The pandemic reveals what has become of humanity

It is not only about lockdowns and the severity of the covid pandemic, it is about our ability to cope compared to the past. Op-ed

Steve Apfel ,

Coronavirus emergency treatment (stock)
Coronavirus emergency treatment (stock)

As Don Quixote thought windmills were giants to be jousted with, so we regard Covid-19: a plotting, stalking goliath. The analogy could not be closer – the Middle Ages were a time for plagues. The Black Death of the 1340s killed more than 40% of Europe’s population. Still, amid the terror and superstition common sense was not discarded. Those who could afford it fled city death traps to quarantine in the countryside.

In 1529 the ‘sweating sickness” dropped Londoners like flies. In Hilary Mantel’s novel, Wolf Hall I read: “The rule is for the household to hang a bunch of straw outside the door as sign of infection, then restrict entry for forty days, and go out as little as possible.” Had our architects of lockdown-no lockdown taken a leaf from medieval common sense, the lives and livelihoods of billions of victims would have been spared.

To believe Lancet, we lack the stoicism of a generation ago. “Revisiting the 1957 and 1968 influenza pandemics” speaks of the “stoicism” of both the common people and policy-makers.

Befitting a medical journal, Lancet compares in measured tones the craven behaviour of today with the level-headed behaviour of those who went through worse pandemics in the 1900s.

Where we lack common sense, they had it. Where we panic, they kept sane; where our media sensationalizes, theirs informed. Where our modellers of disease are out to make a name with pronouncements designed to propagate dread or mock those who do, their medics wanted to learn and understand. Where our politicians play god, theirs let the medical fraternity handle crises of public health. And where our politicians close down business and cut off cross border trade, theirs understood that economic suicide could make no impression on a virus and turned to other efforts. All in all 20th century humanity did not go berserk, and believers prayed to their Gods in the time honoured manner.

Consider the no-nonsense Prime Minister of Britain, Harold Macmillan. It was July 1957. There he stood telling a Tory Party rally that the British “had never had it so good”. The world was in the grip of a pandemic worse than our Covid-19. Influenza A, virus subtype H2N2, known as the Asian Flu, had surfaced in China in the winter of ‘56. By April Hong Kong had a quarter of a million cases. By June India crossed the one million mark. The British and the Americans were basking in a boom when the pandemic made landfall. By the time it was contained in ‘58 more than a million had departed this mortal coil, of which 30,000 were British and 100,000 Americans. For a crude comparison with our Flu, double the fatalities to allow for the smaller populations than today.

But then people were redoubtable. They learned to live with a pandemic. They did not become hypochondriacs nor did they act irresponsibly by ignoring it.

What of our political, cultural and moral leaders? Did they keep their heads while all around were losing theirs? They can’t have done. Not when they put their money on the likes of ‘Professor Lockdown’ Neil Ferguson whose doomsday prediction of 1 million British deaths spurred on the hysteria of the world. Would his science have been respected had it been known he would break his own rules by smuggling a married woman into his home during London’s lockdown?

The lockdown, ended without proper planning for going back gradually to normal life, zapped just about everything except the pest, which repaid the favour with a second wave of prolific spite. It’s no mystery why the losers from lockdown learnt before the experts who lost nothing, that it was a weapon of indiscriminate devastation in the way it was implemented in most of the countries who imposed it..

European governments were next to be taught the lesson. Taking example from Sweden, Europeans have come to terms with living with the virus. Not so Britain, Israel and Australia which imposed severe second lockdowns. No one knows who is right but no one says so. Many Israelis, so I’ve been told, would flee the country if airlines were airborne.

Naturally enough lockdown proponents were under pressure to scapegoat the blame. And the handy scapegoat was the villain of the peace, the voiceless coronavirus.

Rabbinic authorities and their observant flock are blame-shifters in chief. The cultural devastation wrought by forbidding Jewish gatherings drove some haredi rabbis to distraction. The law making the sanctity of human life paramount drove them over the edge of reason.

The social cost and the economic cost from isolating Jews were horrendous. Saving one life involved sacrificing maybe 100 others. And so language, to scapegoat, had to bend to the task. “The Covid pandemic forced people apart.” Or, a rabbi who banned communal gatherings, blamed a secretive force. “We could never imagine that our synagogues would be closed”.

Not to forget the other scapegoat: ‘Follow the science,’ is the refrain of those who made the rules. Mute science is a handy blame-taker for all too human scientists.

Wouldn't it be easier to just say "We don't know" but are trying out different approaches?

G L Gomme in The handbook of folklore defines myth as “the science of a pre rule-makers, cutting corners, meaning“follow my scientific advisors who agree with me that lockdown is the re-scientific age - or those who say the diametric opposite..”

Folklore, says Gomme, offered our ancestors a comforting sense of control over nature. Dry spells were addressed by rain dances and by offerings to Helios. The pre-science folk just had to sit back and wait. The rains came. The sun reappeared. Wisdom and the illusion of control were verified.


Steve Apfel is a prolific author of fiction and non-fiction, of hundreds of articles, essays and a couple of books. He also an expert on:Public policy, Micro-economics and costing techniques, ​​​​​​Budgeting techniques, Sizing up projects, Sizing up countries for capital investment – the political, social and economic prospects, Anti-Zionism in the book HADRIAN'S ECHO: The whys and wherefores of Israel's critics He has contributed to a scholarly journal Israel Affairs, and a new book contains 30 chapters culled from his works. On lockdown policies to contain a pandemic, his series of 10 essays broke new ground.