Unprecedented times seven

It has become a cliché to say we are living in unprecedented times. This is now such a well-worn saw that it goes almost unchallenged. I was drawn up short, therefore, when the presenter of a recent BBC Radio 4 morning programme said he wasn’t going to call these times ‘unprecedented’ because there have been major epidemics of a similar scale in the past – e.g, the Black Death.

While it is unquestionably true that there have been past pandemics, some probably more deadly than the present one, I think this somewhat misses the point. It isn’t so much the nature of the disease that is unprecedented but our response to it and how we have allowed it to impact us, our society, our world. I believe the nature of this impact is unique and without precedent. Here’s why:

1. Unprecedented speed of the pandemic’s transmission

Covid-19 had already spread across populations in much of Asia, Western Europe and North America before WHO first announced, on January 30th, that it could be transmitted from person to person. This itself was many weeks prior to it being labelled a global pandemic. In country after country, the first cases of Covid-19 incidence have been traced to a date before the end of January. Yet the West waited for a final proclamation from the WHO on what to do. We still don’t know how many people one person can infect but the disease is spreading rapidly, very rapidly, across the world.

This speedy spread has been made possible by the interleaved, interconnected nature of our globalised world. Planes transported the virus from airport to airport around the world at hundreds of miles an hour, outpacing our epidemic warning systems, our understanding of the virus, and our ability to contain it. The last great global pandemic, that of the Spanish flu of 1918-20, had to wait for soldiers to travel home from war for its spread, and they did so relatively slowly, by steamship. The speed of Covid-19’s transmission is unprecedented.

But it is nothing compared to the speed at which fear travels today. News and fake news are transmitted at lightning speed on the internet, reaching even the remotest parts of the globe within minutes of origination. Nor has there ever been a time when one topic can so control our attention. Covid-19 totally dominates the news. And so do rumours: “It’s more deadly than they are telling us.” Not so long ago, fear spread somewhat more sedately, at the speed of the telegraph and the telegram. No longer.

2. Unprecedented constraints on liberty

One manner in which this pandemic is very different to previous ones is how most countries have responded, by changing how we live – how we spend our hours, our days, our lives.

In much of the West, we have accepted the conditions of house arrest imposed on us. Previously this was imposed only on those accused of political crimes, and then often only under exceptional circumstances.

Many on the “vulnerable list” are told they cannot leave home at all. If they are living on their own, they are in effect being held in solitary confinement. This is for the good of their health, but is it for the good of their wellbeing?

Solitary confinement as a punishment is often considered beyond the pale. “Considering the severe mental pain or suffering solitary confinement may cause, it can amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment when used as a punishment, during pre-trial detention, indefinitely or for a prolonged period, for persons with mental disabilities or juveniles.”(1) Yet we expect many of young people living on their own and struggling with poor mental health to endure solitary conditions. The same is true for many of our elderly. And those living on their own are expected to bear this isolation without question for months at a time. . .

3. Unprecedented ‘social distancing’

A stranger to our pandemic-infected land, unaware of the virulence of the novel coronavirus, would probably suspect that we are all suffering from some weird behavioural disturbance. When we do eventually venture out, something we have done only rarely during the pandemic until now, we act as with unhealthy social pathology, keeping two meters distant, shifting uneasily whenever anyone comes too near, suspicious of what each other might be carrying, avoiding contact even with our own family, jumping when another person coughs. I have found even eye contact has become a rarer thing since the start of the outbreak. Prior to the pandemic, we would have suspected anyone showing such behaviour either to be struggling with deep anxieties, harbouring worrying pathology, or simply up to no good.

We even dress up to play our part in this drama, like the bad guys in a two-bit B-movie Western, wearing bandanas or face masks, hiding our true identity from each other as we keep our distance, gun at the ready . . . (I hope not the latter).

4. Unprecedented prominence of Public Health

Individualism, market liberalism and the politics of “lifestyle choice” have all led to Public Health taking something of a back stage in recent years. Its past victories against smallpox, scarlet fever, whooping cough, tuberculosis, cholera, and typhoid et al. are now long forgotten. We’ve even forgotten the illnesses themselves. Today, it’s suddenly back in a starring role. In fact, it is the star of the coronavirus epidemic.

