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.