Sucker punch

30th October 1974 – The Rumble in the Jungle was slowing to stalemate, both boxers drained by the Zaire heat, going through the motions with punches that would have barely knocked the skin off a custard. With a little more than ten seconds remaining in the round, Foreman let an Ali hook catch his cheek. He turned to respond and, from nowhere, was caught by a vicious five-punch combination, then a left hook and a hard right straight to the face that sent him, senseless, to the canvas and defeat.

Ali had, against all odds, taken Foreman’s title but, worse than that, he had humiliated the big man. Throughout the fight, Ali had taunted Foreman, asking, after every flurry of punches, “is that all you’ve got, George?” until, inevitably, Foreman was spent. Then Ali pounced with the sucker punch.

Going into the fight, Foreman was the strong favourite. He was the champion, had a punch like a jackhammer and was undefeated in his professional career. Ali was yesterday’s man, a former champion but now more a talker than a fighter. He no longer floated like a butterfly nor stung like a bee. It was odds-on that Foreman would defeat Ali. Many feared his iron fists would do more than that. Several newspapers ventured serious concerns for Ali’s well-being in the face of such firepower.

But you can never underestimate the power of complacency. So confident was Foreman of victory that he made no attempt to pace himself. He attacked wildly, swinging enormous energy-sapping punches, any one of which would have ended the fight had it reached its target. But Ali boxed clever, simply covering up until the storm passed. By the middle of the eighth round Foreman was defeated. He just didn’t know it yet.

Okay, I admit that this is one of those clumsy segues that will have you all groaning but let me voice it anyway.

Complacency and arrogance allowed Ali to defeat Foreman. The same complacency and arrogance is allowing coronavirus to defeat us. If you’re not interested in my thoughts on this, just stop here. I hope you enjoyed the reflections on Muhammad Ali. If, on the other hand, you want to be privy to my concerns about coronavirus and its likely autumnal trajectory, read on.

We all know the story or at least we think we do. Novel virus, found initially in China, spreads worldwide over the next six months, killing around three quarters of a million people worldwide. Summer arrives, the number of new cases falls (except in America, obviously) and the public begins to celebrate the end of lockdown.

Flames fanned by the newspapers (at least in part), the end of lockdown is seen erroneously as the passing of the pandemic. Pubs open, gyms too, toilets, libraries and Starbucks. Shops reopen, tentatively at first, like flowers after a forest fire and the hoi polloi head to the beaches. Meanwhile the scientists are watching the behaviour of the virus like hawks, anxiously studying the data for signs of an impending spike in infection rates.

Before long, the British beaches are insufficient for the sunbathers and, just as the airlines, opportunistically announce cheap flights pretty much everywhere, the inevitable happens. Thousands of fake-tanned narcissists make their lusty way to Ibiza for sun, sand and sangria. Or whatever. Social distancing? How long before somebody invents a cocktail with that name?

Of course this hedonistic escapism only lasts so long. Inevitably the number of new cases each week begins to rise. The scientists begin to sweat. Probably more than the sunseekers. And suddenly, almost out of nowhere, we are standing at nearly 3000 new cases a day. That’s not a little spike. That’s half what it was at peak on the first wave of infections. And at that point, the death toll was nearly 600 per day.

This time, although the pattern of infection is similar and rising sharply, there are far fewer deaths. Instead of 600 a day, it’s less than 10. Time to relax, eh (George)?

But before you reach for that swimsuit and after-sun, let’s think why. To my mind there are three plausible explanations.

Firstly, perhaps the virus has mutated to a less lethal form. Viruses often do this. It is after all not in their interests to kill the host (that’s you). The longer they can keep you alive, the better their chances of reproduction. And that’s all a virus really cares about.

Secondly, the rise in infection is predominantly among the younger who are comparatively resistant to coronavirus’s virological charms. But of course their parents and grandparents are less so. If that’s correct, there will be another peak (yes, a third one) as the funlovers bring home the virus as a holiday souvenir to their aged relatives. Expect a big peak in mortality around Halloween.

Thirdly, perhaps we’re just getting better at treating people with coronavirus. No longer are we simply rabbits in the headlights. We have one or two drugs and at least some of the population are heeding the facemask advice. The promise of an imminent vaccine is now no longer the province of desperate tabloid headline writers. It’s looking good. Overall, and for whatever reason or combination of reasons, the number of deaths is low in relation to the number of infections. You’re more likely to survive it now than you were six months ago.

Okay, time to wheel on the complacency. Because that’s exactly what this is. And we would be well advised not to punch ourselves out and think we have this thing beaten. Because this virus is a canny little fella. Already it has probably mutated to a less virulent form in order to increase its likelihood of spreading. Logically its next step may well be to acquire resistance to the drugs we are using. Bacteria are experts at this and hospital mortality statistics are chock-a-block with the consequences of multiresistant bacteria. Successful surgery undone by superbugs. Or maybe the virus will mutate into a “scorpion” form – one that keeps victims alive much longer so that they can pass it on but couples that with a later mortality. Just imagine that. Or perhaps you’re trying not to.

It’s been a few months since I wrote about coronavirus. Although much has changed and we are learning new normals, I don’t believe for one second that we are ready for what’s coming. If we throw in seasonal flu as well, the period until Christmas looks alarming. While the summer has emptied people out of the homes, the first winter winds will drive people back indoors and trigger the second wave. If the first wave was a spring tide, the second will be a tsunami. Whether we like it or not, lockdown is coming again. And if the government has any sense, it will act now. Not next month.

In March I predicted 150,000 dead in the UK from coronavirus by Christmas. In the intervening months I have seen nothing to dissuade me from that view.

We are too complacent. And the sucker punch is waiting for us. Just like George.