Public Health has probably not received such prominence any time during the past 70 years. It is back because it is our best defence. “Together, we can beat this disease.” As yet, we have no treatments, no cures, no vaccines. If we are to believe the reports, even ventilators seem to do as much harm as good. But we do have Public Health advice. To remind you: “Wash your hands for 20 seconds or more, use disinfectant hand gels with at least 60% alcohol, cough into your shoulder or arm, self-isolate at home if you have symptoms or those you come in contact with have them, keep two meters from other people when outside, don’t associate with more than five others at any one time, clean and disinfect all surfaces regularly.” (2)

The new mantra is that we can collectively stop the spread of the illness. And supposedly, we need to do this as a species. We need to act together, as never before, not just in England, or Europe, or in the West as a whole, but also in Asia and Africa, and the rest of the world. Without collective success, there is no security and the disease is likely to be able to continue to wreak havoc, possibly for years to come.

5. Unprecedented suspension of the economy

If someone had said last year that the economy would be closed down across much of the world for several months during 2020, we wouldn’t have believed them. It would have sounded preposterous. Never before has nearly every business in Europe had to close shop to stop the spread of a disease. This move will have untold economic impact, even if it were to end today, which it can’t and won’t even with the present easing of lockdown conditions in many countries.

For a generation or more, business was all. We measured success in terms of numbers of start-ups, economic growth, productivity, investment, entrepreneurial activity. “Let the markets decide,” was the mantra that guided almost every politician across Europe. Nothing was considered more blasphemous than to stand in the way of business.

Suddenly, with a flash of the Covid wand, this has all disappeared. Businesses across Europe were shut down, workers sent home, put on furlough, laid off. Apart from “essential work” no business is deemed sacred anymore. Many hundreds are currently teetering on the edge of collapse. Others have already gone under. All in an attempt to save lives. Across Europe, human life has come first for once, maybe even for the first time.

As yet, there’s no clear sense of how much economic damage has been done by this shutdown and how much more will be done in the future as a consequence of the pandemic. No one knows when such things as air travel, tourism, restaurant dining, or sports events will return to pre-Covid levels, if they ever do. The first estimates suggest that about one third of all economic activity stopped dead in much of Europe for two months. This is unprecedented. This is an even bigger drop than that seen during the World Wars or the Great Depression. And, in contrast with those events, this time governments deliberately restricted economic activity to save lives.

It is stunning that this microscopic virus has created such great change and did so overnight. In this sense, it achieved more than any politician could ever have done. Suddenly, the skies were blue once more, the air clean, the roads almost completely free of traffic. Animals roamed where they had not been seen for decades, bird song no longer faced competition from human activity. For several weeks people stopped running around busily. Sixty years of “social and economic progress” seemed a mere mirage.

It is as if the clock had been wound back and we were being given another chance.

6. Unprecedented government control

In response to the pandemic governments took back control, not just of the markets and of business, not just of money supply and public spending, but of what you and I can and cannot do. This level of control is unprecedented outside wartime. Not even under the heady days of market socialism of Attlee and Wilson has so much been controlled by so few and with so little Parliamentary scrutiny.

An immense forest of money trees has sprouted at every turn, propping up businesses, subsidising personal income, enabling life to continue with at least a minimal degree of normality. Furlough payments, easy term loans, mortgage suspensions, quantitive easing, all shore up the broken economy. The British government has taken the Bank of England under its wing in order to print as much money as it needs. This is an unprecedented Toryism.

The same has been true, to greater or lesser extent, throughout much of Europe. The Schengen visa system has been suspended; borders suddenly appeared where they’d been long absent. Heretically, against all neoliberal dogma and market regulation, EU governments have been allowed to prop up ailing businesses. Some people have been showered with money not to go to work. This is not universally true, of course. In the US, almost 40 million people have been added to unemployment queues. And many countries outside Europe and North America cannot afford bailouts on the scale of Europe.

