Coronavirus is a deadly wake-up call, writes historian DOMINIC SANDBROOK

One day, long after the worst of the coronavirus pandemic is behind us, historians may see the last few days as the moment when the world tumbled into the abyss.

On Thursday, the head of the World Health Organisation declared that mankind stood at a ‘decisive point’.

The world faced ‘a crisis, an epidemic that is coming,’ agreed France’s President Emmanuel Macron. ‘We know that we’re only at the beginning.’

He was right. Only a few hours after those words flashed around the world, stock markets began to crumble.

We pride ourselves on our supremacy over the natural world and our mastery of science. But as the last week has shown, our modernity has made us weaker than ever, writes Dominic Sandbrook (pictured are women wearing face masks in Milan)

By the end of play on Thursday, Wall Street’s Dow Jones index had suffered its greatest losses in history. 

And when Asian and European markets opened yesterday morning, share prices immediately began to plunge. Not since the financial crisis of 2008 has the outlook been bleaker.

But this, I fear, is in a different league altogether. As President Macron said, we are only at the beginning. And when you read about contingency plans for mass burials here in Britain — or about a potential nationwide death toll of at least 400,000 — it is hard not to feel a chill of foreboding.

Perhaps you think that sounds alarmist. If so, listen to the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty.

The coronavirus, he told health experts two days ago, now poses a major ‘problem for society’. Britain could face serious disruption ‘for quite a long period’. And to defeat it, we may have to pay a heavy ‘social cost’. His words came just hours before the first British coronavirus death was announced yesterday.

When I heard Professor Whitty’s words, my mind went back 36 years. I was nine years old, and I had just caught a glimpse of my parents’ copy of the new Radio Times. The cover showed a man in a tattered traffic warden uniform, his face half-masked by a bandage. He was carrying what looked like a submachine gun.

By the end of play on Thursday, Wall Street’s Dow Jones index had suffered its greatest losses in history (pictured traders at the opening bell on Friday)

By the end of play on Thursday, Wall Street’s Dow Jones index had suffered its greatest losses in history (pictured traders at the opening bell on Friday)

The image haunted me for days. Only later did I discover it was promoting the terrifying BBC drama series Threads, which depicted life in Britain during and after a nuclear war.

I have often thought of Threads since the coronavirus epidemic started. Of course the disease is not remotely comparable to the shock of a nuclear apocalypse, not least since the mortality rate appears to be relatively low.

Even so, how many people can honestly say that, in the dead of night, they have never stared up into the darkness, worrying about the future?

All too often, cocooned in the complacency of daily life, we forget that we are only a step or two from disaster.

A war, a nuclear accident, a natural catastrophe or, yes, a killer virus, and everything could change in an instant.

Indeed, the words with which Threads opens are even more telling now than they were back in 1984, when we lived in the shadow of nuclear Armageddon.

‘In an urban society,’ says a narrator, ‘everything connects. Each person’s needs are fed by the skills of many others. Our lives are woven together in a fabric. But the connections that make society strong also make it vulnerable.’

More than three decades on, those words have a chillingly prophetic ring.

Every day has brought a chilling new development, with more than 84,000 people infected across the planet by last night. It feels like the stuff of some terrifying apocalyptic blockbuster (professionals are seen disinfecting a subway station in South Korea)

Every day has brought a chilling new development, with more than 84,000 people infected across the planet by last night. It feels like the stuff of some terrifying apocalyptic blockbuster (professionals are seen disinfecting a subway station in South Korea)

Free trade, cheaper flights, globalisation and digital technology have brought us closer together than ever.

We live in an age of unparalleled sophistication, freedom and comfort. We pride ourselves on our supremacy over the natural world and our mastery of science.

But as the last week has shown, our very modernity has made us weaker than ever.

Only a few weeks after the first cases were reported in the Chinese city of Wuhan, the coronavirus has become a genuinely global scourge. Every day has brought a chilling new development, with more than 84,000 people infected across the planet by last night.

One moment you are reading about towns shut down in Northern Italy, or foreign pilgrims being turned away from Saudi Arabia.

