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15 May 2020updated 19 Sep 2023 5:14pm

“We saw the virus coming and failed to respond”

By Laura Spinney

Last week, as part of a New Statesman webinar series on the coronavirus pandemic and its fallout, editor Jason Cowley hosted an online panel event with Laura Spinney, science journalist and author of Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the WorldDr Phil Whitaker, GP and New Statesman ‘Health Matters’ columnist; and Michael Barrett, professor of biochemical parasitology at the University of Glasgow. The discussion centred around pandemics past and present.

Michael Barrett, had written in early January in the New Statesman on the severity of the disease, before its true scale and seriousness were widely considered, particularly in Europe. “It seems inevitable the spread will continue,” he wrote, “and lessons learned from previous pandemics should be put in place now.”

At the event, he told the audience: “The thing that alarmed me more than anything was that the Chinese were taking it so seriously… You could see that this new virus was being transmitted pretty quickly… I was a little bit surprised that the rest of the world didn’t catch on more quickly.”

When asked about accusations from some, including Donald Trump and Britain’s rightwing tabloids, that the WHO was biased towards China, Spinney told listeners that “we saw it coming and we failed. Each nation looked to the last one to be affected and said, ‘What did they do wrong?’ rather than, ‘What can we learn from them?'”

Dr Phil Whitaker said he thought there had been major failures on the test and trace operation, which was conducted in the early stages but began to lag later on when the pandemic spread. “There was an over-reliance on theoretical models that was somehow blinkering us to what was happening in real time in another western European country with not dissimilar demographics,” he said. “I think the other failure was to abandon that process of testing and tracing.”

The event was the latest in the New Statesman‘s online webinar and event series on the coronavirus, and an abridged transcript is published in this week’s New Statesman and online. See below for links to video recordings of New Statesman‘s other Covid-19 discussion events.

Watch: Pandemics, past, present and future

Watch: NS Spotlight webinar on local government and their response to Covid-19

Watch: Coronavirus and the economic crisis

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