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.”

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. 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 weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

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
How automation can help telecoms companies unlock their growth potential
The pandemic has had a scarring effect on loneliness, but we can do better
Feel confident gifting tech to your children this Christmas

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