The next, you hear that a primary school in Buxton has closed its doors, and that the Cabinet Office has contacted local authorities about ‘Excess Death Contingency Planning’, including possible sites for mass burials.

It feels like the stuff of some terrifying apocalyptic blockbuster. Yet in some corners of the world, such stories are nothing new.

A woman wearing a face mask on a bus in London, where the UK's 20th case is being treated

A woman wearing a face mask on a bus in London, where the UK’s 20th case is being treated

The UK's 20th coronavirus patient has been confirmed, marking the first case to have caught the infection on British soil

The UK’s 20th coronavirus patient has been confirmed, marking the first case to have caught the infection on British soil 

The Sars (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) virus outbreak killed 774 people in China in 2002 and 2003.

Mers (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) killed 525 people between 2012 and 2015, most of them in Saudi Arabia.

And Ebola killed more than 11,000 people in West Africa between 2013 and 2016.

It was easy for us to ignore these stories. After all, they seemed so far away, so remote from our everyday lives. Yet as anyone familiar with history will know, our sense of security was always an illusion.

You can easily tell the story of the past two thousand years, not as a saga of kings and battles, but as a succession of devastating pandemics.

By far the most infamous is the Black Death. Just like the coronavirus, it spread along global trade routes, the contagion seeping unstoppably across the map.

The coronavirus outbreak has devastated markets around the world with London, Frankfurt, Tokyo and Hong Kong all hit hard overnight on Thursday and on Friday morning

The coronavirus outbreak has devastated markets around the world with London, Frankfurt, Tokyo and Hong Kong all hit hard overnight on Thursday and on Friday morning

Health personnel check the temperatures of a guest leaving the H10 Costa Adeje Palace hotel in La Caleta, Tenerife today. British guests at the hotel were still in lockdown as of Friday

Health personnel check the temperatures of a guest leaving the H10 Costa Adeje Palace hotel in La Caleta, Tenerife today. British guests at the hotel were still in lockdown as of Friday

Although historians still argue about the details, it probably reached our shores in June 1348, when a merchant ship docked in Melcombe Regis, Dorset. Among its crew were a group of Gascon sailors who had fallen ill and had to be carried ashore.

On inspection, their bodies were found to be covered with black blotches, boils and ulcers under the arms and in the groin.

Within a few days the Gascons were dead. They had only just been buried when other sailors began to cough up blood.

And when they began dying, too, Melcombe folk began to worry. But it was too late. On Midsummer Eve, the first Melcombe patients died. The Black Death had claimed its first English victims. Even now, centuries later, it is a genuinely terrifying story. Like the coronavirus, the plague almost certainly originated in the world’s most populous country, China, and travelled across the world’s trading networks into Europe.

There was no cure. In Italy, recorded the poet Boccaccio, people ‘dropped dead in the open streets, both by day and by night’. As the graveyards filled up, the survivors dug deep trenches, in which corpses were piled ‘tier upon tier like ships’ cargo’. Today, when the Black Death has become the stuff of textbooks and exam papers, we have lost sight of what this actually meant.

SCHOOLS IN THE UK COULD BE CLOSED FOR TWO MONTHS TO CONTAIN THE KILLER CORONAVIRUS 

Emergency plans are being drawn up by health officials to contain the coronavirus, which could see schools closed for at least two months.

England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty revealed an unprecedented ban on large public gatherings could be required to fight a global pandemic.

The most extreme measure could be to mirror the decision to shut Japan’s entire school system, which will close from Monday for a month until April. 

A shutdown would see millions of parents, including key workers such as surgeons, nurses and paramedics, forced to stay at home to care for their children.

Professor Whitty admitted it is ‘just a matter of time’ until coronavirus spreads more widely and quicker through the UK.

The fightback could include ‘reducing mass gatherings and school closures’, with Premier League matches either under threat or played behind closed doors.

The London Marathon and the Grand National in April could also be at risk because of the large number of spectators.

And this summer’s Euro 2020 tournament, which is being played in cities across the continent including London, Glasgow and Rome is under review.

Theatre performances, gigs and music festivals such as Glastonbury could also be banned or pared back if the UK fails to get a grip on the crisis. 

