Post-war social touchstones – true, not a phrase that can be easily tossed into a conversation; but they pepper works of fiction set in the recent past, acting as authentic anchors around which dramas unfold. Whenever a TV series is set in 1970s Britain, for example, chances are the characters will react to the Three Day Week or the Drought Summer or the Silver Jubilee or the Winter of Discontent. We’ve all seen ‘em. When these key events are used as a backdrop, they root the fictional elements in a recognisable reality that makes the story more believable; they also provide viewers who lived through them with instant personal associations and those who didn’t with an education. If the UK is destined to shortly parallel the unique lockdown Italy is currently experiencing, we may well be on the eve of a post-war social touchstone that will be recycled by future dramatists for decades to come.
Coronavirus has already become the first ‘plague’ of the social media age, so its impact as a subject for pass-the-parcel discourse far outweighs its actual threat as a killer; there have been far more devastating and more genuine claimants to the prestigious status of ‘plague’ in Africa, India and the Middle East over the past decade, but now that the coronavirus has hit the West, it’s officially serious because everyone has the luxury to talk about it. China, with its censorious approach to the internet and habit of rationing the dissemination of information to the masses, can’t compete when it comes to Europe and North America as to how this thing is being reported by expert and amateur alike. The extent of the coverage would appear to equate with the seriousness of the virus, though perhaps that’s not strictly true.
Had social media existed in the age of the Black Death, not only would it probably have rebranded the disease ‘People of Colour Death’, but the colossal body-count each outbreak left in its wake would have no doubt led to the few survivors dying of hyperventilation, so giddy would they be to witness Armageddon in person. Mind you, social media’s veteran sibling has been having fun lately too. The stock market tumble provoked by a fuel feud between Russia and Saudi Arabia was bad timing when placed in an already-existing climate of panic; but what a gift for the MSM that timing was! With the official departure from the EU just over a month ago proving to be such a damp squib, Fleet Street and the Beeb must have been rubbing their soapy hands together at the prospect of a new ingredient to be added to the ‘we’re all going to die’ recipe.
Giving so much extensive attention to a virus that could well turn out to be merely an additional seasonal infection can naturally be counterproductive; it gets to the point where the media’s melodramatic perspective is so pervasive that whenever I hear the word ‘coronavirus’ now, I almost expect it to come accompanied by those thundering drums that introduce the BBC news headlines. If viewed dispassionately, the small number of deaths associated with the virus could be seen as a secondary issue in terms of the chaos coronavirus is capable of unleashing; the fear of coronavirus becomes disproportionate to its lethal properties, and panic rooted in ignorance could prove to be the greatest strain on NHS resources as idiots believe the hype and the genuinely at-risk don’t receive the care their condition warrants as a result. The otherwise healthy who awake one day with the sniffles should be able to employ common sense and not rush to their local GPs surgery or A&E in hysterics; but social demographics play a part as well.
The self-isolation advice is fine if you’re in a job that provides sick pay or you can afford to bulk-buy online; but anyone struggling on benefits or on the minimum wage, whose shopping is done at the nearest food-bank or bargain supermarket, probably has no option but to continue venturing into crowded public spaces. Yes, it’s debatable whether the deaths of those who contracted the virus on British soil can be solely attributed to it; all fatalities appear to have been elderly people in a state of poor health, ones who tested positive and then died with the virus rather than because of it. But that fact doesn’t really fit the narrative that provokes panic buying. At the same time, however, it’s interesting that these deaths have almost been written off as not very important.
There seem to be echoes here of the way in which the mid-80s hysteria surrounding AIDS offered solace to the straight by being labelled ‘the gay plague’, i.e. only them poofs have anything to worry about whilst the rest of us can carry on indulging in unprotected intercourse to our libido’s content. We’re told coronavirus will probably be a fatal infection for just 2% of the population; yeah, tough on that 2%, but if you’re not in a position to indefinitely self-isolate, you’re probably poor, old and ill and will die soon anyway – just like the 50,000 who snuffed it in England and Wales during the winter of 2017/18 via respiratory infections compounded by bogstandard flu. And, lest we forget, care workers entrusted to keep an eye on this vulnerable 2% are only engaged in ‘unskilled work’, after all, so it doesn’t really matter.
The first football fixture has now been postponed as a result of the coronavirus issue, though that cancellation had nothing to do with thousands of supporters crammed into the stands and posing the potential threat of mass infection. According to reports, several Arsenal players met and shook hands with the owner of Greek club Olympiakos following last month’s Europa League game; Evangelos Marinakis has since contracted the virus, prompting the Arsenal players who touched him to self-isolate and the club to call off tonight’s match with Manchester City as a precautionary measure. Otherwise, wider precautionary measures mirroring Italy’s lockdown aren’t that evident.
The shelves of the supermarkets in my neighbourhood, for example, appear remarkably well-stocked at the moment, and I can’t quite understand it. It’s almost as though TV crews and press photographers remove remaining goods from the shelves they choose to shoot before setting their cameras up; staging that crucial shot just before the store shuts at the end of a day in which a fair few articles have been sold helps, but perhaps those shelves need a helping hand to illustrate the scale of the panic. Imagine that – a bit of manual manipulation! Mind you, it’s probably necessary, what with cameras being the technological heirs of George Washington’s childhood honesty.
Chances are the majority of us will get through this as unscathed as we were before it began, though the thought that a media desperate to generate panic in order to boost its own fading powers might actually be contributing towards a ‘crisis’ when a teacup storm would suffice is concerning. I can’t help but be reminded of the old adage often wheeled out by the middle-aged many years ago whenever ‘the youth of today’ were proving to be problematic: ‘What they need is a good war to sort them out!’ That’s the yardstick by which the mainstream media generally measures its own relevance; and in the absence of conflict, a virus will have to represent what the likes of Hitler or Nasser or Saddam Husain or Bin Laden once gave a face to. So, be careful out there. In fact, don’t go out there. You might catch something…
© The Editor