We have now got past the absurd stage of glaring in a reproachful manner at Chinese people on the tube. Coronavirus is disrupting sporting events, so this rather mild-mannered little bug has acquired crisis cachet and we must all take it very seriously. Lots of us will die of it, apparently — in this country some 500,000, according to one estimate. Almost certainly older people with under-lying medical conditions, i.e. the very people who voted for Brexit and ensured Labour’s red wall was dismantled in December. If this worst-case scenario does actually happen, expect the Remainers to demand a rerun of that referendum.
Health professionals will be able to enumerate for you the stages of Covid-19 as it goes to work on the human body. My interest is in the stages that the British human psyche goes through thanks to the labours of this formidably pronged little monkey.
Stage one seemed to be a mildly jingoistic contempt — ‘Ha, that’s what you get if you eat bats, you mad bastards’, and ‘Why do all illnesses come from China?’ — plus a vague commitment not to spend Easter in Wuhan. We are in stage two right now: death, destruction, face masks, being told to wash our hands by Jacob Rees-Mogg, who is channelling his nanny, and the OECD predicting imminent global economic collapse, which, given their previous prognostications, provides reasonable grounds for optimism.
But stage two has also seen Covid-19 being weaponised politically. Absolutely everything is, these days, of course. No sooner has some event taken place, somewhere in the world, than it is co-opted into the political armouries of the left and the right, requiring each side to cherrypick facts and ignore everything that does not fit into their respective fatuous agendas.
If you look on social media, you will find there is a broad right-left split. The left thinks we are all going to die and that this is the consequence of human selfishness and eating meat and capitalism and Trump and Boris and people flying everywhere. They believe that the 500,000 figure is an underestimate: they yearn for disaster, to believe that it is happening, that we are all doomed and it serves us right.
The right, broadly, remains as dismissive of the virus as it was during stage one, pointing out that even in countries that don’t have proper drains or representative democracy, the death rate from Covid-19 is still stubbornly low — yes, even in Iran. They challenge the headlines and the experts, suggesting that people are dying more rapidly of other ailments and that the stats for Covid-19 so far don’t add up to a hill of beans, in the grand scheme of things.
Further, we won’t get it — because, unlike the ghastly Italians, we are not given to outpourings of moist emotion when we meet someone: a brief shake of the hand, rather than a full-on snog, is the British way of doing things. These people are not wearing face masks and are not self-isolating when they get the sniffles, nor are they stockpiling lavatory paper.
There is another tranche, somewhat further to the right, who are worried, mind. These are the people who believe that the virus was cooked up in a Chinese bio-weapons research station — there’s one near Wuhan! — and released either as the consequence of Communist malfeasance or Communist incompetence. There is no answer to the question: why would the evil Dr Fang and his PLA associates design a virus which was so ineffectual in its lethality? Do they think they might achieve world supremacy by giving decadent imperialist westerners a bit of a cough? Wouldn’t Ebola or a variant of MRSA be more effective?
There is a tranche on the far left, too, who reckon it’s all something to do with Mossad, as is everything wicked in this world — a conviction heightened by reports that Israel is days away from having developed a vaccine. The truth being that Israel is light years ahead of the rest in medical innovation. Yes, even better at that sort of stuff than Palestine, would you believe.
In our attempts to discern the truth we are not helped by a media comprised entirely of arts grads and apparently fixated upon the word ‘pandemic’ as if it meant something, which of course, strictly speaking, it does not. Pandemic just means quite a few people have got it all over the place. Interviewers question World Health Organisation and domestic experts with a kind of wide-eyed awe, never grasping the nature of risk, or able to put it into some kind of context.
But then the experts do not always help matters: the Sars virus, which emanated from China (people stewing civet cats or bats again) in 2002, led to predictions of an ultimate death toll in the UK very similar to that predicted now for Covid-19. In the end the total number of deaths was nil and the number of cases recorded only four.
All that being said, I do have a corona-cupboard in my house. It’s in the utility room, near where we keep the dog food. I have always been a big fan of prepping and I am actively looking forward to the time when I will not be allowed out of my house but must subsist, and force my family to subsist, on the things which, as a far-sighted hunter gatherer, I have amassed for them.
Oddly these comestibles are comprised of stuff which in normal times my wife and daughter would disdain to eat but which I actually like. Crosse and Blackwell tinned steak and kidney pudding, cans of spam and corned beef and, in the emergency freezer section, the full range of Birds Eye (formerly Findus) crispy pancakes, including my two favourites, beef and onion and mozzarella and ham. Plus four bottles of Jack Daniels. We’ll struggle through.