• Our New Outbreak

    Even six months or more into the global pandemic, we are still struggling to come to terms with its dimensions.

    It is not just the breadth of its global spread, or the huge numbers of cases and deaths worldwide. It is, rather, the number of impacts it has on our lives that continues to take us by surprise.

    As a country, we have – as is universally recognised – been more successful than most in restricting the number of fatalities, the number of families it has left bereaved, and the number of those whose health has been permanently affected.

    But, as the virus rampages outside our borders, we continue to underestimate the cost and effort required to limit its impact on our daily lives. And that impact is measured not only in its direct and potential health effects.

    We must also take into account the impacts arising from the steps we must necessarily take to restrain it and to prevent it from rampaging amongst us uncontrolled.

    Those steps necessarily impose their own costs, on top of those imposed by the virus itself. They all require us to restrict the freedoms we normally enjoy. They all mean cutting down the social and economic space into which the virus can be allowed to expand and seek out its victims. They all exact a cost – a cost that many find irksome, others onerous.

    Nor do the efforts we must make to keep it in check impact on us all equally. They are variable in the severity of their consequences and as to where, how, and to what extent their effects are felt.

    They will also vary in the practical and technical problems they present for those (usually described as “the government”) attempting the difficult task of putting them in place. And they all depend for their efficacy on the cooperation of every one of us and on the avoidance of human error.

    All of this provides fertile ground for those whose natural tendency it is to complain. There will be those who will claim to have been unfairly disadvantaged, by virtue of their own personal circumstances – those, for example, who will plead, on compassionate grounds, to be released from restriction, or those who bemoan their bad luck in falling one side of a boundary rather than another, or those whose business is claimed to be peculiarly vulnerable.

    Then there will be those who dispute the reasons for a particular restriction, claiming to know better than the experts what is required. And there will be those – often more generally out of sympathy with the efforts we and the government are making – who will, as a means of undermining our shared efforts, seize upon and magnify any perceived oversight or mis-step or practical failure. Such people will make little allowance for human frailty or for the unpredictability of the virus and the gaps in our current knowledge as to how it behaves.

    This latter group will be keen to lambast “the government” as though it is an entity in itself, separate from the rest of us; they will, while no doubt disputing the value of government as a whole, nevertheless expect it to offer an immediate solution to every problem as it arises. They will also see any unwelcome consequence of the measures to restrain the pandemic as the fault of “the government” rather than as part of the price imposed by the virus.

    The result of all this is a field day for those who are able to sit on the sidelines and exploit the perceived grievances of the disgruntled. Donald Trump, welcoming any distraction from his own failures, is not the only one to exult in and exaggerate our new outbreak. And we should always remember that solutions are easier to come by in a theoretical world – that is, one in which one has no responsibility – than in a real one.

    We have done wonderfully well in controlling the virus; we cannot expect to escape totally unscathed from the all-pervasive and unprecedented threat to our way of life and our economy presented by the pandemic. And governments are, let us remember, not infallible, pre-programmable mechanisms; they are, like the rest of us, only human.

    Bryan Gould
    25 August 2020