It feels like writing anything about coronavirus (COVID-19), the virus which is now officially a global pandemic, is fraught with danger, as you could be behind the curve by the time you finish your paragraph. But it seems worth planting a flag in the earth at this point and considering a few issues which have arisen as the health crisis has played out.
The most striking factor – especially for me, as it touches on the retail space – is the stockpiling of all sorts of goods from supermarkets in the UK, Australia and other countries. Panic buying has set in. Paracetamol, hand sanitiser and toilet rolls are now scarce and precious commodities. Walking through the aisles of Sainsbury’s or Tesco is like travelling back to Soviet Russia, bare shelf upon bare shelf.
It’s worse than that. Not only are consumers caught up in a strange herd mentality, whipping each other up into a greater frenzy of irrational purchasing behaviour, but the way they have gone about it has been extraordinary. There have been fights – literally, fisticuffs and scraps – in supermarkets as shoppers battle over the last few items on their lists. Last week, in New South Wales, a 50-year-old man was tasered to control a brawl which had broken out over the last few rolls of toilet roll. This is not normal conduct.
Nor does it stop there. At Costco in Croydon, customers coming into the store were seemingly being sprayed with disinfectant (though one must be fair and note that the management claimed it was only trolleys, rather than patrons, which were being sprayed). More broadly, commuters on the Tube have been taking some outlandish precautions against coronavirus: one was spotted with a duvet over his head, which made even my layman’s brain think twice about the potential efficacy.
My point is that the world seems to have gone mad. Now, I’m not downplaying the proportions of the crisis we’re facing, or its global reach. This genuinely is a epidemiological challenge on a scale we haven’t seen probably since the Spanish ’Flu of 1918-20, which killed 50 million people. It’s certainly more serious than the swine ’flu pandemic of 2009, and is altering the rhythm of our lives more fundamentally. We need to get a grip and be responsible, and we have to remember, as the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, said recently, that people will lose loved ones. People are going to die, and die in significant numbers.
Panicking, however, solves nothing; in fact, the evidence seems to be emerging that knee-jerk reactions can be counter-productive. (For example, closing schools seems like an obvious way to reduce exposure, but that throws a lot of the burden of childcare on to grandparents, who are among the more vulnerable groups. We need to beware unintended consequences.) The global community’s response to COVID-19 has to be measured, proportionate and evidence-based.
That’s not an argument against doing anything. The Formula 1 community is coming to terms with the cancellation of the Australian Grand Prix after some mechanics were diagnosed with the virus, and the subsequent Bahrain race is set to be run in front of empty grandstands so that crowds will not gather. The NBA has suspended its playing season, and in the UK the Premier League has fallen to the public health axe. These are measures which have been thought through and balanced against the scientific evidence as well as the economic cost: pity the poor city of Austin, Texas, which has just seen the cancellation of the annual SXSW festival, at the likely negative impact of hundreds of millions of dollars to the local economy and doubts over the very future of the festival).
This doesn’t mean that we can’t maintain a sense of proportion. At the time of writing, the UK has seen fewer than 600 cases of COVID-19 and only 10 deaths. Each one is tragic, of course, and devastating for the friends and family, but it’s not (yet) a number which looks like an existential threat. I don’t doubt that worse is to come, and we should be prepared. But we must, surely, be level-headed, and see if we can appeal to what used to be the great strength of the British character, phlegmatism and stubborn good humour in the face of a crisis.
We will come out of this. Meanwhile, let’s act calmly and sensibly, and rely on the evidence of those oft-maligned “experts”. Specialists should be allowed to do their job, and we will rely on the age-old motto of this country: “Mustn’t grumble.”