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A Journal Of The Plague Year. The politics of Covid-19

February 19th, 2020

If you aren’t worried, you haven’t been paying attention.  Recent outbreaks of contagious illnesses – SARS, Ebola, bird flu – have been contained fairly efficiently.  So, many have assumed that the same will apply to the coronavirus Covid-19. That’s not inevitable.  

On such occasions, everyone becomes an instant expert in epidemiology.  Let’s try to avoid that and concentrate on what we do, and more importantly, don’t know.  We don’t know with any reliability how many cases there are now (China seems overwhelmed by the epidemic), we don’t know with any reliability how the numbers of cases grew over time, so we don’t know how infectious the disease is, nor how lethal it is.  We do know that it has now repeatedly spilled over the Chinese borders and we do have anecdotal evidence that it can be easily transmitted. Both Japan and Singapore are currently struggling to stop Covid-19 going wild. On a cruise ship, 454 out of 3,700 passengers have been infected so far.  That does not augur well for the hopes of wrapping this up quickly.

So we should prepare ourselves for the likelihood that this epidemic will become a pandemic.  Others will look at the public health implications. There are political implications too.

Best case

Covid-19 is brought under early control as before without spreading much further.  Even in this best case, China’s economy is going to have been seriously disrupted for a period of months and a series of other countries are going to have taken stringent precautions that will have had a substantial impact on them culturally and economically.  

On this outcome, Britain gets off quite lightly, though it may suffer a bit of collateral economic damage.  China seems to have taken extreme measures to control the spread of the virus and this is likely to have had major social and economic effects.  Those are likely to ripple out to Britain at some point. 

The disruption may lead to less enthusiasm for “just in time” models of commerce, as the risks of it not being alright on the night become more obvious.  This might lead to a repatriation of some business activities over time. As a whole, however, the impact on this scenario is essentially temporary or second order for Britain.

From a non-expert viewpoint, this looks possible, but it is far from a done deal.

Medium case

If Covid-19 has reached escape velocity internationally, as seems very possible, things get a lot hairier.  Even if it proves to be capable of being contained and at the milder end of current expectations, health services are going to be put under strain across the world and social orders are going to change, at least temporarily.

The economic disruption is likely to be substantial if this happens.  Supply lines would be seriously disrupted. Goods would become unpredictably unavailable.  Globalisation would, at least temporarily, be thrown into reverse.

The public is already – rightly – concerned.  It may start to panic. The effects of any panic are hard to predict.  

The trend to remote working and travelling less would be given a powerful push.  That in turn might make big transport infrastructure projects look like extravagant luxuries.

Culture will be seriously affected even if Covid-19 is at the mild end of expectations, if it spreads widely.  One Grand Prix has already been postponed and a second looks at risk. Right now, even the Olympics look in serious jeopardy.  They were last cancelled in 1944, at the height of the Second World War. Concerts, festivals and theatres look very vulnerable to a concerted outbreak – even if they still take place, who is going to want to go out to catch an unpleasant and perhaps lethal disease?

Covid-19 may well be temporary but its impact may be permanent.  Many cultural organisations are run on a hand-to-mouth basis already.  A sudden shock to cashflows may be terminal.

Politically, it would be difficult for the government.  The NHS has been creaking for years and the government has put protecting it at the heart of its policy.  This kind of strain would be likely to lead to serious disruption of it. In the short term at least, the public would probably be unforgiving of major lapses.

Set against that, it would be a first post-Brexit event that would allow the country to move on.  How it would move on, however, would remain to be seen.

Worst case

It’s not yet at all clear that Covid-19 is going to be particularly mild.  We have yet to establish reliably how dangerous it is. If it started to kill people in the millions, and that remains possible, it would become one of those cultural discontinuities like the fall of the Berlin Wall or 9/11, a before-and-after event.  Even those who had not been infected would be mentally scarred.

Right now we are at a crisis in the true sense of the word, a moment when we do not know which course a disease is going to take.  The stakes are very high indeed. Those of us who are not experts must hope that those who are find a way to keep Covid-19 tamed. The alternatives are just awful.

Alastair Meeks