‘AS well as longer-term proposals to reduce the incidence of obesity, government officials are having urgent discussions about how to persuade people to lose weight in the next few months, before an anticipated resurgence in coronavirus cases in the autumn’ (Peter Walker).

Obesity increases the risk of hospitalisation and death from Covid-19 by 40%. Boris Johnson put two and two together after his own hospital stay, and strategically styled himself as the poster boy for the government’s new weight-loss policy. Simultaneously as we are encouraged to ‘eat out to help out’ (this slogan accompanied by handy visuals of burger and chips from your favourite multi-national eatery), we are also to be assisted, although ‘Downing Street has been vague so far as to the specifics’ (Walker), towards a healthier diet by, for example, the abolition of BOGOF (buy one, get one free) and the reduction of junk food advertisements. Adding in the possibility of picking up a bicycle from a stack behind your GP’s, these and other measures were hot news for a couple of days.

‘Persuade’ is a word lying somewhere on the influence continuum between ‘do what you like’ and ‘thou shalt’, and a concept that our libertarian leader may be uneasy with. His own case might be covered by Carrie instructing ‘cook’ (and he’ll have to do better than lifting a few dumbbells in his local gym), but what of those whose budgets confine them to cheap processed foods and ready meals, low in nutrients and rich in additives, mass-produced by huge companies more focused on the profits of shareholders than the health of the nation, and those whose education, stunted by the National Curriculum, denied them relatable nutritional knowledge and basic food preparation skills?

Today’s obesity crisis started a long time ago. Thirty five-ish years ago I spoke up at my school staff meeting against selling chocolate bars and fizzy drinks to pupils because of health implications. An Economics teacher responded, quite angrily, that the vending machine provided useful school funds. His argument won. Here’s a statistic: the incidence of Type 2 diabetes in the UK rose from 1.4 million in 1996 to 4.7 million in 2019 (Diabetes UK data). In England in 2018, 67% of adult men and 60% of women were overweight or obese; for 10–11 year olds, it’s 1 in 3 in 2020 (Public Health England data). It’s no surprise that higher obesity rates correlate with lower socio-economic status.

The government’s panic is understandable: even more deaths from a second spike would add to the existing calamity, but the expectation of a significant reversal in obesity rates before autumn seems unrealistic. We’ve been briefly warned though, so it is likely to be our fault if we don’t lose the Hancock-recommended 5lb. A thorough revision of what is classified as ‘food’ would no doubt be too injurious to some wallets, and undoubtedly too ‘nannying’, yet it is fact that a diet of junk food made tastier by chemical additives is likely to lead to early death. Is there a crime going on here?

How uplifting, then, to hear of (often volunteer-heavy) initiatives such as Bags of Taste (https://www.bagsoftaste.org/) teaching how to cook nutritious budget meals, and Bread for Sheffield (https://www.breadforsheffield.org) who use surplus food to make home-cooked meals and nutritionally sound food boxes for those struggling financially.

Further reading:

Peter Walker: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/jul/11/no-10-plans-weight-loss-drive-to-ready-uk-for-expected-covid-19-second-wave

Susie Orbach: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jul/28/britain-obesity-strategy-ignore-science-dieting-calories-stigmatising-fat

Penny Merrett, Sheffield

AUTHORITARIAN or authoritative: which do we prefer in our leaders?

The question came into my mind as I reflected on the qualities of leadership that we have observed since this pandemic started (a health warning: my thoughts are coloured by the fact I read the Guardian, watch France 24 news and have very wishy-washy politics!).

There were some leaders who see themselves as strong, forceful, authoritarian leaders (Johnson, Bolsonaro, Trump, for example) who seemed to be very indecisive at the start of the pandemic – one of the major objections to them is the way they delayed things, seemed to think it would all just go away and didn’t act in any decisive way. They seemed to be arguing that they were defending peoples’ rights and freedoms, that people could make their own decisions about things, what to do and how to make themselves safe. It comes over as libertarian, considerate of individuals and their rights. They also seemed to be concerned about ‘fatigue’; that people would get tired of keeping to the rules and would get restless, causing civil disturbance. But is this actually true?

