There have been world wars, genocides, whole cities obliterated and great economic depressions. There has even been the Black Death. But we can never identify a period when the whole human race has been shut down in the face of an invisible foe with the potential to kill untold millions and perhaps wipe out half of our elderly mothers and fathers.
Had we not become a scientific species which had acquired a keen understanding of how viruses transmit, this may very well have happened. But today, in my country after three months of hiatus, the shops are permitted – under strict conditions – to resume business. This in itself is a first. There are so many of them. Never before have traders countrywide been prevented from plying their wares. But equally, never before had all human activity which involved close contact been forbidden and the entire population placed under what amounts to house arrest.
Because these constraints so obviously impinge on the ability to do business, economic activity has taken a hit greater than any since the arrival of the Black Death seven centuries ago. Billions of humans have been sent on enforced sabbaticals, and in many cases have lost the will to work. In this glorious spring and summer weather, they have actually enjoyed not having to report for work in the early morning and suffer the burden of having to constantly maintain output, work schedules and the annoyance of being bossed around by their superiors.
Society now faces the herculean task of firing up again all these beach-comers and new enjoyers of public spaces ever since they were permitted to exercise and take the air to maintain health and sanity. But just as daunting are the hitherto unheard levels of public debt incurred to keep as many businesses as possible on life support. Governments around the world knew that, despite breaking every record in the economic rulebook, millions of enterprises will never recover and untold millions will find themselves relying on the public purse to survive. This is particularly galling to those governments – including our own – which managed their affairs well and were looking to a golden future. No one knows what the consequences of so much public debt will be, but consequences there surely will be.
In handling this crisis, my own country has been found seriously wanting. While our freshly minted prime minister has won the first big test of his premiership – exiting the European Union – he has failed abysmally on the second, COVID-19. Failing to put the country in lockdown sooner cost tens of thousands of lives. Failure to test, track and trace added to the litany of woes, as did failure to provide personal protective equipment. But perhaps the most scandalous failure was that of not throwing a cordon sanitaire around the people most likely to die: those in care homes. Hospitals sending infected patients into care homes may be said to have reached the bar of criminal negligence, as was the failure to provide protection for those who look after them. But as if these failings were not enough, we must add four more: an insistence that two-metre social distancing be maintained; a mule-like refusal to accept that face masks can make it harder for the virus to jump from person to person; a tardiness in getting the least at risk back to school; and the lunacy of introducing travel quarantining after the horse has bolted.
But beyond these events, there is an important geo-political dimension. Where has the European Union been in all this? Nowhere, so far as anyone can see. Brussels has been criticised by virtually every member state for interfering in matters they say don’t concern it. But here was a life and death issue which affected all of them equally. Would any have complained were the Union to have taken the lead in protecting them? After all, health issues have always been a major concern of Brussels. It extends even to the much maligned bent or undersized banana.
It has been truly absurd that 27 member states ended up doing their own thing. This was never better illustrated than in our own small island, where devolution allowed for four different solutions to the same problem. We ended up in a Kafkaesque world where an Englishman for the first time in eight hundred years could be stopped from entering Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland.
Various national leaders – and none more so than our own – will face a harsh reckoning when the story of this crisis is finally written up. Had the European Union taken responsibility for managing the crisis, those leaders would have avoided all the brickbats that will now come raining down on them in what many consider the great project of our time, the European Union. And had the EU, for its part, acquitted itself well, it would have provided a mighty fillip to those who have always lauded its creation and pine for a United States of Europe.
As we grapple with COVID-19, we are left wondering how we overnight got from a happy confluence of a strong government, a finally successful Brexit exit, a strong economy, a budget which promised to regenerate our country, into a downturn of unimaginable proportions.
A deadly virus had mutated in an ancient land which, despite being at the cutting edge of so many modern technologies, still hangs on to disgustingly unhygienic animal practices more worthy of witch doctor days.
