Friday 22 May 2020

Plague 2020

So the UK, a bit later than some other European countries, is now finally relaxing its lockdown, though it seems we are now faced with months of restrictions on travel and other activities. It seems time to take stock of what exactly has happened over the last six months.

The initial spread of the virus in China seems to show that in almost every way the PRC government has failed to learn, at all, any of the lessons of the original SARS outbreak. The same attempts at cover-up were made. The same mixed messages and knowingly-false information was pedalled.  The authorities were still, in mid-late January, claiming that there was no evidence of person-to-person transmission of the disease, whilst they had probably know for at least a couple of weeks that this was not true as they were already seeing diagnoses of a SARS-like disease at the end of December.

Whilst other governments bear the responsibility for their poor response to the arrival of the disease, only one government bears the ultimate responsibility for failing to stop the initial spread of the disease globally: China's. This should not be forgotten, even as we should guard against attempts to divert attention away from the failures of the US, French, Spanish, Italian, or UK governments.

Probably like most China-watchers outside China, I am rare amongst my countrymen in that I have been paying attention to the COVID-19 situation since its early discovery in Wuhan. I wish I could say that this had brought me much foresight on the issue but, again, probably like most other China-watchers outside China, whilst knowing about the spread of the virus in Wuhan meant I was concerned about it a bit earlier than others, I did not foresee its eventual spread around the globe as anything but a potential possibility, and not as a reality that should be prepared for until towards the end of February of this year.

I wish I could say that having been in China during the 2003 SARS epidemic had given me some insight into what might happen. The simple fact is, whilst intellectually I understood that we had got lucky in 2003 when SARS simply petered out as it did, and that a future virus might be similarly virulent and deadly but spread globally, it is difficult to make headway in explaining this whilst everyone around you treats it as a remote possibility, and at a gut level I didn't believe it myself. I was told a number of times that I was "panicking" and over the top when I warned that schools, shops and so forth might soon  be closed even in mid-February.

The lockdown itself came as much the same kind of thunderbolt as the imposition of the SARS restrictions had for me in 2003, but with the added knowledge that there was nowhere to go to escape it. There was a massive feeling of unreality about the whole thing, though this quickly passed and people did more or less knuckle down to it.

For my own little household, the lockdown was not so bad. Liberated from the commute, working from home meant more time with the family which was very much welcome. Not sending the children to school is obviously not ideal, but online classes, even for our four-year-old, filled a little bit of the gap.  I rediscovered walks along the beach at low-tide, just before sunset.

We are now faced what seems very likely to be a very deep recession. The consequences of this cannot be foreseen, but it is rare for people who find themselves unexpectedly poorer to be happy about it. With eyes diverted away from hotspots like Hong Kong, we are already seeing more assertive moves from the Chinese government. The pessimist in me leads me to expect major ructions both there and in the Taiwan strait in coming years. And there is still the end of the transition period and "full Brexit" yet to come.