Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Science & Tech
  2. Coronavirus
15 May 2020updated 06 Sep 2021 12:37pm

“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.”

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

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.

Content from our partners
Why public health policy needs to refocus
The five key tech areas for the public sector in 2023
You wouldn’t give your house keys to anyone, so why do that with your computers?

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