It has all happened with such lightning quick rapidity that we are barely keeping our heads afloat in the sea of information, misinformation, rumour, whispers and projections about the course of coronavirus illness. We are not really used to exponential growth in infection rates. Well, in a manner of speaking we are. The common cold is transmitted in much the same way but has much less severe consequences. What I should perhaps have said is that we are not used to exponential growth in viruses as exquisitely nasty as this bug.
And the speed of transmission is the root of the problem. There is no time to develop a strategy, put it out for critical opinion, form working groups to draft a White Paper, amendments and implementation. None of that. While we are still coming to terms with the phoney war that exists at present, the virus is conducting a silent blitzkrieg on us. We are learning new facts almost by the minute.
Last week we did not know that the virus can live on surfaces for up to a week. That was a bit of a blow. Last week we didn’t have the genetic sequence of the virus. Now we do. And not a moment too soon.
Last week, we knew little about lock downs. That was something that happened in the Far East – China, Malaysia, South Korea. Those sort of places. Places with quasimilitary regimes that could enforce such drastic measures with guns. Not the kind of thing that happens in the West.
But the fundamental truth is that these measures seem to work. The war there isn’t over but there is at least the realistic possibility that the virus may be halted there. Drastic measures, sure.
We balk at these kind of measures in the West, in essence locking up entire populations of cities or, as in Italy, countries. But as the Italian prime minister said, in an almost valedictory tone, “there is no more time”. Without finger-pointing, the reason there is no more time is because they took too much of it in the early stages before they recognised the holocaust that was to follow.
Before anybody feels that this lesson has been learnt, let me urge vigilance not complacency. It only takes a couple of wrong decisions for any country in the early stages of this illness to descend into the same abyss. And when I say a couple of wrong decisions, they don’t even need to be wrong. Just late.
The UK government is broadly speaking still talking of containment. Just as the WHO was reluctant to press the button labelled “pandemic”, so does the UK administration cling to containment. The number of cases in the UK rose by 73 yesterday, the biggest single daily rise yet. This is not containment. Not by any standard. It’s time to bite the bullet. Whether you call it such or not, we are now in the “delay” phase.
So get on and make those decisions. Make them tomorrow when another huge increase in cases will turn public opinion against your “sit tight” approach. Action is needed now and action requires leadership. So show some.
The principal argument against Draconian measures is that they are considered to be disproportionate and likely to induce non-compliance if maintained for long periods of time. The feeling is that if we close the theatres, cancel football games and prevent rallies and marches, people will begin to resist such an imposition after a few weeks. This coincidentally will probably be at the time of peak mortality. Not a great time to give up on your only strategy.
I don’t really buy that. Every day the virus gains new footholds, creeps into areas previously untouched. More countries are added to the list of those infected. This is not a time for genteel moderation. It’s a time for all-out war on the virus. If we are going to prevent a collapse in our health service provision, that’s what we have to do.
Firstly, we need to self isolate. Those who can work from home need to do so. Secondly, wash your hands more than you would when you were a kid. Imagine your mum nagging you. Do it that much. Thirdly, if you are a member of the government, cancel football matches, theatre performances and all gatherings. If you are not a member of the government, just stop going to them. Big gatherings are ways of turning sparks into wildfires. One person sneezes on 10. A week later those 10 have infected 1000. And so on. Fourthly, and I’m a bit hesitant about this one, wear a mask. I don’t know if they are any use but they do at least reduce the likelihood of you infecting somebody else. And they act as a clear visual signal that you are taking this thing seriously. And that in itself is not a bad reason.
The biggest change I think is in our social customs. The Dutch Prime Minister gave a brief spiel in Brussels about not shaking hands and then promptly shook the hands of his deputy. It may have been a brief moment of farce, but it showed how strongly ingrained such behaviour is.
Over the last week I have seen very few friends or family and it has been a real conscious effort on my part not to greet them with the familiar hug, kiss on the cheeks, or handshake. They are my friends after all. What danger could they possibly be? And the answer is of course that they present every danger there is. Their very familiarity makes them dangerous. Trojan horses essentially. Unwitting assassins.
We are being stalked by an invisible enemy. It may be miles away. It may be on our doorstep. Or in our houses already. We don’t know. It will be another week before we know where it was amongst us.
So act now. Take the steps you can. Encourage those who can take bigger measures to do so. We are peering over the edge of a precipice at the moment. If we don’t take a step back, the virus will take the step forward for us. Act now.