AS children we learnt the importance of honesty and fairness, and were quick with ‘it’s not fair’ whenever we suspected unequal treatment. No doubt we didn’t always tell the truth, but I remember my internal squirm if I told a lie, even a ‘little white’ one. I don’t think our family was unusual.

To find ourselves living in a time when honesty and honouring legal agreements don’t seem to matter anymore, where cronyism is apparently acceptable, and rule-breaking by the privileged de rigueur, is unsettling and anger-inducing, and worrying for the future. And there are just too many examples of these sorts of behaviours in relation to the Covid pandemic for comfort.

Take the awarding of untendered contracts for PPE and the lack of competition allowed in times of emergency (2015 Public Contract Regulations) in Britain. How is it fair, let alone logical, to bypass home-grown companies eager and able to produce PPE, and award a £32m contract for surgical gowns to a pest control company who had to order them from China? By mid-July only half had arrived, and were sitting in a Daventry warehouse. The Good Law Project is investigating this and other contracts, including the lack of the documentation required for untendered status.

Are Pestfix Tory party pals? Contracts worth £840 000 and £3m to work on the government’s coronavirus messaging were awarded to Public First, a company owned by Michael Gove’s ex-director of communications, and his wife, the co-writer of the Conservative’s 2019 election manifesto. Contracts for similar work were awarded to Hanbury Strategy, co-founded by a former colleague of Dominic Cummings. A £133m contract for testing kits (which later had to be withdrawn as unsafe) was awarded to Randox, a company which employs Conservative MP Owen Patterson; etc, etc. Oh, by the way, these contracts tend to omit a clause that requires repayment if they are not fulfilled.

It’s not ‘NHS test and trace’. It is Serco who received £42m to set up testing centres, whose contract details remain, like others, unpublished by the government well beyond the obligation of 30 days. In the last week of September, under the leadership of Tory peer Dido Harding, online and call centre tracers had a 62.4% contact success rate compared to 97.1% handled by local health protection teams. Sheffield’s public health director continues the pandemic-long call to hand responsibility for test and trace to already established local infectious disease services who have an ‘epidemiological mindset’ and local demographic knowledge. Serco’s profits are on the up.

We have seen all Etonian schoolboys tested on their return last month, people from black and ethnic minority groups continuing to do badly in the second wave, and the north/south divide is back with the three tier system. We have heard lies – the ‘protective ring’ put around care homes in the spring, the dodgy maths used for the 100 000 test total. Away from Covid: the government plans to break a signed international agreement via the Internal Market Bill, there have been suspect deals potentially incriminating the Housing Minister, and inhumane suggestions for the management of asylum seekers.

We were taught those fundamental values because families and society need them in order to operate well. Our father wasn’t too keen on incompetence either – what would he have made of the exam algorithm, the failure to recognise the finite nature of a spreadsheet, and just the whole tragic mess of coronavirus ‘management’?

See PPI contracts

Penny Merrett, Sheffield

WHY do people fall for scams and con artists?

I was walking the dog when I met a friend and her twenty-something son. After pleasantries, her son and I spoke about the current Covid situation.

‘I don’t think things will change much till we get a vaccine,’ I said.

‘I’m not taking any vaccine,’ he said. ‘They’re dangerous and ineffective – it didn’t cure typhoid or measles. Did you know they contain aluminium? You have to look this up and examine both sides of the argument.’

Well, I have been phoned up by a call centre in India and told that Microsoft have identified my computer has a problem and can I please supply my password and bank details. I have also been approached by a young woman near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris who said she had just picked up a ring that I had dropped. These are both well-known cons, well-advertised and documented – I didn’t fall for either.

Being told, now, that I have to see both sides of the argument, when I am not even aware there is an argument to be had, strikes me as yet another con. When the evidence for the widespread efficacy of vaccination is overwhelming, why would I even consider visiting the idea it is ineffective or damaging? Some things only have one side – there is no other side to the argument.

Yes, there is aluminium in vaccines, which makes vaccines more effective. Typhoid does come from poor quality water, but improving the water supply is only one aspect of prevention; vaccines are another. And measles has been suppressed in the community by vaccination.

A lot of the problem, it seems to me, comes from this contemporary obsession with ‘balance’. Balance leads to interviews, discussions and articles being broadcast and circulated where you have one person speaking the truth and the other person speaking lies and we are expected to give them equal airtime/consideration and treat their points of view with equal seriousness. Why?

