We are about to find out how robust civilization is
The hardships ahead will be like nothing we have ever known
By Matt Ridley
There are no good outcomes from here. Many people will die prematurely. Many will lose their jobs. Many businesses will go under. Many people will suffer bereavement, loneliness and despair, even if they dodge the virus. The only question is how many in each case. We are about to find out how robust civilisation is. The hardships ahead are like nothing we’ve known.
Until this year I thought this kind of infectious pandemic could not happen today. The defeat of infectious diseases as a cause of death has been so complete as to seem invincible: plague, smallpox, cholera, typhoid, measles, polio, whooping cough and many more eradicated or nearly so. The failure of terrifying new animal-derived viruses like Hanta, Marburg, Sars, Mers, ebola, swine flu, bird flu and zika to cause more than a local or temporary interruption of the march of progress left us complacent. (Only HIV went global.) The advance of science allowing the rapid reading of the genome of the new coronavirus gave us false confidence: we would know how to beat it by the time it got out of China. It seemed that only the most innocuous of common colds, and milder forms of flu, seemed capable of remaining ubiquitous. And coronaviruses are a common cause of the common cold, so (despite Sars) they seemed like pussy cats, not tigers.
Successive waves mean successive curfews and successive body blows to the economy. If we clamp down hard now and the infection rate drops, then we might be able slowly and cautiously to restart the economy in the summer but have to clamp down again when the virus resurges. Each time we do this, it will be more painful, but at least the health service will be that much better prepared, with more intensive-care beds, more isolation facilities, more ventilators, more and newer testing kits, more data on the efficacy of repurposed drugs.