It was at very much at this time of the year — an early March Saturday — 87 years ago that Franklin D Roosevelt, as the 32nd president of the United States, gave in his inaugural address a warning. It has been often quoted yet so recurrently unheeded in the decades since: “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is ... fear itself.” It should not be forgotten in these opening months of a decade that historians might come to chronicle as an age of anxiety.
Roused by David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg, the young fear our world’s imminent extinction.
Political elites in Europe and the US shiver over the growth of populist movements offering alternative policies that are, puzzlingly, popular with voters. Big Tech corporations are feared, with justification, for their power to invade privacy, twist and monetise the way social media users think, debase discourse, distribute fake news, wreck democracy and exploit tax-efficient loopholes.
Mass immigrations in Asia, Europe and the Americas light bushfires of fear, and lobbyists promoting the interests of ethnic, religious and cultural minorities engender — again with some cause — alarms about threats to free speech.
Fear of Covid-19 must now be added to this dismal registry. Its potency — this weekend — is such that it’s being perceived as a contagion that is within sneezing distance of plunging our civilisation into an economic ice age. Entire cities and regions in China have been locked down. Global supply chains are threatened, and with them developed economies – an entirely unexpected downside of the globalization that has suited corporations and consumers in the West and the Communist Party in China.
Large parts of northern Italy are off-limits, schools in Japan have been closed, major European sports events have been postponed, and Switzerland’s government — not known for its slavish addiction to gesture politics — has banned all public and private gatherings of more than 1,000 people, which suggests that assemblies of 999 are deemed harmless while those of 1,001 can be virus-spreading.
Religious faith might arm the devout with consolation, but the authorities in the theocracy that is Saudi Arabia are taking no chances, with a temporary — but unprecedented — ban on foreign pilgrims visiting Mecca and Medina. Roman Catholic priests in Jerusalem have been told to give communion to hand only, and to empty holy water fonts.
Ash Wednesday services and public Masses have been stopped in some northern Italian dioceses, so it’s not surprising that questions have been raised about the Easter gatherings that bring more than 100,000 to Rome.
Against such a background, outbreaks of panic are to be expected.
They could even be explained as rational. But this is 2020, not 1347; we are not dealing with the Black Death. Governments and their agencies must do everything in their power not only to contain the bug but also to prevent a pandemic of hysteria in which the virus that ultimately inflicts more damage than Covid-19 is fear itself.