Early Thoughts on a Pandemic

As I write this, I’m sat in the kitchen drinking coffee on the second day of my self-isolation. Things are quiet. I’m lucky enough to be able to do some work from home, but some writing work is drying up. For some reason, people don’t seem keen to read articles recommending the most beautiful beaches in Spain right now. There’s a palpable sense of anxiety both in the house and out in the world. In this post, I’ll try to give some summation of my thoughts and feelings, as well as my (hopefully) informed view of where we’re at and what I believe we can expect.

Is This Real?

It was just a few weeks ago that the trickle of information coming out of China turned into, if not a flood, perhaps a moderate stream. Around this time, I began taking an active interest in coronavirus news stories. Like many, I have no background or particular interest in epidemiology, and I had other things on my mind. But as the stories became more and more dramatic, I started to wonder, ‘Is this real?’

The question makes more sense than you might think. First, it tends to pay off to be sceptical, even actively mistrustful, of the media. Remember all those journalists breathlessly tweeting about an aide to former Conservative health secretary Matt Hancock being punched outside a hospital? And remember how video evidence revealed this story to be a fabrication? This is just one small recent example.

Second, we’d seen overblown public health concerns a few times in my lifetime. Bird flu, swine flu, and, most embarrassing of all, ebola. In the latter case, elements of the media cynically seized on an outbreak of the horrifying disease in West Africa, inciting a lot of fear (and more than a little xenophobia) among mostly white residents of Western countries, only to drop the story once it ceased to be profitable and switch back to its preferred policy of studiously ignoring any and all human tragedies that befall people away from the Western world.

Combine these elements, along with the distasteful tinge of ‘yellow panic’ that accompanied some early takes on events in China, and I had more than enough reason to doubt that there was much of anything to this novel coronavirus. Even when it became clear that the infection had gone global, there didn’t seem too much to distinguish this from any of the previous panics cited above.

But the infection rate kept increasing.

Alarm and Alarmism

It was this simple fact that convinced me that, yes, this was real. Graphs showing the number of cases started to look more and more like exponential growth.

For instance, here’s some of the early data from China:

Pretty soon, I started thinking about the implications of that rate of growth. Add in an excellent Twitter thread on what these numbers might mean, and I realised that this was not only real, but potentially devastating. I did some very basic calculations based on the then-current rate of UK infections, and discovered that, absent some serious change, the country was in danger of running out of hospital beds in the coming months.

Of course, there was little I could really do about this. I talked to people about it where possible, made a few posts on social media, and mostly let it lie. I read articles and interviews and listened to podcasts wherever I could, just trying to keep up to date on this.

Then, the stores started to run out of toilet roll. Let’s leave aside what, if anything, this says about the mentality of the great British public (by contrast, Americans have been stockpiling guns; the Dutch, weed). It clearly demonstrated that a significant number of people were having trouble calibrating their response to this.

It’s one thing to spread information, and quite another to shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre. The metaphor is overused, but the point stands: it was and is crucial to be as accurate as possible in communicating information on this, and to make sure our reactions make sense.

Given that the overall threat is not a dire and immediate need to shit but the very real prospect that the healthcare system will be overwhelmed and supplies of essential hygeine and health products disturbed, fortifying ourselves behind carboard tubes and paper sheets seems something less than a sound strategy.

When ‘Led by Donkeys’ is Too Kind

All this brings us to today, where I’m still wrestling with the question of how to encourage rational concern while avoiding panic. People in my life range from those who see this as nothing to be concerned about and refuse to alter their lifestyles at all to those who are deeply anxious about their own wellbeing.

What makes all this worse, though, is that this isn’t my job. As mentioned, I have no background in infectious disease research. My education is in history and politics, and I teach both. But I am drastically out of my depth when it comes to addressing this issue.

So, why am I doing so? Why am I writing this piece, beyond being a bored white man with an internet connection and little else to do?

Because our government isn’t being straight with us. We need only look at its disastrous misapplication of the phrase ‘herd immunity’ to evidence this lack of communication. Whether the root cause is incompetence or malice is beside the point. To the best of my understanding, the government appears to be gambling with our health, betting the farm (or the pharm, if tortured healthcare puns are your thing) on some controversial behavioural assumptions produced by a small group of economists.

Set up in 2010 by the coalition government and part-privatised in 2014, the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), or ‘nudge unit’, have been behind some of post-2010 Tory regime’s (or, more accurately, regimes’) greatest hits. Here comes a public health strategy from the same people who brought you personal commitment devices in job centres, revised benefit sanctions for the disabled, and GPs encouraged to prescribe work coaches to disabled patients.

Consider your thoughts on these projects the next time someone tells you to put faith in your government because, despite contradictory advice from the World Health Organization (WHO) and far stronger practices from nearly every other affected country, those in charge in the United Kingdom are ‘listening to the experts’.

It’s crucial, now more than ever, that we approach press conferences and headlines with informed scepticism and a critical attitude. Worse, though, the burden now falls upon us to take adequate social distancing measures. If you can work from home, do so. If you can pull your kids out of school, do so. If you can avoid going out, do so. You’ll be doing immeasurable good for those who can’t.

Most importantly, take this seriously. And don’t wait for government to save you.

For an excellent piece on the potential impact this virus could have, click through to this article that you’ve almost certainly read already: https://medium.com/@tomaspueyo/coronavirus-act-today-or-people-will-die-f4d3d9cd99ca

For some helpful, if somewhat contradictory, advice on self-isolation, see here: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/amp.theatlantic.com/amp/article/607927/?fbclid=IwAR0tj_88kQRsfKVhAyi50jwLCviLWm7d-41M6BzuFLThw2LCyrA5JVRpEM8

For the UK government’s utter failure to communicate clearly and honestly, The Atlantic again has your back: https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2020/03/coronavirus-pandemic-herd-immunity-uk-boris-johnson/608065/

Finally, for some serious criticisms of the UK strategy, as far as a strategy could be identified on Sunday 15 March, see here: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/mar/15/uk-covid-19-strategy-questions-unanswered-coronavirus-outbreak

Alex left Oxford University in 2015 with a degree and depression. Now he teaches, writes, and tries to play music.

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