It is an unsettling time to be human. A pandemic on this scale was inevitable and yet the reality of the outbreak has provoked misplaced panic because many leaders’ reactions have been woefully inadequate and collectively we were psychologically unprepared. I have avoided writing about the Coronavirus outbreak until now. Given my lack of virology credentials, I did not want to pass on unverified information; go to The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine for the best source of UK-centric medical information. Nor do I want to provide calming platitudes. Rather, as the UK moves into its second week of lockdown, I want to write about the way we react to this situation, and explore what we can learn from our time in isolation.
Uncertainty encourages humans to follow the actions of the herd for safety but — without applying critical thought — it results in a nonsensical shortage of toilet roll (in Australia, bulk buying made some sense since they import a substantial volume from China where supplies were at risk of disruption; in the UK we have plenty of paper mills producing our own, so copying the Australian reaction achieved nothing more than voluntarily disrupting our own supply chain). It is easy to blame others for acting selfishly, but strong leadership should be quelling such actions through clear and transparent messaging.
Instead, the UK Government (whose main achievement continues to be that at least it is not the US Government) chose to delay taking action despite the clear consequences in Italy, justifying this to the public on the basis of “acquiring herd immunity”, without really addressing the fact that uncontrolled spreading would place an impossible burden on the healthcare system. Whilst herd immunity might be the outcome of a large swathe of population contracting the virus, it is only something we actively court through administering vaccines which, notably, don’t require a substantial number of people becoming seriously ill and requiring hospitalisation. This plan reeks of a Dominic Cummings policy that runs counter to conventional wisdom and sounds a bit smart until subjected to any rigorous scrutiny. As a result, when social distancing measures were belatedly introduced, it is little wonder that many people were sceptical and flouted the recommendations, requiring firmer controls. For Johnson to shirk any responsibility by acting like a disappointed parent when announcing the lockdown was deeply disingenuous. This is, after all, the same man who bragged about shaking hands with infected patients and has now tested positive for the virus.
A week into lockdown, messaging has improved although much of the “Stay Home” mantra is being propagated through social media from sources other than the Government. Supermarkets are imposing measures to limit numbers inside stores and, as a Brit, it was pleasing to see a queue outside in which people automatically adopted the recommended 2m distancing without any discussion required — even in a crisis, if there is one thing we can do, it is to form an orderly queue.
Meanwhile, if you want to know what strong Government messaging from the start looks like, I hope you have had the chance to experience Vietnam’s genuinely excellent “viral” sensation: