’t make any sense to use poorly researched approaches”, he argued. His view was that a human adenovirus vector was safer than a chimpanzee adenovirus vector (the basis for the Oxford COVID-19 vaccine, for example). A press conference to present the results of a scientific study became the venue for renewed Cold War conflict.

Russia isn’t the only country to use COVID-19 as a tool to fight perceived adversaries. US President Donald Trump routinely refers to SARS-CoV-2 as the “China virus”. He is seeking to amplify the American public’s fear of China to wound his opponent in the current presidential campaign. In Latrobe, PA, on Sept 3, President Trump suggested that, “Joe Biden wants to surrender your jobs to China”. The message is clear—China is America’s enemy, it is the cause of a pandemic that has destroyed the US economy, and the policies of the Democrat candidate will only strengthen America’s chief international competitor. There is not one shred of evidence to support these claims. The twisting of language in public discussion of the pandemic is now standard fare. “Thanks to the efforts of Operation Warp Speed”, said President Trump in Wilmington, NC, on Sept 2, “we remain on track to deliver a vaccine very rapidly, in record time”. He has suggested a vaccine might be available by the end of October—an important claim given that the US election will take place on Nov 3. Yet there is no possibility that a COVID-19 vaccine will be ready for public use before the US election. Orwell’s reflection that language is used “with intent to deceive” in “the sordid processes of international politics” could not be more apposite.

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And what of the UK? Meaningless political language also characterises our government. Guided by the science. Build back better. World-beating track and trace. Here is Boris Johnson on June 30: “This government is committed not just to defeating coronavirus but to using this crisis to tackle this country’s great unresolved challenges of the last three decades.” There is no government strategy for national revival. On July 23, while visiting Scotland, he spoke about “what we can achieve when we stand together, as one United Kingdom”. As the confused rules on quarantine show, there is no “one United Kingdom”. On July 31: “I know we are going to beat this.” Yet the virus is with us and we must learn to live with it. On Aug 13, writing in the Belfast Telegraph: “this government has an unshakable commitment to each and every person in each and every nation of our United Kingdom.” Again, where is the plan, the programme, the proof that those most severely affected by COVID-19 are being prioritised by this government? “The great enemy of clear language”, Orwell wrote, “is insincerity”. “Political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.” COVID-19 is no exception. The present health and economic crises we face are compounded by a crisis of political language. Until our words are purged of duplicity, falsehood, and hypocrisy, the lessons of this pandemic will never be learned.

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