Talk is cheap, that’s why it’s so popular. It’s easier to put up ‘mission accomplished’ banners than to accomplish missions. It’s easier to tweet #MeToo than to investigate politically inconvenient sexual assault allegations. Why do something hard when you can just posture instead? If enough voters believe the hype it’s all to the good. Empty gestures are nothing new, but they have reached cavernous proportions during the coronavirus pandemic. With hundreds of thousands of (recorded) deaths, economies collapsing, and healthcare systems stretched to breaking point, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect those in charge to step up to the plate. To their credit plenty have done just that — so far. Others have fallen back on theatre, with mixed results.
If you’ve been following the news at all you probably recognise the kinds of things I’m talking about — applauding healthcare workers from doorsteps, flying fighter jets over hospitals in salute of their efforts, murals of donated masks. When the best thing most of us can do is stay home, it’s natural to reach for more symbolic forms of solidarity. Such shows of support are generally well intentioned, but for those in power they become convenient opportunities to sidestep their responsibilities. When push comes to shove grand political gestures are about as useful to real world problems as hopes and prayers. Support requires action, not words. Healthcare workers need personal protective equipment, small businesses need support from the state to stay afloat, essential workers need pay befitting their sacrifice, the public needs clear and empathetic leadership. All these things and more take work Photogenic gestures do nothing to address the countless deadly challenges of a pandemic, which is why enthusiasm for them is starting to cool.
The originator of the UK’s ‘clap for carers’ ritual has suggested it now stop, citing its politicization. When shows of support aren’t backed up by actual support, the former becomes a veil. If the prime minister is going to clap for carers on one day then charge migrant carers to use the NHS the next, maybe he’s not as appreciative as he seems. Boris Johnson has since reversed that particular act of insincerity. New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s aforementioned mask mural stunt drew similar criticism. While he was gushing about hundreds of masks ‘spelling love’ plenty were wondering why they weren’t being, you know, used. Cuomo became a media darling when New York became the epicenter of U.S. coronavirus infections — some even touted him as a last-minute replacement for Joe Biden as the Democratic nominee — but his approval ratings are slipping back to earth as constituents realise that his time in the spotlight might have been due to negligence rather than excellence. Or take the recent viral footage of Belgian healthcare workers literally turning their backs on prime minister Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès when she visited a Brussels hospital. Her plan, presumably, was to bump elbows with medical staff and shed tears for the poor saps on life support before delivering a solemn speech about healthcare heroes. Alas for Wilmès, it wasn’t to be. Turns out you can’t always photo op your way out of a dubious record.
A lot of opinion pieces these days are mighty confident that the pandemic will lead to systemic societal changes and a semi-utopian post-COVID world. I’m too jaded to think similar. I don’t think this is ‘the end of empty gestures in politics’ or something similar. I do wonder, though, if political posturing is flimsier than it used to be. The digital age has reduced much of life to set pieces, but the flipside is people are warier of being used as props. Now is not the time for theatre. Trying circumstances deserve the best of all of us, especially our leaders. Across the political spectrum priorities ought to be fairly consistent — save lives, safeguard the economy, and give the world the best chance it can to rebuild. The problem is that for many in charge inaction and bullshitting is clearly all they really know, so that’s what they turn to. I struggle to think of a situation that would showcase it more brazenly. It’s harder to get away with when the world is coming apart at the seams. Suffice it to say global pandemics are complicated. None of this is to denigrate the sacrifices millions have made, or the hardships that lie ahead. Indeed, inaction is the greatest insult that can be made to those who have lost so much, and stand to lose more. Wherever we are, whoever we are, the performances of the powerful deserve the utmost scrutiny. Pay attention to what they say and what they do, because if the two don’t match you’re being taken for a ride.
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