⏱ 7 Minute Read ✍🏻 24th March 2020
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The Spanish philosopher George Santanyana wrote, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
With that quote, I could be referencing the 1918 flu pandemic that killed around 50 million people—possibly as many as 100 million—and infected a third of the world’s population. Instead I am referring to the harsh lessons learned by China and Italy in the very recent past.
By looking back in time, the UK can choose which of those pasts it is going to repeat.
Learning anything from these countries however will require seeing clearly what is going on, rather than being blinkered by the typically British misconception that we are somehow different or special, and that the top of our national agenda should be that we continue to socialise, make money and stockpile toilet paper.
Consider the timeline:
On 8th January, Chinese authorities announced that they had identified a new virus as the pathogen behind a pneumonia-like disease which had hospitalised 59 people in the city of Wuhan. The announcement caused considerable panic in China, mainly because the Chinese had already been through SARS in 2002, and knew exactly what this sort of virus was capable of. But in the West, particularly among leaders with a world view similar to that of Donald Trump, the reports were dismissed as ‘a Chinese problem.’
China reported its first death on 10th January, along with 41 confirmed cases. From the moment it first identified the virus, it began testing, tracing and isolating. Less than two weeks later, they fully locked down Wuhan (a city of 11 million people), followed by the other 15 cities in Hubei Province, effectively ring-fencing some 57 million people from the rest of China. In a country of 1.39 billion, only 23 people had actually died when the decision was made to lock Wuhan down.
Three weeks later, Italy confirmed its first two cases. The victims were a Chinese couple who had arrived in Rome a week prior, travelling via Milan. The first people died in Italy on 22nd February. By this time, the world had watched as China suffered over 2,400 deaths, reporting 80,000 known infections. Thankfully, cases there were now declining as a result of their strictly enforced containment protocol.
Despite repeated warnings from Chinese scientists, politicians in Italy continued to debate whether or not to lock down for another 16 days. Many powerful forces in the Italian government were resisting the idea, complaining of the damage it would do to the economy and accusing their colleagues of “hysterical overreaction”.
On 27th February, the President of Lazio, Nicola Zingaretti, took to Instagram to post a photo of himself socialising with Milanese drinkers in a crowded bar, telling people that they should “not change normal habits” due to coronavirus. Ten days later, with 233 members of the Italian public now dead, Zingaretti took to Instagram again, but this time singing a different tune – he had tested positive for the virus himself:
Under mounting pressure from scientists and doctors, Italy finally locked down on 9th March. By that time, a further 461 people had died, with many ICU’s already over-capacity. Even then, the strictness of the Italian lockdown was a far cry from that of the Chinese.
Barely two weeks later, the death toll in Italy had exceeded 5,000, with almost 800 people dying in a single day. This horrific situation continues today, with more than half the total deaths occurring in the past week alone. More than 2,000 people have lost their lives in the past 3 days, many of whom could have been saved if the hospitals had not been overwhelmed by the sheer volume of cases. The Italian Prime Minister has now publicly stated that Italy “faces its gravest moment since the Second World War.” The reason for that is simple – the contagion was not contained in its formative stages, and now its hospitals cannot cope:
Roberto Burioni, an internationally respected virologist at the San Raffaele University in Milan, has directly blamed the catastrophe on the Italian people going about their usual routines, attributing the out-of-control spread of the disease to “that behaviour.” He added: “if we had shut everything in the beginning, for two weeks, probably now we would be celebrating victory.”
Recently, Lombardy’s President, Attilio Fontana, admitted: “the numbers of contagions are not going down.” Referring to the lockdown, he also warned the public “if the message was not understood, we will have to be more aggressive in delivering it.”
Fontana was justifiably angry – Italian mobile phone companies had provided him with evidence that some 40% of Italians were still violating the lockdown, travelling far away from their homes unnecessarily. Amazingly, this evidence only served to ignite a public row over the privacy rights of Italian mobile phone users, wasting even more time in the desperate fight to save lives.
When asked why Italy, a nation of 60 million people, now accounted for more than a third of the 15,300+ deaths globally, Fontana said it was because both politicians and the public “were convinced that the situation was less serious and they did not want to hurt our economy too much.”
On the 15th of March, in a live television interview, UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock addressed manufacturers directly. He said: “We have around 5,000 ventilators and we think we need many times more than that….we’re saying that if you produce a ventilator then we will buy it. No number is too high.” Apparently, the British government had already been contacting manufacturers, politely asking them if they might switch their assembly lines over to making ventilators, and effectively offering an open chequebook:
Contrast this with the last time the UK was facing such a dire situation; the Second World War. Fortunately, Winston Churchill was in charge, who made it absolutely clear to the country that one thing standing between countless more deaths, and quite possibly defeat by the Nazis, was the UK’s ability to produce enough Spitfires to defend its skies from the Luftwaffe. Without hesitation, Churchill commandeered every private facility with any sort of manufacturing capability; from large factories to furniture stores and even tiny workshops. He didn’t ask the owners, he told them. Understanding the gravity of the situation, both the owners and the British public mucked in, with almost 90% of the country’s women working in factories around the clock to meet demand. As a direct result of this, Britain won the war and many lives were saved. It is not difficult to see that the ventilator is the modern-day equivalent of the Spitfire. What is more difficult to see is why the approach is so different.