In Europe as a whole, about a third of the population died. In London, roughly every second person died. In places such as Italy and the south of France, the death rate may have been as high as 80 per cent.

It is tempting, of course, to dismiss this as the kind of thing that happened during the dim and distant Middle Ages.

But we are deluding ourselves if we think modern medicine is an inviolable safeguard against the ravages of nature.

Modern medicine, after all, did nothing to protect our more recent forebears from the horrors of the ‘Spanish flu’ after World War I. (Incidentally, historians now think it began in Kansas, but because some of the first reports came from Spain, the Hispanic label has stuck.)

Again, the figures defy imagination. One in three people worldwide was infected, and the death toll came to somewhere between 50 million and 100 million, more than both world wars combined.

On current figures, the coronavirus is nowhere near as lethal — as long as it does not mutate, that is. Experts believe the mortality rate is between one and two per cent, although the WHO cautions that it is not known yet.

Even so, its repercussions could well be devastating, not merely for affected families, but for our economy, our politics and our entire way of life.

Just consider, for example, the economic impact so far, only a few weeks into what may prove a very long and deadly crisis.

Stock markets have just had their worst week for more than a decade. Oil prices have plunged by more than 10 per cent.

The epidemic in Lombardy seems almost certain to tip Italy’s economy into recession. Above all, China’s growth seems likely to fall by as much as half this year.

According to some experts, this would make life impossible for some of its major banks, which have taken on massive debts in the last few years. Even apparently trivial details tell the story. Coca-Cola has warned that stocks of Diet Coke may run dry, because the virus has disrupted supplies of its raw sweeteners.

And as the Mail reported, not only are dentists running out of surgical masks, but there is a shortage of wedding dresses in the UK and clothes manufacturers are running short of zips, which are largely produced in China.

Some of these may seem like little things. But little things add up; and in any case, some consequences may not be so little.

Even sober economists are now talking of a shock greater than the financial crisis of 2008. That could well send the entire world economy into recession, with unfathomable political repercussions.

The last downturn, after all, gave us austerity, Brexit and Donald Trump.

Throw millions of deaths into the mix — as well as massive social dislocation and authoritarian restrictions — and the consequences could be toxic indeed.

Contrary to what is often thought, pandemics do not bring people together. Human nature being as it is, people tend to lash out. They look for somebody to blame, from the political elite to vulnerable minorities.

People are seen leaving the Costa Adeje Palace hotel in La Caleta in Tenerife on Friday

People are seen leaving the Costa Adeje Palace hotel in La Caleta in Tenerife on Friday

During the Black Death, for example, there was a marked spike in attacks on beggars, pilgrims and gypsies.

Jews, in particular, were suspected of causing the plague by poisoning wells — precisely the kind of vicious conspiracy theory that you can imagine spreading on Twitter and Facebook today. From Toulon and Barcelona to Basel and Cologne, Jewish families were attacked and murdered.

In Strasbourg, some 2,000 Jews were burned alive in one of medieval Europe’s first major pogroms.

In England, meanwhile, the social and economic instability caused by the Black Death provoked the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, in which Wat Tyler led a mob into London, smashing, looting and burning. Although it was eventually put down, the death toll stretched into the thousands.

Even the flu epidemic of 1918 to 1920 had colossal social consequences. It undoubtedly contributed to the widespread paranoia and instability that followed World War I, shattering faith in the established order and pushing people towards the rival extremes of communism and fascism.

Grim stuff, then. So are there lessons we can learn?

One obvious point is that — while we are rightly urged not to panic — downplaying or censoring the truth is generally a very bad idea.

The first stages of the Spanish flu coincided with the final months of World War I, so newspapers and governments deliberately played it down.

As a result, thousands, perhaps even millions of people, probably died unnecessarily.

There is surely a moral there for secretive, authoritarian societies such as China and Iran. By and large, though, the striking thing is how few lessons we can learn — a depressing thought in itself.

Does quarantine work, for example? Not necessarily. During the flu pandemic, Australia, which had strict quarantine regulations, suffered more losses, proportionally, than New Zealand, which did not.

The truth is that although we can take every possible precaution, viruses will always be with us. Falling ill is part of being human.



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