Arrogance in the time of coronavirus

Written by Katie Stanton, Senior Associate

Edited by David Gaffney, Partner

Good morning,

Arrogance, I think, is the genesis of a very many bad decisions. It can have a blinding effect on those around us, meaning we get away with things we perhaps shouldn’t.

It is almost certainly how I coaxed a string of family members into letting me loose with the hair clippers; my staunch self-assuredness a shimmering distraction from what ultimately amounted to zero hairdressing experience and a shaky hand.

But, when irrational confidence leaches into public life, and we start believing our own hype; when ego seeps into the decisions we make at work, impacting the way we think about people and the value of life, bad things happen.

Take this crisis. Like a magnifying glass, it is now easier than ever to track bad outcome, to bad decision, to bad decision maker; and to offer comparisons. Like little ants, the cockiest squirm under the heat of our attention.

The obvious example is Donald Trump. The US president – currently sulking because media briefings just aren’t “worth the effort” – has presided over a controversial Covid-19 response. Originally classing it as “just a flu” and downplaying the threat, he has since declared the virus death rate in the US to be “way under one per cent” based on his “hunch” (the World Health Organisation estimates it to be 3.4%) and floated the use of disinfectant as an injection. He certainly believes in himself.

Meanwhile, UK prime minister Boris Johnson stands accused of similarly underestimating the scale of Covid-19, prioritising a pet project (Brexit) over preparing the NHS for a pandemic. Rory Stewart, former member of parliament, described Johnson as someone “who has always got away with things… who doesn’t believe in disciplining himself”. I can believe that.

And there are many more examples: Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro thinks Covid is a “measly cold”, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan is using the crisis in his own game of politics, and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte has gone from denying the pandemic to ordering police to kill those who do not comply with lockdown, in an attempted power-grab.

I think a lot of this ‘strong man’ behaviour is linked to arrogance, to blinkered individuals believing their own experience is superior to that of their more qualified colleagues. We will not know definitively for some time whether these approaches are truly as horrific in outcome as they seem in practice. But, by way of an indicator, the US and the UK have some of the highest death rates so far, while New Zealand – with the empathetic, cautious Jacinda Ardern at the helm – is thought to have effectively “eliminated” the virus.

Arrogance is not limited only to leaders, of course. It is just more readily apparent in them. Westerners in general have been overconfident. In sneering at the thought of having to wear a facemask; in declaring Africa a catastrophe waiting to happen when, generally, African countries have prepared and are handling the pandemic very effectively; in being smug about our ‘advanced’ healthcare systems; in being reckless with our health.

In fact, western arrogance has gone unchecked for some time. If a pandemic can’t inject some humility into even the most conceited egomaniacs, I don’t know what can.


Boris Johnson has returned to Downing Street to take charge of the UK’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. The prime minister will chair the regular morning cabinet meeting on Covid-19 before holding talks with senior ministers and officials. In a report published today, the home affairs select committee calls for a raft of measures from the government to tackle increasing levels of domestic abuse under lockdown. Measures include an emergency package of funding for support services for domestic abuse victims and legislation to remove a time limit on prosecuting certain offences. Some of the millions of British workers furloughed during the coronavirus lockdown will be encouraged to take a second job picking fruit and vegetables, according to environment secretary George Eustice. As it stands, only a third of the migrant labour needed to carry out the task is in the country.

Business and economy

The John Lewis Partnership is exploring whether it should bring in an outside investor to help finance and launch a joint venture that would reduce its reliance on retailing. It is also considering never reopening some of its less viable department stores after the national lockdown ends. (£)

The chief executive of Airbus has reportedly issued a stark assessment of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the plane maker. In a letter to workers, Guillaume Faury is said to have warned colleagues that the company is “bleeding cash at an unprecedented speed”.

The Bank of England has warned UK lenders against booking huge charges on souring loans amid fears it will curb their ability to support struggling companies. If loan loss provisions increase, banks will see a sharp hit to profits, making them less able to write new loans at a time when companies desperately need credit. (£)

Columns of note

Pilita Clark offers a guide to the etiquette of video conferencing in the Financial Times. Zoom, Teams and similar platforms have exploded into our lives over the past few months without so much as an instruction manual. Consequently, they are crawling with bad behaviour. Find out how not to be a Zoom bore, or a broadband snob, or a sniffly, coughing annoyance, and more. (£)

In this week’s Spectator, Ian McEwan thinks it’s time to televise corona cabinet discussions. The institutional habit of treating voters like children is alive and kicking, he says, presenting as evidence the handling of Boris Johnson’s illness. Suddenly, the prime minister was in hospital, then ICU, then fighting for his life, yet “cheerful”. Of course, according to McEwan: “we knew very well that these days cheerfulness can be effectively cured at home.” But the risks are ultimately ours too; now is the time to be grown-ups. (£)

Source: New Yorker


The week ahead

Some European countries will shift towards returning to work this week, with the French and Spanish governments outlining their detailed plans for easing lockdown tomorrow. Meanwhile, data rolls in about the true extent of the economic damage being wreaked by the Covid-19 crisis.

First-quarter growth figures for the US and eurozone are due, with both expected to show significant falls. Banks also feature heavily this week, with three of the main central banks, the US Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank and the Bank of Japan, meeting to set policy.

Investors are watching out for technology, oil and pharmaceuticals on the US corporate calendar. A slowdown in digital advertising spending is set to take its toll on earnings at Google-parent Alphabet on Tuesday and Facebook on Wednesday.

There will also be earnings reports from some of the big UK and European lenders – HSBC on Tuesday, Barclays and Standard Chartered on Wednesday, Lloyds on Thursday and Royal Bank of Scotland on Friday. The outlook is particularly bad following the news that banks were forced to suspend dividends and investors will be focused on how income and loan books are holding up due to the pandemic.

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Source: FTSE 100, Financial Times

Did you know?

Human eyes yellow over time, which means the sky appears less blue as you get older.

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