I’ve held off writing anything about the Coronavirus crisis until now. This is partly down to having other stuff to do, and partly because things are moving so fast at the moment, it’s hard to see beyond the latest headline. But as we’re all going to have more time to read stuff in the coming weeks and months, it’s irresistible for someone who has an urge to write, as I do, not to do so. I’ll try and avoid writing anything hysterical or just adding to the existing maelstrom of anxiety.
Where did it all start? Coronaviruses such as SARS and SARS 2 aka Covid-19, appear to live, under normal circumstances, in Horseshoe Bats and Pangolins (a kind of scaly Anteater) in South-East Asia. The closely related MERS is a virus which lives in Dromedaries in the Arabian peninsula. It looks like a precursor to Covid-19 passed from Pangolins in the Chinese medicine/wild meat trade, to humans some time last year. The precursor then mutated into Covid-19, such that it could very effectively infect humans – and the pandemic was born. Researchers were already studying a very diverse set of Coronaviruses in Pangolins last year, before the pandemic began in China. But there’s no evidence that the virus is genetically engineered or escaped from a lab.
There’s a massive illegal trade in Pangolins to provide meat and scales to the mainly Chinese market, particularly for Chinese medicine. So it’s a fairly straightforward fact that the wildlife trade in general and the trade supplying Chinese herbal medicine specifically, caused this virus to infect humans. Some have sought to exploit this fact to blame China and even seek reparations for the economic impact.
This would open up a very large can of infected worms. Would the surviving indigenous peoples of the Americas claim reparations against unspecified European nations for unwittingly bringing smallpox to them, which wiped out millions? There’s even some evidence that it was deliberately used as a genocidal weapon against indigenous peoples in North America. Let’s set aside such ill conceived and inflammatory suggestions and ignore their writers. Remember these are the same people who wanted Brexit, to break free from the chains of oppression created by the EU; who wanted to shrink the size of the state, remove all but the flimsiest of safety nets and place all our faith in the markets.
Talking of markets….no, let’s leave that till later.
Covid-19 has spread like wildfire, as other pandemics have before it. the 1918 Influenza pandemic was spread around the world by soldiers, initially from the US to France during the final year of the First World War; then as those soldiers returned home. My Australian granny caught it when she was 18 and obviously survived otherwise I wouldn’t be here to write this. It spread more slowly in the age before air travel.
The 2009 swine flu epidemic spread much more rapidly, as a result of air travel. I can remember our eldest daughter being sick in a Heathrow baggage collection hall, after picking up swine flu on a trip to Vienna, poor thing. The virus was widespread by then, I hasten to add. This is different. This isn’t flu. The reason the swine flu pandemic fizzled out was because a significant chunk of the global population already had some immunity to it. No-one has any immunity to covid-19 – and we don’t even know if anyone, who’s already had it, has gained immunity to it for the future yet. It might, like seasonal flu, mutate again and again.
How many will catch it and how many will die? Nobody knows the answer to that. But what is clear is that countries with good health services are better able to support people who become gravely ill as a result of catching the virus. But even some of those are struggling – Italy and Spain for example. Others seem to be doing much better – South Korea and Germany. And also it appears that countries doing a lot of testing and contact tracing (China, South Korea, Hong Kong), are getting on top of the infection much more effectively than others. Whether they will be able to keep on top of outbreaks in the long run is another unknown.
This brings me to the UK. It’s difficult to be certain what’s going on here. This is partly because the information coming out of Government has been patchy and confusing. But it’s also partly because we’re in the middle of a major crisis and lots of things will not become public until long afterwards. We’re used to having information instantly available to everyone all the time thanks to the internet, 24/7 rolling news and social media.
As we have learnt over the past five years, this is both a blessing and a curse. Information can be manipulated, and the more there is out there, the more difficult it is to see what’s fake, what’s conspiracy theory, what’s well intended but wrong, and what’s accurate. I hope I’m not adding to this with this piece. I’m certainly trying not to.
What we do know if that the virus is spreading and it’s spreading rapidly. I’m in rural Dorset and so far we only have two known cases. But of course as there has been nowhere near enough testing, it’s inevitable that there will be more people out there who are infected, often showing no symptoms. It’s best to assume that wherever you go, you’re at risk of picking up the virus.
At the moment we can still go outside – for a walk, to enjoy the Spring. I fully intend to continue doing this and report back on what I have seen.
A couple of days ago I went to Kingcombe Meadows nature reserve, the jewel in the crown of Dorset Wildlife Trust’s reserve network. I try and go every year at this time to see the Moschatel, or Town Hall Clock. This diminutive green-flowered plant grows along an ancient green lane at Kingcombe – it’s often found growing on old wood banks in ancient woodland. It’s a difficult plant to photograph on a phone so apologies as these don’t really capture its loveliness. I suppose the thing I find particularly endearing about it is that it appears very early in the Spring and does its thing before almost any other plant has started; and its persistence and longevity. It’s a plant of old places, growing slowly and spreading along undisturbed places – albeit places created by humans in the long past. It to me suggests quiet continuity, resilience. Perhaps that’s a useful message in these days of panic buying.
I’m not going to offer any sage pieces of advice on what needs to happen next, what the Government has got right or wrong, the pros and cons of helicopter money, or even whether we should celebrate the fact that industrial pollution levels have plummeted alongside the collapse in economic activity.
Suffice to say we are living in a very different society than we were even a month ago and that things will continue to change. Perhaps some things will never be the same again? who knows.
All I will say is that it’s more important than ever that we all look after each other, support each other and do what we can to help – to help our families and friends, to help our local communities and wider society. I think it’s inevitable that a few unscrupulous people will take advantage of this crisis – whether it’s Hedge Fund owners “shorting” businesses to make a quick killing, fly tippers seeing an opportunity to save a few quid; or toilet roll hoarders looking to turn a profit on ebay. This is not something any of us can do anything about other than to avoid them, refuse to take part, and where necessary report miscreants to the relevant authority.
Bear in mind though that all public services are under incredible strain – that’s the NHS, the forces, the emergency services, local authorities, public bodies, the civil service, the lot. We all need to do everything we can to avoid adding to their already huge burden; and we need to support them where we can. They were already reeling from 10 years of savage cuts in funding and loss of key staff and expertise.
I’ll continue to post here and on the People Need Nature website, exploring Spring and encouraging you all to get outside and enjoy it as much as we can. It is, after all, free and universally available. And it can be enjoyed while applying the 2m social isolation zone!