The atmosphere in the paper shop was subdued this morning. I tried a bit of cheery banter, as you do in a war situation. The headlines screamed: ‘Most frail will not get elderly care,’ ‘Police get special powers to deal with victims,’ worse, the Sun ratcheted up alarm with: ‘New born baby has virus,’ with photo of an unrelated infant screaming its head off.
We are now involved in a very strange war against a virus brought to us because someone in a Chinese city sat down to eat Pteropus medius, a fruit bat, which went on to bite a pangolin, an endangered species also seen as a tea-time treat. As a result we are all dashing for the bunkers and contracting a compulsion to buy loo paper.
We should be used to devastating viruses by now. Spanish flu arrived through the port of Glasgow in May 1918 and people just had to keep calm and carry on as 100 million world- wide curled up in their beds and died, including Gustav Klimt, and German American businessman Frederick Trump, grandfather of Donald. We’ve had HIVAIDS, (from consumption of non-human primates) Swine Flu in 2009, with half a million global fatalities, 30,000 cases and nearly 500 deaths in the UK. We also been harbouring two other Coronaviruses. Firstly SARS with a 2.3% death rate, brought to us by Civet cat, the main ingredient in ‘dragon-tiger-phoenix soup,’ popular with wealthy Chinese in Guangdong.
(Before accusations of ‘racism’ for mentioning this, in 2003 Prof. Yuen Kwok-Yung, a Hong Kong microbiologist screened large numbers of civets and found they were carrying a coronavirus that caused SARS. He said the virus could have jumped into humans as they raised, slaughtered and cooked them.)
Secondly, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). At the end of January 2020, 2,519 cases of MERS were confirmed globally, with 866 deaths, none in the UK so we have ignored it despite a fatality rate of 34.3% compared to COVID-19 with an average death rate of 3%, 3.8% in China. Then there’s good old winter flu which kills ten times the number. Public Health England estimates on average, in a good year, kills 17,000 people. No one bothers about that and British people under sixty, without weak hearts or congested lungs have very little risk of dying from the new virus. If 80% catch it the entire population (herd) will be immunised and older people will be safe by mid-summer.
Twenty- one people in the UK have died from the new virus at time of writing, all with pre-existing illnesses. Yet we are floundering in an almighty pan-panic driven by social media pouring out terrifying ‘facts’ including ‘remedies’ and news bulletins giving a litany of international deaths, like something from the Black Death. We now demand to know everything but getting information to the public now has to be negotiated against the all- powerful Data Protection Act, a particularly hysterical bit of legislation based on anxiety.
Fear is also increasing because this virus has no vaccine. This somewhat selfish hysteria is well suited to an increasingly Narcissistic society where illness and risk are considered anomalous rather than normal. The current frenzy is surely the culmination of years of increasing anxiety from people who’ve never been healthier, better fed or safer.
Deaths from infectious diseases in England and Wales dropped from 25.9% of all deaths in 1911 to 0.7% of all deaths in 2013. The predominant cause of death by 1950 was non-communicable disease. Any challenge to that, even the idea of death in old age is now considered outrageous.
Educated middle-class women in particular, succumbing to what was once called hypochondria now conveniently renamed, ‘Health Anxiety,’ have backed away from the medical science, preferring dotty remedies.
Nearly nine million in the UK, are part of a global Gluten Free products market, valued at $ 4.35 billion in 2018, expected to reach nearly eight billion dollars by 2026. Yet only one percent of people are genuinely coeliac in the US and UK. This terror of harmless nutrients has even created a market for gluten free cat food, worth $2.9 billion in 2018, a 9.6% growth over the previous year. We’re now sold fear as a commodity, in packets.
The current scare is about changes in our culture also be related to social media. We’re all Americans now. Where we used to sedately, ‘have a temperature’ we now have ‘fever’ bringing to mind Mississippi swamps. American friends used to amuse me with their ever- ready thermometers and hourly temperature readings for every day that they had a cold. We follow them in a consumer demand for diagnosis and cure for what were once seen as ordinary conditions, such as inattention and bad manners in schoolchildren which are medicalised and treated with powerful drugs.
We’ve swapped hardy self – control for the ostentatious sharing of symptoms with accompanying virtue signalling precautions and restrictions. Many older Britons, brought up in homes where mollycoddling was unknown have been baffled by seeing children indulged and kept cocooned inside. It’s interesting to see journalists tweeting that they don’t know how to stop their 80- year-old parents from shopping, accusing them to treating the situation, ‘like seasonal flu.’ Which of course it is, unless you are already ill.
Yet increasing self-sufficiency is require as changes in state provision, on the American model, mean the state has withdrawn leaving people feeling increasingly unprotected. As health-care declines there is an increasing panic about the choices people make which might lead to obesity and alcoholism, and we may have already started to see old age as a kind of moral failing too. It’s no coincidence that most deaths from the new virus have been in care-homes where the elderly are packed away out of sight. If only they were dying, as they do every winter, and there was a vaccine for the rest of us it’s unlikely that we’d be discussing Corinovirus at all.
Singapore, the society which most resembles the UK of the 1950s, with its small, cohesive population and social conformity, has been prepared for epidemics since SARS and dealt with the new epidemic calmly and effectively. Nearly two hundred were infected but none have died. We can never emulate them but this may be a good time to reflect on the kind of society we want to have when this disruption is over, and if it leads to an end to bats and civet cats ending up in Chinese soup – bring it on.