At the close of Albert Camus’s novel The Plague, as the French Algerian city of Oran celebrates its recovery from a mass epidemic, the protagonist Dr Bernard Rieux reflects that “such joy is always imperilled. He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learnt from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good… and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.”
As the world contends with the new coronavirus (Covid-19), which has already killed more than 3,000 people, Camus’s injunction against complacency has acquired renewed urgency. Epidemics are an X-ray of society: they test our collective humanity and resilience. In an era of globalisation, splendid isolation is an illusion.
From the outset, the incidence of Covid-19 has been worsened by avoidable human errors. On 30 December, when the Chinese doctor Li Wenliang warned fellow medics of seven cases of a virus resembling Sars, he was rebuked by the police for “making false comments”. Little more than a month later, Dr Li died from the virus. Even as late as 18 January, the Wuhan city government held its annual public banquet, with 40,000 families attending. Authoritarian states such as China, which depend on secrecy of information and an aura of omnipotence, are ill-equipped to prevent epidemics.
Yet democracy is no guarantee of a credible response. In the US, Donald Trump has engaged in magical thinking, suggesting that the virus will one day disappear “like a miracle”, and falsely stating that a vaccine could be available within months. In Italy, Matteo Salvini, the country’s opposition leader and former deputy prime minister, has exploited the epidemic to fuel prejudice against African migrants.
Boris Johnson has engaged in no such crude political manoeuvres; indeed, until recently, he has barely engaged at all. It should not have been left to Jeremy Hunt, the former health secretary, to initially reassure the public and offer advance warning of possible school closures. Mr Johnson’s disappearing act, a trait also witnessed during his London mayoralty, ill befits the leader of the world’s sixth-largest economy.
However, the government’s lackadaisical public response is not the only cause for concern. The degradation of the UK’s public realm, which we have long charted in our Crumbling Britain series, has heightened the threat posed by Covid-19. After the longest period of austerity since its creation, the National Health Service will struggle to respond to a disease that could infect as much as 60 per cent of the population. A poll by the Doctors’ Association UK found that only eight out of 1,618 NHS medics believe that the health service is “well prepared” for coronavirus.
The social care crisis, which successive governments have failed to resolve, has turned the NHS into a provider of last resort for the elderly and the disabled. The consequence is a paucity of beds available for Covid-19 sufferers. NHS England documents suggest that the service may have as few as 15 spare beds to treat the most severe respiratory failure.
But governments must not merely seek to contain the epidemic – they must prepare for its recurrence and for infectious diseases as yet unknown. As Michael Barrett, professor of biochemical parasitology at the University of Glasgow, warns this week, investment by states and the pharmaceutical industry in epidemic preparedness has declined sharply in recent years.
“It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency,” concludes Dr Rieux in The Plague. Away from the political grandstanding of global leaders, our collective survival depends on the quiet decency of the medics and scientists working to anatomise the disease and identify a cure. As they do so, in a world of unprecedented wealth, they deserve greater resources. The coronavirus is a salutary reminder of humanity’s innate fragility – and of the eternal vigilance on which we depend.
This article appears in the 04 Mar 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Inside No 10