Precious weeks were lost in a miasma of deceit, cover-up and punishment of those who sought to tell the truth. I am not saying that we in the West do not have our share of such practices, but they are the exception rather than the rule. And where our unfettered media ferret out such goings on, things change and frequently heads roll. Those in power – who can be held to account – know this and that is why such happenings are the exception. Democracy is what does it. As Churchill once said: “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time…”
No authoritarian, one party state, such as China, would tolerate for an instant the daily press briefings whereby the most powerful man in the land submits himself to a grilling in which he is obliged to answer unscripted questions. Nor would such a state allow its media to tear into its handling of any matter. Furthermore, all such dictatorial states insist on imposing their own narrative to events. They will brook no counterview and punish those who try, often by torture and all too frequently by death. All this makes it galling to the nth degree when the perpetrator of the terrible events which have gripped the world shows no contrition, but rather starts boasting how well it has handled it all. To add insult to injury, it sends hapless foreigners rushed supplies of PPE, much of which is defective.
If China wishes to be admired and respected by the rest of humanity, it must be honest and upfront on issues which affect the entire planet. This is particularly necessary where health and survival of the species is concerned. It has to be said that there was a certain inevitability – given ancient animal practices carried out in live wet animal markets in the Far East – that such outbreaks as coronavirus would be regular occurrences. A family member, not long ago, drew my attention to a YouTube expose of animals being skinned alive in China. It was so horrific that I quickly had to avert my gaze. In those parts of the world where human rights are given short shrift, it is not surprising that those of animals are virtually non-existent. Not until all of us treat each other humanely can we expect those who don’t to extend the same protection to our fellow creatures.
Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness – as the US Constitution has it – may even be said to be the right of animals too. As the only part of Creation blessed (some might say cursed) with a mind capable of understanding the issues, we should regard our role as that of a high steward – the ultimate protector of all that has evolved on this orbiting accretion of stardust.
We should regard the outbreak we are currently living through as a wakeup call for the next pandemic coming down the track. And down it most definitely will come. When it arrives, we may not be so lucky as we have been this time with a virus which kills, it is thought, one in a hundred and which largely leaves the young and the fit able to survive it with minimal discomfort. Pity, though, the old and those with health issues.
Deaths worldwide are likely to be under a million from a world population of 7.3 billion. The SARS coronavirus, only a few years ago (also from China), had a mortality rate ten times higher than the COVID-19 coronavirus, but it was somewhat harder to catch and showed symptoms earlier. Luckily it was contained. Spanish flu, on the other hand, one hundred years ago, spared the old and ravaged the young, killing in the region of fifty million out of a then world population of 1.8 billion – a fraction of today’s 7.6 billion. One third of humanity is thought to have contracted the disease. Woe betide us if the next pandemic has the killing power of the Black Death. Then, half the human race vanished.
It is a perennial worry of our species as to what its ultimate fate will be – an asteroid strike, Global Warming, a runaway population explosion (1.8bn to 7.3bn in one hundred years) the exhaustion of the Earth’s raw materials and nuclear annihilation – but pandemics are our biggest enemy. A new, incredibly murderess and fast-moving virus strain against which no antidote can be found before it kills half of humanity or even more.
People think that the world has only recently become interconnected, but the worlds of the middle ages and even antiquity were fully aware of each other’s existence and traded. Albeit their ships were smaller, slow-moving and the overland routes dangerous, but they still pulled it off. It took many months for the Black Death to move from the East to the West – and it never reached the Americas because there were no overland routes and we didn’t even know they were there. Now our coffin-shaped jets – acting like high-flying incubators – can bring it to us in hours. Had China included international air travel when it put a ban on movement in and out of Wuhan, there is every reason to believe the world would have been spared this health and economic catastrophe.
The lessons to be taken from our present travails are speed, transparency and isolation. Also, nations must be obliged to create war chests of PPE, test kits and ventilators, since the failure of any one of them puts the rest of us at risk. Primitive practices such as live, wet markets must be banned worldwide.
If all nations insist on maintaining military establishments with their horrendously expensive tanks, planes and warships, they surely can afford to protect themselves from a potentially greater enemy than any state poses by maintaining health service capability. After all, no neighbouring, hostile state ever enjoyed the advantage of invisibility.