So, how is “the war” against the coronavirus going? To judge by what has happened since hostilities began late last year, not very well, from the point of view of humankind. The enemy is cunning and appears to have learned much from the writings of the great Chinese strategist Sun Tzu who, almost two and a half millennia ago, taught military men that by exploiting the foe’s weaknesses you can beat him without losing too many soldiers while about it.
Among the weaknesses which caught his attention are fear and impatience. Fear turns individuals, communities and entire nations against one another. Impatience tempts them to believe that the enemy must be getting tired and will soon go away when, as Sun Tzu recommended, all he is doing is lying low for a while and getting ready for a new and deadlier onslaught.
It is now generally appreciated that unless a decent vaccine is made available the coronavirus is going to be with us for many years to come. Does this mean that countries will have to remain in lockdown until the laboratories have done what is being demanded of them? Tempting as the prospect may seem to politicians of an authoritarian bent and to those who would be happy to see city streets left to the local fauna, so deer, bears, kangaroos, sea lions and other picturesque creatures can make the most of the absence of humans and roam them freely, sedating the world and telling it to stay asleep for years on end would merely replace a difficult problem with one which would be a great deal worse.
What about a partial lockdown designed to protect the more vulnerable members of our species while letting the rest go about their business? Oozing benevolence, Horacio Rodríguez Larreta and Alberto Fernández decided it would be a splendid idea to put the over 70s under house arrest, which for many would entail solitary confinement. Yet they quietly abandoned it when the thus privileged let them know they would much rather take their chances with Covid-19 than let themselves be smothered to death by kind-hearted politicians and solicitous policemen who make a practice of swooping down on a “senior citizen” discovered sitting on a park bench or doing something equally reprehensible like sunbathing on a patch of grass. What might be just about tolerable for a couple of months most definitely would not be if, as seems more than probable, the “emergency” that allegedly justifies such stringent measures drags on for many years to come.
When the virus invasion was at an early stage, Beijing, echoed by the World Health Organisation, assured us there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission outside China so there was no need to worry. Later, both said it was in fact highly contagious and killed a terrifyingly large percentage of those it infected but then, as the number of people found carrying it without showing symptoms grew and epidemiologists suggested there could be 10 times as many as had been officially counted, it appeared that, unpleasant as the virus undoubtedly is, it is considerably less deadly than was initially thought. All this suggests that governments would be ill-advised to take as gospel whatever the spokespeople for the WHO – let alone folk in the pay of the Chinese Communist Party – have to say about what they should do or not do.
Much of what for a time was assumed to be trustworthy information – but which presumably had been plucked out of thin air because nobody knew how many had caught the virus – got fed into the computers of research facilities like the mathematical biology department of London’s Imperial College which try to produce “models” of what is in store for us; by predicting horrifying death tolls if nothing was done (500,000 in the case of the UK, 2,000,000 in that of the US) they managed to persuade democratic governments that they had no choice but to behave like dictatorships and ban most activities.
To the surprise of many, most people, suitably frightened by what the credentialed experts warned was fast approaching, agreed. In much of the West, lockdowns diligently enforced by the police still enjoy popular support. Many even approve of the hunting down of reprobates who take walks on deserted beaches or in remote mountain areas where the only people they are likely to come within a mile of are cops homing in on rule-breakers detected by their drones. As far as they are concerned, everyone, apart from “front-line” workers like themselves, should stay indoors.
Just how long this state of affairs will last is anybody’s guess. Most governments, alarmed by the damage that is being done to the economy and aware that if it continues for much longer they could face social unrest on a truly massive scale, know it is up to them to come up with an exit strategy, but fear that if they lighten their grip Covid-19 will take advantage of a chance to mount a new and even bigger attack. However, now that most health systems are as prepared as they will ever be, accepting that we will simply have to get used to its presence and hope that it does not mutate into something even nastier is surely the least bad alternative, but so much political and emotional capital has been invested in lockdowns that many government officials, including some who assumed they would only be needed for a brief period after which life could be allowed to return to normal, are reluctant to admit it.
Tacitus wrote that a chieftain of the Caledonian Confederacy called Calgacus said of the Romans that “they make a desert and call it peace.” The virus horde has gone even further than the legions. In a bare couple of months, it has not only shortened the lives of many people but has also wrecked wide swathes of the world economy, throwing hundreds of millions into poverty. Much more is on the way: famine the UN says will be of “biblical proportions,” diseases which have been neglected by health systems run by governments which want them to concentrate on Covid-19 to the exclusion of everything else, the crumbling away of a host of business enterprises, the paralysis of once-thriving industries, the collapse of international trade. It will take the world many years to get through all this.
By the time it has, far more people will have died as a result of the defensive measures that have been taken than will have been struck down by the virus itself which, in any event, will still be out there, waiting to pounce on the weaker examples of homo sapiens that come its way.