Stuart Anderson-Davis reflects on the decisions taken (and not taken) in Washington and Whitehall
“But what am I supposed to do now?!”
I heard this helpless question countless times in the last few days, as emotion-filled scenes of confusion, despair and anger played out across Princeton’s picturesque college campus.
Last week, it was announced that all 5,267 undergraduate students had until the end of Sunday to leave the university. Classes for the remainder of the academic year have been cancelled or will go “remote”, while all university events, sports, performances and gatherings have been outlawed. A formal policy of “social distancing” is in operation, apologetically enforced by the campus police force, who’ve been instructed to break up gatherings of people wherever they find them. Princeton’s students – who come from all over the United States and far beyond – had just a few days to pack up, leave and find somewhere else to live until September. The decisions taken by the university have been brutal, but its leadership believes this is the best approach for protecting students and saving lives.
Regardless of the logic, every student at America’s most competitive university has seen their plans shattered by the coronavirus chaos. It’s not just the impact on their academic careers – although goodness knows how they can be expected to undertake fiendishly difficult exams without physical access to teachers, libraries or classmates. But more than that, it’s the tremendous psychological impact wrought on many by the abrupt end to their student lives. Seniors robbed of their last precious months before entering the “real world”. Athletes no longer able to compete for college glory and professional contracts. Actors and musicians banned from showcasing their skills. Friends and lovers denied those final, gloriously sun-drenched days before dispersing forever.
Of course, the impact of coronavirus on a group of elite students in New Jersey is the least of our concerns at the moment. We’re all facing our personal pandemic demons and, whilst there’s something vaguely reassuring about being “in this together”, our collective embroilment doesn’t make the situation any less disturbing. There’s no escaping the one topic of conversation on everyone’s lips, as people seek answers and reassurances that simply don’t exist. Even our daughter’s nursery class picked up on the morbid mood – insisting on playing endless games of doctors and dollies.
However, Princeton’s course of ruthlessly pre-emptive action has been the exception, not the rule. Indeed, bearing witness to events here affords a different perspective on decisions taken (and not taken) in Washington and Whitehall – bringing into sharp relief the comparative lack of decisiveness and coordination. The leaders of private institutions like Princeton, Harvard and Columbia – afforded near autonomy over their college ‘city states’ – have generally acted proactively (some might say drastically) in advance of coronavirus’ arrival. Indeed, at the time of writing no Princeton student has tested positive for the virus. These places – boasting some of the finest minds in the country and the wealth to act without fixating only on the financial consequences – decided to shut up shop for the year to minimise even the potential for an outbreak.
One cannot help but contrast this extremely cautious attitude with that of the Trump administration, which first sought to play down the threat of COVID-19 (a Democratic “hoax”) before finally lumbering into a glacial and largely ineffective response. You can easily imagine what the professors here make of Trump’s bungling inaction and unwillingness to view the pandemic as a threat to anything other than his beloved stock market. Indeed, it feels like these storied institutions wanted to show the President exactly what decisive, responsible leadership looks like.
And make no mistake about it, the US government’s response has been catastrophic. Since moving here last year I’ve heard countless people remark: “thank God Trump hasn’t faced an actual crisis.” Well, now the most unqualified and dangerous President in American history (every 2020 Democratic candidate™) is facing a peril more hazardous than any financial crisis or terrorist attack. The results have been predictably shambolic. From his administration’s calamitous decision to disband the White House Pandemic Response Team to the chronic lack of testing kits, to the increasingly desperate attempts to pass the buck by stoking anti-Chinese sentiment, the world’s richest country has squandered its preparation time and now looks set for unimaginable casualties.
By contrast, the United Kingdom looks to me (from this distance) to have succumbed to a different national character flaw – this time the insistence that any significant event be viewed exclusively through the lens of the Second World War. The result is that every wannabe Churchill is convinced the best approach is always a “stiff upper lip” and “Keep Calm & Carry On” (every Conservative Party candidate ever™). This has translated to a pandemic response not dissimilar to the commuter stuck in a tube carriage with a noisy person: keep your head down, don’t make eye contact and the problem will eventually go away.
Only a country so determined it wouldn’t be accused of “over-reacting” to a crisis could allow 250,000 people to get boozed at the Cheltenham Races during the biggest public health epidemic in 100 years. Cinemas are open. Concerts are continuing. Markets, bars and restaurants remain entirely open. I mean, it took the actual infection of the Arsenal manager before the Premier League decided it wasn’t a great idea to play a full schedule of matches (in front of packed crowds) last weekend. The Tory government has entirely set the tone for this jaw-droppingly chillaxed strategy and now we have a Prime Minister conceding defeat on containment (possibly not his “Finest Hour”) and condemning grandad to the attic – or the scrapheap.
Of course, COVID-19 was always going to bring catastrophic threat to human life and the impact was always going to be devastating. But it’s equally undeniable that many responses to the pandemic – including those by Britain and the United States, two countries with the financial clout and scientific expertise to do better – have not helped the situation, and may even have made things worse. If the fundamental responsibility of a government is to keep its citizens safe, then too many have failed this test.
So then, a jolly choice for the British expatriate in America. Stick or twist? Stay or go? Try to circumvent Trump’s travel ban with a cheeky flight back via Reykjavík? There’s plenty to consider. On the mundane side, there’s the logistical challenges of getting home when the US could stop you leaving or coming back. In fact, many expats fear that Trump will now seize upon this crisis to tighten immigration restrictions yet further in the long-term. But the greatest concern of all is the fear that by travelling home to see your loved ones, you may well be the one who makes them ill.
Truly, these are the most uncertain of times. As I write, Princeton is its same old beautiful, refined and tranquil self. The sun is shining and all is calm, yet everyone knows what is coming and a sense of helplessness pervades. To introduce the inevitable World War Two analogy (I am British, after all) this seems a little like how I imagine Londoners felt during the ‘Phoney War’. This was the period from September 1939 to May 1940, when war was declared on Nazi Germany and then…nothing much. It was a time of huge tension not because of what was actually happening, but because everyone knew what dangers lay just round the corner. That’s the situation facing most Americans today, as the number of confirmed cases rises, the rumours swirl and a deadly virus advances across its great expanse.
So that takes us to the second big question on every Princeton student’s lips: “What happens next?”