On 19th of March, Boris Johnson’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, said the country was probably four weeks behind Italy “in terms of the scale of the outbreak” if not “in terms of the response”. The following day, the government closed the majority of schools. The day after that, it closed all pubs, clubs, cafes and restaurants, pointing out that it had been asking the public to stop going out for quite a while.
On 21st March, the government announced that it had ‘struck a deal’ with the private sector to help fight coronavirus, with 20,000 more staff and 8,000 hospital beds being made available. Again, this seemed to have involved some negotiation.
On the 22nd of March, as the number of deaths caused by COVID-19 in the UK increased to 281, the shadow health secretary said that too many British people were “either confused by the government’s social distancing measures, or choosing to ignore them”. He was stating the obvious – that weekend, the shops, forests, parks and beaches of the UK were full of people behaving as though it were a public holiday. In London, people were cramming themselves into tube carriages shoulder-to-shoulder, apparently prioritising a speedy journey over a safe one (or refusing to believe that there was any danger at all).
It took until the morning of 23rd March just for McDonalds, Costa Coffee and Patisserie Valerie to stop selling takeaway food in the high street. At the time of writing, many large call centres will not allow their staff to work from home, some refusing to let their workers spread out their workstations and often failing to supply adequate hand sanitiser. Many of these entities are corporate giants, making billions of pounds a year, putting their profits before saving lives.
In my former home of Newcastle, coastal areas such as Tynemouth and Whitley Bay saw crowded beaches, queues for fish’n’chips, and drinkers spilling out into the streets as busy pubs continued to sell takeaway alcohol. On Facebook, young people were spreading conspiracy theories and attempting to organise secret parties, claiming that the virus is ‘man-made’ and that ‘the media are all in on it’.
On 24th March, Boris Johnson announced that people would no longer be allowed to leave their homes without a valid reason. These reasons include shopping for basic necessities, and travelling to and from work (if working in a job that absolutely cannot be done from home). He added that one form of outdoor exercise per day was allowed, including walking, and that this could be done with members of the same household. He also pointed out, apologetically, that this could be enforced by the Police, who had been given new powers to issue fines.
Playgrounds, libraries, churches and shops selling non-essential goods were told to close. The following morning, news media reported that Sports Direct and Evans Cycles, both owned by Mike Ashley, would be exempt from this. Consequently, their high street stores across the UK planned to stay open to the public, with a spokesperson claiming that they were providing ‘essential goods’ such as home exercise equipment. An email to workers claimed “The prime minister has openly recognised the importance of people staying active and exercising, provided they are doing so responsibly”. The swiftness of the email, and its tone of certainty, suggested that the company was not expecting resistance from the government. Following a public backlash, Ashley reversed the decision.
Even now, despite what ought to be glaringly obvious to any right-minded person, there are millions of people in the UK who would accuse me of being a scaremonger. Typically, the argument involves the parroting of some weak analysis from a pro-government UK media outlet about Italy’s much older population. Yes, it is true that 22% of Italy’s population are over the age of 65, and that is high. It is also true, however, that 18% of the UK population is in the same age bracket – the two countries are not worlds apart. Now consider Spain, where more than 2,200 people have died since the first case was recorded less than two months ago, and whose trajectory is almost identical to that of Italy. 17% of the Spanish population are over the age of 65; it has a lesser proportion of old people than that of the UK. Then there is Japan, which has the oldest population in the world, where 26% of the population are 65 or above. Yet just 41 people have died of COVID-19 in Japan since it discovered its first case on 16th January. Forty one people.
So far, the only approach that has been proven to work is that of the Asian countries (China in particular). This is hardly the time for experimentation. The strategy is very straightforward: widespread early-stage testing, immediate quarantining of the infected, and social distancing enforced by lockdown, all of which must be supported by a unified public. In other words, everything the UK has either not done, or has done too late, and which many British people still resist, despite being shown the terrible consequences of inaction.
In truth, the biggest danger the UK now faces is not the virus itself, but the wilful ignorance and selfishness of large numbers of its people, combined with the greed of its corporate leaders and the unwillingness of its politicians to bring down the hammer. Even as the Chinese repeatedly tell Europe what works (and the Italians show it what doesn’t) many British people refuse to face their darkest hour, burying their heads in the sand and depending on their government to lead them to sunlit uplands. Sadly, on the current trajectory, they are far more likely to be led into the abyss, pulling the selfless and the vulnerable in with them.
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