Any complacency or any lingering ambiguity around coronavirus was swept away yesterday by those most disinterested but informed arbiters — the world’s stock markets. Though the figures may have changed as the day progressed, New York stocks fell by 7% on opening, provoking a brief suspension of trading. London endured an even greater loss when the Ftse 100 plunged by over 8.5% and was, at one point, heading for its worst one-day fall since 2008. Fears of global recession, exacerbated by coronavirus if not provoked by it, pushed nearly every London stock into the red. Oil giants suffered the brunt with BP down 27% and Royal Dutch Shell losing 20%. The oil-price war launched by Saudi Arabia and Russia at the weekend and the epidemic were blamed.
Dublin was not immune. The Iseq fell by as much as 6.2%, bringing its year-to-date fall to 19.6%. One analysis suggests private pension savers have lost as much as 10%, another sharp fall irrelevant to public-sector pensions. There is, unfortunately, far more to this rolling story than economics.
The inevitable confirmation that Saturday’s France-Ireland game scheduled for Paris has been cancelled adds to momentum around the response to the crisis. So too did the successful call from the Irish Nurses’ and Midwives’ Organisation to have St Patrick’s Day parades cancelled. This call carried decisive weight as its members are at the forefront of any response to new infections. The call came as almost 200 hospital staff have been forced to self-isolate.
If, after those developments uncertainty persisted, then the statement from Health Minister Simon Harris, that he is taking seriously the advice that there could be between 80,000 and 120,000 deaths here, must end what little remains of the phoney war against coronavirus. Professor Sam McConkey head of the international health and tropical medicine at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, has warned that coronavirus “could be like the Spanish flu, the Irish Civil War, and the 1929 stock market crash all at once”. Incredibly, there will be some people who regard that suggestion as hyperbole, as a gross exaggeration of the reality of the situation facing us. Emotion will trump expertise — even if, in the fullness of time, that assessment ultimately proves inaccurate, it cannot be ignored today.
Unfortunately, these misjudgments are facilitated by unfiltered social media where qualified views on the epidemic are at best occasional. Is it possible that social media, championed by its billionaire owners as a public good, may become a weak link in the fight against coronavirus? Being responsible about where you source your information and beingrigorous in what you accept as rational, may have become as important in the fight against the epidemic as any other exercise in personal responsibility. Coronavirus is likely to shape our lives for some considerable time to come so stamina and concentration wil be needed. We can respond in many ways but only a few might help nullify the threat. All of those will be found on official sites or through long-established media. We may not be able to control coronavirus yet, but we can control how we respond and what we believe. It is a time to be clear-eyed, firm, and, despite everything, optimistic.