An untruth is an untruth. Some people appear to believe that if you say anything often enough, with enough conviction, then it becomes a truth – that, in my opinion, is not true. Antivaxxers, QAnon, Brexit – these are all instances where facts have been distorted and truths created out of untruths by repetition, by manipulative individuals and organisations who believe any means are justified in reaching their own ends.

Which just about sums up con artists – any means is justified in extorting what you want from others. And why do people fall for it (to come back to my first question)?

Partly because of the air of plausibility that conviction and certainty bring when people are desperate and looking for meaning in their lives, at times when they feeling low. Con artists know that people will give up a lot for something when they are weak and neglected and when they are told a prize beyond their dreams is available.

But it is also, I think, down to the fact we live in an information-rich age and we have not yet developed the skills of dealing with it. We have yet to develop the skills of discernment, to separate, for ourselves, the true from the false in the daily avalanche of information. My IB Diploma students, I remember, writing essays on moral issues usually came to the conclusion of ‘It’s all relative’, and felt they were delivering a balanced judgement on things. What they were actually doing was avoiding the difficult thing of judging between two different and, on the face of it, plausible outcomes.

I fear we are losing faith in absolutes, with everything becoming relative, just as we are losing faith in experts. As that happens, the con artists thrive, truth becomes whatever you want it to be and those that shout their ‘truths’ loudest and longest get away with their con artistry.

Further reading: for an excellent article explaining post-modernism (which is basically my concern above), and if you have spare half hour, I recommend

Jonathan Merrett, Sallèles d’Aude

BACK in the late twentieth century trendy-lefty academics adopted a methodology known as post-modernism. It was a real godsend, dispensing with the tedious bother of establishing truth and privileging relativity and perceptions. Basically anything went; and indeed it did.

It was fun while it lasted, confining itself to academic argumentation. Then the right wing decided post-modernism was just up its street. As a prominent American politician once said, ‘When it’s a choice between fact and perception, give me perception every time.’ There’s a straight line between those 1980s and 90s university debates and the right-wing populists increasingly occupying seats of national power, most notably the White House. This must be one of history’s most spectacular own goals and apparently hardly anyone now admits to having been a post-modernist.

In the past the closest a serial liar like Donald Trump could have come to the White House would be as a day tripper. The established political parties could not have afforded the reputational damage of a deranged president. Here at the southern tip of Africa we have not needed post-modernism to propel us into a virtual world of fantasy and delusion with truth at a premium. After all, we have the ANC.

For years some party members have condemned corruption, knowing full well that the ANC is systemically corrupt. Its operational method is fraud and racketeering at the highest levels. So it came as no surprise except to the terminally naïve that R2 billion disappeared in dodgy tenders related to the pandemic. Previously there was the Virodene fraud around HIV/AIDS and corruption has become deeply entrenched in the ensuing twenty years. The outrage over PPE procurement has sounded somewhat hollow, although the prosecuting authority has at last engaged first gear.

Almost everything about South Africa feels like post-modernist fantasia. Outside the Western Cape all pandemic statistics are dubious. The apparent heavy lockdown that supposedly contained the virus was largely fiction. Apart from mask wearing and layers of bureaucracy, most notably in schools, Covid-19 might never have existed. After all, it’s relative.

Having flattened the remnants of a looted economy, the government now fiddles with transformative recovery. This ranges from wild promotion of class suicide theory attributed to Amílcar Cabral, a 1960s West African revolutionary, to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, new cities and bullet trains. All are divorced from a truth – that South Africa is a bankrupt basket case. We live, however, in an age of unreason unparalleled since the 1930s.

Corruption prosecutions stemming from the admirable Zondo Commission begin to bite, although we await a full accounting around the pandemic. Meanwhile the reaction has started and substance will hit the proverbial fan when ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule, the Zupta faction number one, is arrested. Recently the head of the defence force, Solly Shoke warned retired general and Zupta supporter Maomela (Mojo) Motau not to meddle in the army.

The nation’s defence force has always been loyal to the government, although there was a small mutiny about ten years ago. But In a world turned upside down and increasingly run by populist crooks and opportunists, a coup in South Africa might yet be added to the volatile mix.

Christopher Merrett, Pietermaritzburg