Governments’ responses to coronavirus have also created spectacle. The first to undergo lockdown in Europe, the Italians sang from their balconies. Young Berliners held coronavirus raves until shut down by police raids. The French police arrested those in the street who didn’t possess a letter to prove their business outside home was legitimate. The British government lionised the NHS, finding the money to build Nightingale hospitals. All of Spain was locked inside for a month, while the army patrolled the streets to ensure people didn’t venture out.

There has also been immense grief and sorrow. We are no longer used to death on this scale.

7. Unprecedented uncertainty

This novel coronavirus has also caused a sudden and unprecedented uncertainty. As yet, there are no sages in the wings saying, “this is the solution”. No one is claiming to have all the answers, none that I’ve heard. Books are not yet being written about “how I got it right when others were wrong.”

This is because no one truly knows where this pandemic is going. The virus still retains much of its mystery. Question marks have made a big comeback. Will businesses recover? What will a post-pandemic world look like? In what ways will it be different? Will we really tolerate a return to polluted air? Could this spell the end of the rat race? Could this be the beginning of something truly new?

All the things we have long been dependent on suddenly look less reliable, more questionable, even fragile.

Some things are becoming clear, of course. It is already evident there will be less air travel than prior to the crisis and what there will be is likely to be more expensive than before. (And Ryanair is again rumoured to wish to limit access to toilets during the flight.) Travel restrictions will return. Likewise, self-sufficiency is going to look far more attractive than in recent years. Local production rather than global outsourcing will play an increasing role in supply chains.

Yet these are small details in what are truly unprecedented times. Probably not even governments has a good idea about what our future really holds. (It is notable that no epidemiologist or virologist is claiming to have a crystal ball.)

The 2020s face a very different challenge to that of recent decades. No one could have foreseen the full extent of the social and economic consequences of this pandemic. No one saw it coming, not really, not truly. Not even the most prescient, like the epidemiologist Larry Brilliant, though he painted an pretty accurate description of how a pandemic would bring us to our knees (5). The nature of this virus, particularly in regard to its asymptomatic phase, makes it many ways unique and most difficult to predict. We don’t know if it will get more virulent or less so over time, whether there will be one wave of the pandemic or many, whether it might even burn itself out, or not.

This unparalleled level of uncertainty means that stress and fear are eating away at our mental health (3). In the US, where uncertainty might be greatest, as many as four out of five are saying that the pandemic has made them more anxious or depressed (4). Now more than ever, governments will have to address mental health issues if we are to find a way to live with the consequences of this pandemic.

Then there is tracking. Big Brother has got his eye on you, potentially. Should we submit to the possible intrusion of tracking apps for the social good, or is this the beginning of the end for liberty? With the pandemic the issue of Trust has become paramount. For years, Trust in our public institutions has been steadily undermined. “The Government has been covering up the truth.” We didn’t worry sufficiently about this lack of Trust in times when we had the luxury to sort things out. Now that Trust is desperately needed, it is in short supply.

Uncharted waters

So where does this leave us? With the first signs of the easing of the lockdown, we are just beginning to have an inkling of the future, though none of us yet really know where are we going. These are uncharted waters. There is no map in the back cupboard to help us find the way, nothing to provide clues in dealing with changes on this scale. We can’t be certain that we even have a sextant on board, or a compass, let alone a captain. Just the ship’s mascot.

We’ve not heeded Nature’s reminders that we are not in control. Have continuously ignored warnings from scientists over more than 20 years, we are now cast adrift without any solutions. Surely our current experience of the pandemic, tells us that governments ignore the climate crisis at our collective peril. The problems thrown up by climate change will be a thousand times worse than we imagine unless governments take action NOW and address it head on.

  • (1) https://news.un.org/en/story/2011/10/392012-solitary-confinement-should-be-banned-most-cases-un-expert-says
  • (2) https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/coronavirus-covid-19-list-of-guidance
  • (3) https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/13/anxiety-on-rise-due-to-coronavirus-say-mental-health-charities
  • (4) https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/healthcare-systems-and-services/our-insights/returning-to-resilience-the-impact-of-covid-19-on-behavioral-health
  • (5) https://www.wired.com/story/coronavirus-interview-larry-brilliant-smallpox-epidemiologist/

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