14 May 2020
By Lynda Goetz
Elon Musk has said from the outset that reactions to the global outbreak of coronavirus have been ‘dumb’. He has now reopened the Tesla factory in defiance of California state lockdown regulations. President Trump has tweeted his support for Musk’s stance, saying that California should let him open the plant ‘NOW. It can be done Fast and Safely’. Who is right?
The answer to that question is, almost certainly, that since we still know so little about this virus, there is no right or wrong, merely different ways of handling a crisis. Past epidemics and pandemics have not elicited the sort of worldwide responses this one has for two simple reasons. Firstly, not only has the medical knowledge not been available until recent decades, but nor have universal healthcare systems. Secondly, global communications and connections have never been so fast or so extensive.
The first has meant that although our knowledge of this particular virus is limited, our general knowledge about viruses has grown exponentially since we lost 228,000 to (so-called) Spanish ‘Flu in this country alone just after World War I. Increases in medical knowledge, the application of technology and the founding of universal health services after World War II have meant that we now have the means of helping those who are ill, even if we do not know how to cure them (and do not have reliable tests or a vaccine). The existence of instantaneous news and the ability to share views (without intermediary experts or professional commentators ie journalists) mean that the public have a voice in a way hitherto impossible. No longer can those ruling us impose patrician views from on high without feedback or comeback. As with most things, there are pros and cons.
There has been a great deal of criticism and much mirth from many quarters around the vagueness of the Prime Minister’s strategy for exit from the lockdown. Perhaps part of the problem is his natural instinct for relying on good old ‘British common sense’ when so many increasingly appear to rely on the admonitions and regulations of ‘the nanny state’. Anxiety is rife. A need to have things ‘spelt out’ and to be kept in safety seems increasingly to have affected our citizens. In spite of the desire to blame the EU for over-regulation in this country, much of it is also down to the abundance of home-grown rule-making. As an added complication (courtesy of former PM Tony Blair) we now have the devolved governments treading their own particular paths and adding their own regulations.
It is no coincidence that those currently making the most noise about the exit strategy are not only the Opposition (who have given up any pretence of support) and the media, but also those who will continue to get paid whether or not they get back to work. For example, although the science appears to have shown that the risk of transmission of this disease by children is minimal to non-existent, teachers’ unions are urging teachers not to abide by the 1st June date for returning to the classroom if they ‘have any fears for their safety’. All well and good, but how are those workers who cannot work from home expected to return to work if schools and nurseries are not open to educate their children and grandparents cannot carry out child-minding functions because of social–distancing regulations?
Like Covid-19, Asian flu caused little problem for most of those who caught it during the epidemic of 1968-9. Like Covid-19, Asian ‘flu was highly contagious and medics were concerned it would spread rapidly and cause problems for the most vulnerable. Unlike the reaction in 2020, however, in 1968 the response really was to ‘Keep Calm and Carry on’. There was no shutdown, although production fell because of the numbers unable to work due to the illness. By the beginning of 1969 there was a vaccine, but even so by the end of the second wave, which hit at the end of that year, a total of 80,000 had died in the UK. Over a million died worldwide.
To put this figure into context, the world population in July 1969 was 3.608 billion; the population of the UK was 55.94 million, so the percentage of people who died in the UK of Asian flu was less than 0.15% and worldwide even less than that. In 1919 the population of the UK was around 42 million and 228,000 deaths from Spanish flu represents a death rate of 0.54%. The Black Death (1347-52) like the Spanish flu killed around 50 million worldwide. The difference was that represented over 60% of the population, not under 0.6%. In spite of the devastation and distress, those who were left did recover and the human population has continued to expand in spite of subsequent wars and pandemics. The Great Plague, in 1665, another bubonic or pneumonic plague, is estimated to have killed some 2.5% of the English population. (As record-keeping then was far worse than it is now, all these figures are essentially just guesstimates; as we know however, current statistics are hardly based on complete figures either**).
The impact of individual death is, self-evidently, a loss for those who loved and cared for that person; and for each of us the thought of death is a cause for anxiety and fear. Nevertheless, die we must and on the way we need to live life. To live life we need to earn money to pay for our living costs and our entertainment; to do that we need to work (unless we are in the rare position of inheriting enough without the need to do so). No government can print money indefinitely. No government can pay out billions on an indefinite basis to ‘save our NHS’ or to ‘protect lives’. Industry and the people need to take back the reins; get back in the saddle or whatever other simile you wish to employ. To those who wish to cower in their homes for some indefinite period ‘until a vaccine is found’, (which may never happen) we must, if slogans are really necessary, say, ‘Work Safe’. Production, creation, buying and selling clearly must continue. Without them, to put it very simplistically, we cannot put food on the table. Without that we will all starve (or die of something else anyway) and Covid-19 will be irrelevant.
Let us show our governments around the world, but in particular here in the UK, that we are not babies. We are adults. We do not need slogans made up by 25 year-olds (or indeed as the author of the one I have used in the heading essentially says in his letter, any slogans, however good). We are able to evaluate risk and interpret regulations. If we go much further down this current route we will show ourselves to be unworthy of any trust being given to us by our rulers who will be absolutely right in concluding we need spoon-feeding all the way (but all the way to what?). There are many quotes about rules and I do not want to repeat them here, but given that we started with Elon Musk, head of Tesla, it is perhaps appropriate, in this age of anxiety and obesity*** to finish with a quote from Henry Ford, the American industrialist, who said: ‘Three rules; I do not eat too much; I do not worry too much; and, if I do my best, I believe that what happens, happens for the best’. Doing our best at this point probably does not include being too timorous and fearful, but applying common sense to interpreting regulations to achieve the best and most sensible way forward. Carping is generally unproductive and unhelpful. A pandemic is not unprecedented; trying to deal with it given modern preoccupations and expectations is.
* slogan courtesy of David W B Burnside in whose succinct letter to The Telegraph I found it this morning.
** If the figure of 33,000 deaths to date from Coronavirus is correct then that represents just 0.05% of the UK population.
*** shown to increase the chances of death from coronavirus by 50% once the disease is contracted.