On the other hand, there were leaders who were decisive and authoritative – these leaders did not seem to be afraid of communicating with people but shared the problem, their failures to deal with the problem, and communicated the rules clearly and effectively. In many countries it seemed that either people were used to less individual freedom and fewer civil liberties, or that they were prepared to cede these for a while in the interests of the greater good. My own observation in France was that keeping to the rules, filling in a form every time we went out, while seen as an imposition was observed because people could see the reason for it.

Of course, lockdown is not a solution to the pandemic – for that we have to wait for a vaccine. And it appears that however lockdown was achieved, getting out of it is even more fraught than going into it. There are many parts of the world experiencing the heights of the pandemic that Europe experienced back in April and May, but those countries that are now seeking to relax lockdown (‘unlockdown’) and move on are finding that it is not easy and that a workable way of living and restoring aspects of life that have been closed down is not easy to achieve. One standout feature of unlockdown is that while leaders are encouraging people to go back to work and go out and shop, to reignite the economy, people are reluctant to do either and prefer continuing to shelter themselves – so much for lockdown fatigue!

All governments and leaderships have lost credibility, it seems, even those that have managed the crisis well. But those that get the next bit right are going to keep people informed, work with people and be visionary in terms of establishing new norms, not seeking to return to the old ways of doing things. One of the saddest things to emerge from the UK situation is the way that its government rejected so many offers of help from British companies and volunteers, and the expertise of local bodies, in order to follow the ideology of outsourcing, giving jobs to friends and consequently wasting resources.* Surely the way into the future is to inform people, involve people and listen to them, and to innovate – not something an authoritarian leader can do, but an authoritative, confident one might.

* As an example of this take a look at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/aug/07/covid-uk-quarantine-government-coronavirus-isolate

Jonathan Merrett, Sallèles d’Aude

CATASTROPHES, human and natural, have historically resulted in change – often radical. (Further health warning: we are all Guardian readers.) The events of 9/11 led to increased acceptance of the surveillance state, the rise of the private security industry, and decreased freedom of access and movement. There is plenty of evidence to show that the Covid-19 epidemic has reinforced these trends at a time when social and liberal democracy was already under global assault. The world will never be the same again: this was the mantra at the start of lockdown and part of the new reality is increased authoritarianism.

It’s all too evident in South Africa where it is now generally accepted that government has been detached from any semblance of democracy and accountability and the ANC is governing by decree from a command centre. The main influences are competing factions within the tripartite alliance and some of the decisions are seemingly irrational and self-defeating.

The impact is typical of authoritarian systems: it’s not working. The sale of alcohol and tobacco is illegal, but business is booming and (without any effort) we have both seen or heard clear evidence of it. All this trade encourages organised crime and deprives the fiscus of massive amounts of tax income. And authoritarianism, as opposed to democratic process, breeds muscular and often damaging reactions. The commuter taxi industry, using the proven threat of violence, has deregulated itself, defying public health recommendations in terms of loading, operational safeguards and inter-provincial travel.

But it is outside government that the spread of authoritarianism is equally concerning. Human contact can be deadly and many previously mundane aspects of life now take place remotely. Attending a staff meeting, for example, could be fatal so a great deal of interaction now takes place electronically. Or, perhaps one should say non-interaction because bosses use the new circumstances to their own suspect ends.

At liberation from apartheid in 1994, it was hoped that the new dispensation would mean greater democracy in the workplace. That was a vain hope and thousands have left formal employment since then embittered and disillusioned by workplace culture that is top-down, dictatorial and too reliant on disciplinary action. The present public health crisis could have signalled a reversal of this trend.

Theoretically, faced by a non-discriminatory virus we all have equal rights to health and safety and a say in what this might mean. But the locus of power is hard to shift and remote, non-consultative management via WhatsApp and other electronic channels has simply reinforced decision-making at the top and the passing down of orders. Incompetent and lazy managers are in an even more protected comfort zone.

I was incredibly lucky. For most of forty years in the workplace I was allowed, and often encouraged, to exercise imagination, initiative and innovation. If I were starting out today in similar places my suspicion is that I would be totally frustrated by authoritarian and bureaucratic culture. The consequences for creativity and productivity are dire and explain why public services in particular fail to deliver.

Christopher Merrett, Pietermaritzburg