Written by Alex Dunn
After over half a year of living and dying with the COVID-19 virus, a new form of tribalism has appeared. The human capacity for finding opposing sides on any conceivable topic, now extends to how to survive a global health crisis. Whereas a reasonable person might expect that when all of humanity faces a potentially existential threat, that would drive a cognisant species to act in a coordinated manner to overcome the danger, we have found a way to fight about it.
In the same way that climate change threatens everybody, COVID-19 could send us back to the dark ages. If you think that sounds like an overreaction, consider how little we know about this virus. Politicians and the media (that I have seen) are framing the threat in terms of what we do know. Up until recently, we were told that the virus threatens the old and sick and leaves the young largely untouched. The virus can live longer on some surfaces than others. The virus can be washed away with soap and water. Virus droplets carry a maximum of 2 m from anyone filthy enough to sneeze or cough without covering their nose and mouth properly.
None of the above is set in stone. Viruses have a nasty habit of changing their characteristics. Failing to acknowledge that we must hit a moving target is extremely dangerous.
The lock-down which has been applied to varying degrees of rigor across the globe, has bought us a little time. It has slowed the spread of the virus, but we have certainly not eliminated it.
The degree and strictness of the lockdown has provided the dividing line for opposing tribes. On the one hand, those with an eye on the economy are telling us that the cost of lock down is too high a price to pay. More people will die as a result of businesses failing than catching the virus.
On the other side of the line are those who believe we need to prioritise the protection of life whilst we hunt for treatment and a vaccine.
At a national level, we have had the grim spectacle of leaders indulging in some one-uppism, by using death counts in other countries to demonstrate the strength of their own virus response. Such comparisons are of course going to come back and bite a few people.
I watched Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand put in a spirited claim for hubris of the year award in early June. After announcing that NZ had no active infections and her government had decided to “get our economy fully open again” she said she did a little dance to celebrate.
It took a few days for the inevitable appearance of new cases. New Zealand may be island, but they are not isolated; two foreign visitors were identified as the infection vector.
In May, Sweden was hailed for taking a relaxed approach to restrictions, which was not resulting in an explosion of cases. The Swedes, we were told, were demonstrating their usual, admirable Scandi social care which would protect both the Swedes and their economy.
Fast forward to the 3rd June and the Swedish approach suddenly did not look so good. A sudden increase of over 100% in the number of cases has dismayed many who had hoped that Sweden offered the holy grail of solutions.
It is this observer’s view that different countries should be trying different approaches to tackling the pandemic. However, this should be done with international coordination and collaboration rather than competition.
Over here, the thin veneer of European unity disappeared almost overnight in the face of the virus.
The EU could have been expected to lead the way, but instead the leadership which the 27 member states have been looking for has never materialized.
Italy was left to its own devices for months and I doubt the Italians will forget that it was the Russians and the Chinese who send supplies whilst the EU bumbled around.
The official EU website posted a hand-wringing statement, pointing out that “the EU is taking care of the things it is responsible for so governments can stay focused on what matters: public health”. Sorry folks, nothing to do with us.
The European Council on Foreign Relations surveyed people in last week of April 2020 in Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Poland, Sweden, Portugal, Bulgaria, and Denmark (representing about two thirds of the EU population). Amongst the conclusions, the headline that was chosen was that there was an overwhelming expectation that the EU would provide the most support coming out of the pandemic. More interesting indicators appear later in the report. Spain and Italy have 50 and 58 percent of respondents saying that their view of the EU had worsened since the crisis. Secondly, to quote from the report “a large plurality (and, in some cases, a majority) in every surveyed member state described the EU as having slipped into irrelevance in the coronavirus crisis.”
So, we need your help, we expect you to help, but you suck.
Balancing public safety with protecting economies is a balancing act which seems to be impossible. Nobody really knows how long and how strong a lock-down should last.
Mixed and weak messages from governments have not helped. At the start of the lock-down in the UK, the message was an unambiguous “Stay at Home”. Now, the message is “Stay alert and safe”.
The partial lifting of restrictions has been like watching a dam collapse once one key stone has been removed. In Europe and the US, the public has responded to being given an inch by grabbing a yard.
Look at the photos of British beaches a day BEFORE the restrictions had been lifted. The coastal town of Bournemouth, best known as a sleepy destination for the retired, suddenly looked like the last days of Rome.
The medical experts have continued to emphasize the need for caution, but like a desperate substitute teacher struggling to reason with a class of children, the message for some is not getting through.
Speaking of children, schools and day care centers are reopening. Those of you who have had a three year old child will know that once said child walks over the threshold, it normally takes a maximum of 5 seconds for he or she to be licked by one of their peers. Child care facilities for most children are, at the best of times, petri dishes of an unholy cocktail of bacteria, viral and fecal matter. Throw a deadly new and untreatable virus into the mix and there is a strong argument for burying them all under the type of concrete sarcophagus currently housing Chernobyl’s reactor number 4.
We still know very little about this virus, but we are starting to learn some things which should make us sit up and pay attention. An increasing number of young children are getting very sick indeed, experiencing symptoms similar to Kawasaki disease. We are also seeing that people that recover from COVID-19 may not end up in the death statistics, but many of them end up with horrible lung damage. This opens up the possibility of many many people needing critical care from medical systems which are already very stretched.
Perhaps we are at the beginning of a very different era; one which may not compare very favorably with what will now be known as 1 year BC (before COVID), which we used to refer to as 2019.
Alex is an occasional Contrary Perspective contributor writing from Western Europe.