As humanity faces a common enemy in the Covid-19 pandemic, the UK media is zooming in on the usual foe – the Russians, whose pandemic measures are portrayed as tyrannical and ineffective, even when they’re the same as Britain’s.
With global coronavirus cases nearing 2.3 million and deaths passing 157,000, government responses to the pandemic have been evaluated by the world’s press. However, not every government has been judged equally, and when we look at how the British media treats Russia’s response, the tone is biased.
Late last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his country’s 147 million citizens to “stay at home and not travel.” Putin’s directive fell short of a full lockdown, however, and stricter orders have since been applied on a regional basis, with Moscow’s among the harshest.
The UK press saw totalitarianism on the horizon, with the BBC accusing Putin of “using the pandemic to tighten control.” The British Broadcaster reported that the lockdown measures have left ordinary Russians “confused and wary.”
Not in Britain. When Prime Minister Boris Johnson imposed a legally binding lockdown in late March, the only criticism leveled at the PM was that the draconian measures may have come too late. Though emergency legislation passed since then grants healthcare workers the power to detain “potentially infectious persons” for as long as they see fit, and though police officers across the country have eagerly played the petty tyrant, the British people are quite happy with the ‘new normal’, or so the story goes.
Amid a crackdown on everything from dog walking to sunbathing, “community spirit is making a comeback,” the Telegraph reported on Thursday. British columnists cheered on the resurgence of the “blitz spirit,” and the media reported that the public would be completely happy living under lockdown until July.
When Moscow’s city government trialled an app to monitor the movements of coronavirus patients last month, the Guardian described this privacy-invading technology as a move toward a “Cybergulag,” quoting an opposition politician. Less than a week later, the same newspaper reminded Britons that their government can “legally use personal data from people’s mobile phones to track and monitor behavior,” quoting a privacy watchdog group.
When Sky News outlined the lockdown measures imposed on Moscow, it reminded its readers that “unlike in the UK, Muscovites are not granted time outside their homes in order to exercise.” When it stated that residents are still allowed to enter and leave the city, it neglected to mention that the same privileges aren’t granted to Brits, who have been fined for driving to walking spots in the countryside.
Despite posts yesterday highlighting issues of people still visiting the #PeakDistrict despite government guidance, the message is still not getting through. @DerPolDroneUnit have been out at beauty spots across the county, and this footage was captured at #CurbarEdge last night. pic.twitter.com/soxWvMl0ls
In Britain, fines and jail time for “quarantine deniers” are a matter of course. In Russia, they’re another “dangerous” component of the “cybergulag.”
Russia’s aid mission to virus-stricken Italy saw planeloads of military medics and disease specialists depart for the Mediterranean country last month, bringing with them mobile laboratories and crates of medical supplies. Shipments of gear have also been sent to the US and the Balkans.
To the British media, Putin had delivered a fresh plague upon the West. The Times described the shipments as “Viruspolitik,” or a cunning attempt by Russia to “exploit dithering in western Europe.”
“What does ‘from Russia with love’ really mean?” the BBC asked, casting doubt on the Russian operation without ever actually answering that question.
However, when the aid is flowing to Britain, the press sings a different tune. No such doubts were raised about British flights importing tons of protective equipment from Beijing, with that operation dubbed a “non-stop mercy mission” by the Daily Mail. Likewise, a Chinese company’s aid package to British workers was celebrated by the Guardian, while the Daily Mail gushed over the “poetry-inscribed boxes” of aid donated by the Turkish government last week.
When Boris Johnson self-isolated following his diagnosis with coronavirus last month, his decision to hold “digital cabinets” and address the nation via mobile phone videos was hailed as a heroic, if foolhardy, move. When his condition worsened, the British press panicked. “We need you, Boris – your health is the health of the nation,”wrote the Telegraph’s Allison Pearson, lamenting the fact that Johnson didn’t disappear “under the duvet for ten days, like any normal person.”
Putin, on the other hand, has been lambasted for cutting down on his public appearances. “Vladimir Putin has taken a backseat in tackling Russia’s coronavirus crisis,” the Guardian declared, describing the Russian leader’s decision to work remotely as one that “raised questions” about his health. The Sun, Britain’s largest tabloid, ran an article a week earlier claiming that Putin had “disappeared,” and likely had the coronavirus.
The virus is an invisible killer, and leaders have resorted to colorful analogies to describe their fight against it. Here too the British media took the opportunity to jab at Putin. When he compared the coronavirus threat to the threat posed by invading Pecheneg and Polovtsy tribesmen in the 10th and 11th centuries, the Guardian described the analogy as “an eccentric choice that left many Russians searching the internet.” The BBC, meanwhile, claimed that as Johnson recovers from his bout with Covid-19, he will “undoubtedly [be] thinking of an earlier epidemic…the plague that hit Athens in 430 BC.”
“In times of crisis,” the Telegraph’s Asa Bennett earlier wrote, “Boris Johnson has no doubt asked himself what his idol, Pericles, would do.” Pericles stewarded Athens through the plague of 430 BC, eventually succumbing to the disease himself.
But while Johnson can draw on the lessons of classical antiquity, Putin can’t look to the Middle Ages. Instead, according to the British press at least, he’s stuck in the Cold War forever – where aid is “viruspolitik,” digital tracing is the “cybergulag,” and every move is a “dangerous” one.
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