Every conversation about coronavirus, including one with doctors, begins and ends with the same disclaimer: “We don’t really know…”
We don’t. We don’t know what caused the virus, though Putin’s media blame Britain, specifically those villainous Britons who poisoned Litvinenko with polonium and the Skripals with novichok.
President Trump, on the other hand, blames China and actually refers to COVID-19 as a ‘Chinese virus’. That intensifies Chairman Xi’s desire to smash the ‘dog head of American imperialism’, which under normal circumstances he keeps to himself for fear of losing US markets.
Much as I hate to lump Putin and Trump together, let’s just say that neither of them really knows, although Trump must be closer to the truth here.
We don’t know how fast the virus will spread. So far the rate has been well-nigh exponential, but there are signs it’s slowing down. Some epidemiologists believe the signs, some don’t. In either case, we don’t really know.
We don’t know whether people who survive the infection will develop immunity to it. Some experts are saying that, unless the virus is allowed to run its course, it may come back in a year or two. But they don’t really know.
Some things we do know. Most old people who contract the infection will die from it – with or without intensive care, ventilators, vital sign monitors and so on. The numerical value of ‘most’ depends on the underlying condition, age and general robustness or lack thereof. But most experts agree on the range between 85 and 95 per cent, with the lower level starting at 70+ and then growing towards and beyond 80.
Moreover, even those old people who get the virus and don’t die shouldn’t count themselves lucky. They are almost guaranteed to develop cognitive disorders, which is a polite way of saying ‘turn into vegetables’. Bad news all around, in other words.
Another thing we know with a fair degree of certainty is that the way governments have responded to coronavirus is guaranteed to cause a global economic disaster. Thousands of businesses, and not necessarily just small ones, will go to the wall; millions will lose jobs; financial markets will hit rock bottom and will take years to recover.
That situation, dire as it will be in itself, will also have far-reaching medical ramifications. It’s impossible to put a number on them, but many people will die – they always do when the economy takes a dive. How many, I don’t know.
This morning a friend of mine, who is both a writer and a medical doctor, was writing an article about coronavirus. He rang me to find out if I had any bright ideas, and was disappointed to find out I didn’t.
That gave me a start: normally, he doesn’t seek out my views before writing his pieces, especially on medical subjects. This time, however, he didn’t really know the answers any better than I did.
However, there’s knowledge and knowledge. Neither of us can come up with a rational panacea for the crisis – we just don’t know enough, and neither probably does anyone else.
Yet there’s also such a thing as intuition, and intuitively we both feel that governments are overreacting and therefore causing more damage than the virus would do on its own. Those who doubt government action can make things worse, should recall the 1939-1940 Phoney War, the period between the declaration of war and the first Luftwaffe raids.
Once war was declared, the British government immediately introduced blackouts throughout the country. As a result, 600 people died in road accidents before the first Soviet-made Nazi bombs fell on Britain.
The reasons for the blackout doubtless made sense, as do the measures currently being taken by HMG. However, those 600 people could have lived.
This isn’t a fool-proof analogy, only a reminder that governments can be ham-fisted when tackling problems. And when they are, they are perfectly capable of making the problems worse.
P.S. As lavatory paper is disappearing from our shops, I can offer an ingenious solution to the looming hygienic crisis. The Guardian should drastically increase its print run and start using a lighter stock.