Leader: The pandemic year

Even if Covid-19 is eventually defeated, it will take far longer to remedy the social ills it has exposed. 

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A year ago in March, as the Covid-19 pandemic spread across Europe with lethal speed, we warned that the continent was facing its gravest crisis since the Second World War. The experience of the ensuing 12 months has only confirmed this judgement.

In the United Kingdom, where Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, remarked last March that limiting British deaths to 20,000 or fewer would be a “good outcome”, more than 126,000 people have died from Covid. The economy suffered its worst recession in 300 years. And the first national lockdown was followed by two more, imposed by the government in a haphazard and chaotic manner.

Yet even at the pandemic’s outset, there was cause for hope. On 30 January 2020, at a meeting of Oxford University’s life scientists, Professor Sarah Gilbert informed her colleagues of a remarkable discovery: her team had already devised a likely vaccine for Covid-19. True to her word, a vaccine was developed by Oxford and AstraZeneca, at record-breaking speed, and authorised by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency less than a year later.

The rapid roll-out of the vaccine – more than 28 million UK adults have had their first dose – has provided Britain with what it previously lacked: a more certain route out of lockdown. Daily reported Covid-19 deaths have fallen from a peak of 1,820 on 20 January to 112 (23 March). The number of patients in hospital has fallen from 39,248 on 18 January to 5,461 (21 March).

[see also: The Covid reset]

But mindful of its recent hubris, the government has proceeded with caution, insisting that it will be guided by “data, not dates”. It has been wise to do so. As our medical editor Phil Whitaker writes on page 33, the threat of vaccine-resistant strains of the virus remains: “The presence of large numbers of vaccinated individuals while infection rates remain high is a potentially disastrous combination, creating the evolutionary conditions for vaccine-escape mutations.”

Yet even if the vaccine programme allows a facade of normality to return, the pandemic will leave lasting social, economic, cultural and psychological scars. The human suffering inflicted by Covid-19 lies not only in the deaths and illness it caused. It lies in the rise in avoidable deaths from heart attacks, strokes and cancer that followed the first national lockdown and the suspension of our lives. It lies in the rise in mental health issues and loneliness as many people were deprived of traditional networks of support. And it lies in the lost potential of children forced to remain absent from school for much of the past year.

The pandemic has served as an X-ray of society: it has exposed both the UK’s strengths and its weaknesses. Britain led the world in vaccine research and more than 700,000 people volunteered for the NHS after the government appealed for support early in the crisis. But it also recorded one of the world’s highest death rates as Covid-19 interacted with pre-existing medical and social ills to lethal effect. After a decade of austerity, the pandemic has shown the need for a more resilient state and a more protective social security system. Covid is but one of the existential threats that haunt this century, such as environmental breakdown and antimicrobial resistance.

In the months and years that follow, there will be an understandable temptation to forget the horrors of the pandemic (as was true of the 1918-20 Spanish flu). Should the economy recover as rapidly as forecast (the Office for Budget Responsibility predicts growth of 7.3 per cent in 2022), we can expect much talk of the “Roaring Twenties” and a new age of hedonism. But preferable to hedonism is humility – and a determined sense to live better and to learn from our mistakes.

Too often in the recent past, shocks – such as the rapid deindustrialisation of the 1980s and the 2008 financial crisis – have been followed by large parts of the country being consigned to stagnation or decline. This time must be different. Even if Covid-19 is eventually defeated, it will take far longer to remedy the vulnerabilities it has exposed. 

[see also: The anxiety epidemic]

This article appears in the 24 March 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special

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