Aha! You thought I was dead, didn’t you – claimed by the same virus that will kill us all in the end. Welcome to Project Fear II: Corona. Pity the manufacturers of a once-popular fizzy pop, for what Brexit failed to achieve, the brand from Wuhan will manage – that’s if we as a people are determined to engineer a self-fulfilling prophesy. At the time of writing, there are over 160 confirmed cases in the UK and there have so far been two fatalities (the second yet to be confirmed). These are the times when rolling news channels get erections and Fleet Street ups the hysteria ante to temporarily arrest declining sales. The empty supermarket shelves and cleaned-out chemists we’d been promised when we exited the EU didn’t materialise, so it’s time to do our patriotic duty and ensure there isn’t enough loo roll to go round.
To backtrack a little, around 15-20 years ago I used to do bits of shopping for a couple of elderly ladies; one of them had a fairly rigid list that always included boiled ham and pink salmon. I remember returning with her carrier bags one week and said old lady placed the two fresh tins of the aforementioned fish in her pantry, revealing at least a dozen already stacked in there; I think she had more stashed away in that pantry than the local Co-Op could boast. Why there was such a need to stock-up on pink salmon was beyond me – I felt it impolite to ask; but this was panic buying on a small scale, a compulsion to purchase which was driven by personal idiosyncratic fears rather than responding to media soothsayers. The stock market didn’t plummet, no airlines went into administration, and no James Bond movies were postponed because Miss Henry felt she had to a have a pantry with enough pink salmon to see her through till Doomsday.
As has already been pointed out elsewhere, deaths from respiratory diseases linked to bog-standard seasonal influenza number between 290,000 and 650,000 worldwide every year; but the humble flu isn’t really a ‘sexy’ plague and is such a commonplace part of the annual changing of the seasons that it doesn’t provoke panic in quite the same way as a mysterious new virus from the Orient. Because the hyper-sensitive Chinese government are so accustomed to telling their people as little as possible, the coronavirus was able to spread with ease as an ignorant populace was caught by surprise; by the time they received the facts, it was too late to save over 3,000 lives and too late to save it being carried to China’s Far East neighbours. Air travel then aided the virus’s transmission around the world before the panic stations button was pressed.
A virus that appears to pose the most threat to the aged and those who already suffer from weak health doesn’t really warrant the wide-scale closing of schools or the banning of large gatherings, such as football matches. From what I can gather, the coronavirus also has a conveniently long incubation period – an average of 14 days – which provides plenty of prior warning, a bit like those courtesy calls the IRA used to make to the authorities in advance of a bomb exploding in a public place. Latest stats claim the mortality rate of the coronavirus is 1% or lower; it is estimated even the most at-risk age group, the over-80s, can look forward to a 90% recovery rate.
Coronavirus is the kind of ‘plague’ that will only kill large numbers in countries where either poor sanitation is predominant for the closely-huddled masses or a secretive government is reluctant to dispense advice and information to its people; I can’t quite work out what Italy’s excuse is. The only people I’ve so far seen on the streets in surgical masks have been a group of Chinese students, who were perhaps wary of invoking the ire of the crowd that believes everything it is told and is looking for someone to blame. Still, you’d think the number of cancelled flights would bring a smug smile to the sullen faces of Climate Change salesmen and women, but no; scowling little Greta is still at it, giving the world’s children sleepless nights as she preaches hellfire and damnation from her global pulpit. Some people are never satisfied.
Wash your hands and sneeze into a handkerchief. Cheers for that; now I need to check the nearest Sainsbury’s hasn’t run out of eggs for my grandmother to suck. For some reason, I tend to have a habit of washing my hands whenever I’ve exchanged change with a shop assistant as soon as I return home; maybe it’s just me, but I’m acutely conscious that this person might have just spent a penny and exited the staff toilets without their fingers and palms having come into contact with soap and water afterwards. Maybe it’s a legacy of my mother’s dire warnings whenever I sighted a stray sweet on the pavement as a child – ‘Don’t pick it up! A dog might have weed on it!’ And I’ve never been one of those for whom a strip of scrunched-up kitchen roll will suffice as a snot-rag of several days’ duration; as all gentlemen should, I own a wide range of handkerchiefs.
I often wonder if the closure of the Central Office of Information in 2011 was one of the Coalition Government’s most unfairly overlooked acts of austerity cost-cutting. Producers of endless public information films beginning in the late 40s and reaching a golden age in the 1970s, the COI taught us to look both ways when crossing the road, not to talk to strangers, not to throw bangers, and not to play near water without being able to swim. Like most children of the 70s, I was successfully persuaded into observing the dos and don’ts of the public information films through being scared half to bloody death; it was a tough-love form of education, but I reckon it pretty much worked. The fact that one of the key dispensers of advice on public health issues has been absent for a decade – and one which did so in an ingenious way that imprinted itself on the collective memory – might explain why such basic and bleedin’ obvious tips are now being given when they should be a given.
I guess I’m lucky in that I’m the sole occupant of my own confined space and I’m not cooped-up with the germs of others for eight hours a day; I do the majority of my shopping online and the last time I was physically ill, it occurred the day after a visit to my local GPs surgery – which had involved a half-hour stint in a crowded waiting room. Therefore, I can see the sense in avoiding claustrophobic environments in which one is cheek-by-jowl with strangers. Unfortunately, many have no option; they have to endure stuffy workplaces or commute on crammed public transport to get to and from them. And they enjoy shopping and socialising. Sometimes, being on the outside looking in has its advantages.
© The Editor