Terry Prone: Covid-19 might not be the Black Death, but it’s not to be sneezed at

Terry Prone: Covid-19 might not be the Black Death, but it’s not to be sneezed at

I know it’s peculiar, but plagues are my thing.

I have shelves of books on bubonic and pneumonic plague. Not to mention the Spanish flu, which began in the latter stages of the First World War and which was so incredibly lethal that some patients who were perky in the morning were dead by lunchtime.

Here’s the rub. This coronavirus is new. Or ‘novel’, as it keeps being described, which makes it sound engaging and harmlessly trivial, like giving up Instagram for Lent. It is seriously and gravely new. Unprecedented, even.

It’s a change in the way we live, work, and think. In last month’s general election, a quarter of the voters opted for change, suggesting that change was a good thing. So why are people so enraged about Covid-19?

Short answer? We love to believe we like change, but we hate it, as evidenced by the deep resentment of the virus.

The IRFU cancelled that big rugby game in that big stadium whose name escapes me, and within minutes, callers to radio programmes were giving out dog’s abuse about this life-saving measure. Sure, most of the infected Italians who had bought flights would come here anyway, these callers said, as if hordes of Italians were only pretending to be coming here for the rugby, but were secretly travelling for the chance to sneeze on us. A good sneeze on one of the natives, this theory suggested, would be more appealing to those who had planned on coming to the match than getting their flight money back.

Just as we were getting over that affront, the news came through from Japan that a woman who had suffered her way through a corona-virus attack had been tested again after she had regained her health, only to find that the virus had either been contracted by her all over again or that it had been lying dormant in her, like the cold sore virus, just waiting for a chance to sicken her afresh.

You might think this might have evoked a moment of respectful silence, but, in fact, the reaction seemed to be one of bitter disillusion.

Like Dickens’ Mrs Gummidge, it was a case of: “Wot’s the good of anyfink? Why, nuffink!” It was akin to going on a diet and finding yourself with a weight gain at the end of it. No justice at all. Enough to put you in a blind rage, it was. (It was fairly tough on the Japanese patient, too, although reports didn’t include data on how furious she was about her double misfortune.)

Rage was never the emotion evoked by previous plagues. Spanish flu evoked a stunned terror because it was so sudden, so comprehensive, so thorough in its destruction.

It’s arguable that the coincidence of it happening when a world war was going on somewhat distracted from its global horror.

The Black Death had people behave in some of the same ways as Covid-19 does. This being before face masks could become largely pointless items of fashion paranoia, the word went out that sticking your nose into a bunch of flowers would prevent the miasma of plague getting to you. Folk in the Middle Ages would put bunches of flowers in their pockets before they went down the road to pick up an eel or two for their dinner. So many people did it that someone wrote a song about it: ‘Ring a ring of roses, a pocket full of posies, atishoo atishoo, we all fall down.’

The children’s game evolved from that song, with every child in the ring collapsing on the ground after mimicking the sneezes of the plague. There’s creativity under pressure for you — those lads in the Dark Ages created a game that recalls an international plague in a lighthearted way, costs nothing (unlike Monopoly, Scrabble, or poker) and has lasted at least five centuries without anybody marketing it. You have to wonder if someone will develop a game around coronavirus cruise ships.

One of them is obvious — the winner is the one who comes up with a successful rebrand for the Diamond Princess. Take more than a deep clean to make that particular ship attractive, particularly since its biggest market — those over 60 — happen to be those most at risk from the virus.

Inarguably, one of the reasons for the pointless, oft-vented rage about Covid-19 is that, as a species, we’re not good at understanding complexity and we mistrust simplicity. Hell of a combination. We get maddened by the minister or public health doctors refusing to give us the seat number of the Covid-19 sufferer on the train, plus her name and address, never mind the possibility of gatherings of the hostile in her front garden.

We utterly reject the suggestion that something we should be doing anyway — frequent hand-washing — will keep us alive, with one social media commentator rhetorically demanding to know who doesn’t wash their hands all the time. Answer: Probably the majority.

The new variation is that good, decent, self-preserving people, because of Covid-19, wash their hands while singing ‘Happy Birthday’ twice. Or so a public health expert recommended, last week. Why ‘Happy Birthday’? Because, she said, singing it two times takes 20 seconds, which is how long — minimum — you should wash your hands with soap in order to keep yourself safe. Which is all well and good, but you’ll get funny looks in public toilets if you’re caught singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to the tap.

And there’s one of the points of disconnection between us plebs and the experts. The experts don’t stay consistent. The ‘Happy Birthday’ woman said 20 seconds was how long we should be washing our hands. Other experts said two minutes. Which is it?

Similarly, the WHO doctor spares no anxious cliché when working up to tell us we should not be complacent. Complacent? Has this bloke tried to buy hand gel in the last few days? Or travel insurance? It’s far from complacency most of us are, right now.

HERE’S the truth of it. Fewer than three thousand people have died from Covid-19, most of them because they had an underlying illness anyway and were over 60. Ordinary flu has a higher death score every year in that population. So when the world economy drops to its knees, major sporting events are cancelled, and pharmaceutical supply chains are disrupted in the face of this new, less lethal bug, frustration and mystification on the part of ordinary people are understandable.

Frustration and mystification, always and ever, lead to a small series of predictable behaviours: Seeking someone to blame, sharing conspiracy theories, rejecting obvious courses of action, and concentrating, instead, on tiny, outlying possibilities.

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