It’s not often that you get the feeling that you are living through a historic moment – that your present reality is a defining period which will shape the world for generations to come and be etched into the national psyche along with events such as WWII. Yet it feels as if we are in the midst of one of those rare times right now, as the coronavirus pandemic unfolds. One can imagine the frustration of future school children as they struggle to cram dates and R numbers and death tolls and the ‘Cummings affair’ into their brains before their history exams. But are we being caught up in the heat of the moment? Will future historians, with a broader perspective that incorporates past events and pandemics, judge our response to coronavirus to have been a panicked overreaction?
It’s easy to see why one might reach this conclusion. It goes without saying that every death from coronavirus is a tragedy and that horrific suffering has occurred. However on the academic rather than human level, when compared with other pandemics the loss of life caused by coronavirus is relatively small. At the time of writing there have been just over 430,000 deaths worldwide, although a BBC News report estimates that the true death toll is closer to 700,000 and still rising. However, even when we take this into account, there have been at least five disease outbreaks with higher death tolls than coronavirus in the past century alone (AIDS, 1968 Hong Kong flu, 1957 Asian flu, 1918-22 Russian typhus and 1917-20 Spanish flu).
Coronavirus is dwarfed by the death tolls of the deadliest of these pandemics. The WHO estimates that over 30 million lives have been lost to the HIV/AIDS pandemic and even this pales in comparison to the Spanish flu, which devastated the world. South Africa lost 6% of its population in 6 weeks to the Spanish flu and around 22% of the Western Samoan population died within a month. With around 50 million deaths (and some putting the number as high as 100 million), 1-6% of the world’s population was wiped out. This scale of loss is unimaginable when we realise that the current coronavirus death toll is less than 0.01% of the global population. Events further back in history like the Black Death are in a league of their own: Europe was decimated, losing 30-60% of its population.
Thus, coronavirus as a pandemic appears to be a relative minnow. Yet the economic cost has been immense in comparison with previous financial crises. The UK economy shrank by 20% in April – this is the biggest fall the UK has ever seen according to BBC News. Even during the Great Recession of 2008/9 the economy never shrank by more than 1% in a month, with a total decline of 6.9%. This has had severe impacts on the real world. In the US, unemployment reached almost 15% in April and 36 million filed for unemployment benefits – numbers which are likely to grow. This is in comparison to a 10% unemployment rate in 2009 when the US economy was at its nadir and a maximum level of 25% during the Great Depression according to The Balance.com.
One prediction we can make therefore is that 2020 may be remembered as the year of the “corona-crash” and economic turmoil rather than the “corona-virus” and a health disaster. Consequently, the question raised by some is whether it was necessary to inflict such economic damage. Clearly the question is misleading to some extent as a more restrained response would have allowed many more deaths, but it is still worth asking, in the words of Donald Trump, whether we have let “the cure be worse than the problem.”
Cast your mind back to late 2019. What would your reply have been to the following question: “In a few months you will be limited to your house except for essential excursions and over a third of the global population will be locked down in this way. Every sports event, music festival and religious service will be cancelled for months on end. Schools will be shut and flights grounded. What could cause this?” My guess would probably be nuclear war, possibly an environmental disaster on an unprecedented scale. Maybe a pandemic which threatens humanity’s very existence. Perhaps my mind would jump to more apocalyptic and extra-terrestrial thoughts – a meteor strike, an alien invasion. But a virus with a death rate estimated to be between 0.1 and 0.5%? Really?
And yet I think we can be proud of our heavy-handed response. Coronavirus is deceptively small in relation to its impacts – it seems like our Goliath of a society, with all its global institutions, medical advances and communications technology, has been felled by a humble pebble. Although this ‘humble pebble’ would have become far more deadly had we prioritised the economy, coronavirus is still a storm that humanity could have weathered. If society were a body, we could probably have soldiered through with only the loss of a few body parts which some would have judged ‘expendable’. But this is not what happened – society as whole chose to be brought to its knees for the sake of those parts which were at risk. We chose to go down together and refused to sacrifice the elderly and the vulnerable on the altar of the economy.
This decision to protect human life ‘whatever the cost’ has been met by resistance in some quarters. Calls from certain politicians to get people “back to work” and an eagerness to get “the country opened up and raring to go by Easter” exemplify this. Donald Trump has not hidden his frustration with the economic cost of lockdown, arguing that “we lose thousands and thousands of people a year to the flu, we don’t turn the country off every year.”
Regardless of whether those advocating a more moderate response were motivated by a desire to prioritise the economy or a conviction that a recession will genuinely lead to more deaths than will be saved by lockdown, these views have been rejected by society more broadly. There was outrage after Glenn Beck, a radio host and political commentator, said on air that people should keep going in to work to “keep this economy going” and be willing to sacrifice themselves. Even in the US, where there have been numerous anti-lockdown protests, a poll by YouGov/Yahoo News showed that only 22% of the population supported anti-lockdown protests and just 29% wanted the country to reopen “as soon as possible to prevent further economic damage”. The fact that a mere 7% believed policy should be guided by economists and business leaders over health officials demonstrates that the health of at-risk groups comes before economic interests.
Similarly, Opinium’s poll of the UK showed that, even after over a month of lockdown, 81% of Britons opposed reopening pubs and only 17% favoured reopening schools – the public did not regret the choice to give up their freedoms for the sake of the few. It goes without saying that the response of many governments, especially the UK’s, has often been chaotic and inconsistent and a day of reckoning will come when the failings in care homes and PPE shortages will be exposed and condemned. We may even conclude eventually that it would have been more prudent to follow the Swedish model and heed Mr Trump’s warnings of an overzealous reaction – only time will tell.
But for the moment, let us take comfort from the fact that – in an age where governments pride themselves on their economic growth, where GDP and employment rates reign supreme – we have not completely lost sight of the sanctity of human life. The words of Andrew Cuomo hold true for many: “we will not put a dollar figure on human life […] no-one should be talking about social Darwinism for the sake of the stock market.”
In March 2020, much of the world faced a stark choice between losing a huge number but a small percentage of our populations or suffering one of the worst economic crashes in history. We selected the latter. As in Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade, despite our often blundering leaders we have charged for the guns of joblessness, poverty and lost savings (although these hardships will be felt more keenly by those less fortunate than myself). Nevertheless, we have pressed on, sometimes complaining and digging our heels in as we flirt with ideas like herd immunity, but overall advancing further into this “mouth of hell”. Like the Charge of the Light Brigade, our response may have been foolish – it’s too early to say. But it is reassuring that we still haven’t wholly lost sight of the value of human life, a thought to treasure as we now begin to restart the economy.