I like disaster movies. You know the kind – comets hitting the Earth, zombie apocalypses, maniacal baddies threatening global extinction. That sort of thing. But here’s the point. I like watching a disaster movie but not being part of one.
In case you haven’t already guessed, I give you due warning – this is about coronavirus. If you don’t want to know the score, look away now. Normal life is pretty much put on hold for the immediately foreseeable future. Coronavirus is the biggest health emergency to hit the world in the last… well… ever. In fairness, the 1918 flu pandemic probably runs a good second.
And the 1918 pandemic is the basic model upon which health service planning to contain the outbreak is based. Like coronavirus, the 1918 agent (H1N1) has caused death by bacterial superinfection (pneumonia). Moreover its timing, towards the end of the First World War when public health standards were lower and malnutrition prevalent, played a part in the worldwide death toll of around 40 million.
But coronavirus, ultimately, is not the same thing. It is complacent of us to believe so. The limited data available so far suggests that the elderly are particularly at risk from coronavirus, in contrast to regular seasonal flu which particularly harmed those at the top and bottom ends of normal lifespan, and the 1918 strain which affected working age people much more than expected. Coronavirus is what it is. And H1N1 it ain’t.
It’s easy to be fatalistic about this evolving pandemic. It’s easy to believe we are powerless in the face of this microbiological tsunami and all we can do is wait for the drama to unfold.
But that’s not true. There are measures we can take. Some of these are personal measures such as washing our hands properly and not sneezing on people. The things our parents taught us. In some ways, these measures are so simple that the public is resistant, feeling perhaps that deadly diseases need high-tech treatments. And wearing a face mask may do little to affect your chances of being infected but it will reduce the danger you pose to others, if you are already carrying the virus.
These are personal responses. And they are best supported by wider responses taken not by individuals but by government. We should be taking the only course of action which has been shown historically to help – quarantine. If you are not near other people and therefore not exposed to their coughs and sneezes, you are much less likely to catch coronavirus. That’s clear.
If you take away the route of transmission, the virus pretty soon runs out of ideas. So we should not be holding large-scale sporting events. We should not be going to concerts and theatres. We should not be going on cruise ships which are little more than giant floating petri dishes anyway – think how quickly norovirus goes round a cruise ship. We should think twice about getting on public transport.
We need to take all these steps. But this won’t be achieved by individuals choosing to skip the Watford-Liverpool game. Or whatever. This requires action at governmental level. It can’t be left to individuals.
It needs strong leadership and courage to think the unthinkable, to endorse extremes. China is showing the way on how to treat this outbreak. Sure the measures seem Draconian. Civil liberties are being flouted in the battle against coronavirus. There are restrictions on movement, forced quarantine and heaven knows what else. Extreme problems call for extreme solutions. But they’re working.
Normally I would be the first to cry ‘foul’. The first to complain about the loss of freedoms. But these are not normal times. Civil liberties are all very well but not when staring down the barrel of a gun. The preservation of civil liberties is of course admirable. But it may well come at the expense of a much higher death toll. And nothing erodes your freedom quite like being dead. For the moment, pragmatic survival beats principled extinction. This isn’t Braveheart.
As I write, and I can’t quite believe I’m saying this, I think we need to brace ourselves for some remarkable approaches to disease management. I’m pretty sure they won’t be attractive. I’m pretty sure they will seem extreme and we may question whether we are in a democracy. But they might, with our cooperation, just possibly help. I don’t think they will turn the tide against the virus but they might, just might, slow it down sufficiently that our health services can cope. They might even buy us the time to develop a vaccine. If not, they will be swept away in the wave of infection that follows. We have to fight.
Prefer to bury your head in the sand? That’s your choice. I prefer to think and to write about what I see as a global health emergency. I don’t believe one should panic – panic is counter-productive – but I do think one should be anxious. Also steadfast and determined.
Besides we haven’t got the time to panic. We face a stark choice. And we face it not next week, not tomorrow, but right now. The enemy stands unseen at our door.
But we are not powerless. We can take actions, both personal and wider, to minimise the risk to ourselves and to others. We’ve been here before. In 1940 all seemed lost. But actions taken by individuals and by governments combined to fight off the threat. The more you look at it, the more we can resist. In bacteriological terms, we really will fight them on the beaches.