The great Coronapause is over, but history tells us that complacency can be a killer | Marc Honigsbaum
SShortly before the first UK lockdown, Italian novelist Francesca Melandri wrote an open letter to the UK outlining our future future coronavirus. At the time, Melandri had been in detention in Rome for three weeks and cemeteries in Lombardy, northern Italy, were running out of plots to bury the dead. “We are only a few steps ahead of you in time, just like Wuhan was a few weeks ahead of us,” Melandri warned. “You [will] hold the same arguments we had until a short time ago, between those who still say ‘it’s only a flu, why all the fuss?’ and those who have already understood.
Melandri’s predictions turned out to be correct. As Britain’s intensive care wards were packed with coronavirus patients, some commentators dismissed the measures as a media scare, arguing that Covid-19 was no worse than 2009’s swine flu. Others, seizing on the urgency of the situation, offered to run errands to elderly neighbors while cursing panicked shoppers and joggers who refused to keep their distance.
As difficult as those early days of confinement were, they were also precious. As the juggernaut of modernity slowed down, new horizons opened up. With our daily lives brought to a halt by the Coronapause, we suddenly had time to reflect and imagine a different way of life and, perhaps, a better future for our children.
But that was then. What does the future hold for us now that the war in Ukraine has displaced Covid from the front pages and we find ourselves once again consumed by a succession of political and economic crises? Is the pandemic over or is it just a pause before the virus mutates again?
As illustrated by Justin Welby’s Covid-enforced absence from the Queen’s Thanksgiving Service at St Paul’s Cathedral last Friday, Covid-19 has not gone away but continues to be a source of inconvenience. considerable and, for those who are not lucky enough to end up in hospital, continued misery. Despite hopes that herd immunity would have kicked in already, the US is in the midst of its fourth biggest Covid surge, while Portugal, where 90% of the population is vaccinated, has recorded a stunning number of 2,447 new cases per million people in the past seven days, driven by the Omicron BA.5 subvariant.
In a world that had absorbed the lessons of previous waves, these numbers would make us think again. Instead, we think we’ll make up for lost time on the beach by cramming into airports crippled by post-Covid worker shortages before rushing to half-empty offices in case Jacob Rees-Mogg or Elon Musk perform an impromptu visit. Never mind that studies show that hybrid working is more productive and results in happier, more satisfied employees. Now that the Coronapause is over, the powers that be are determined to suspend working from home and restore the status quo. But for the two million Britons struggling with the debilitating effects of the long Covid, the pandemic is not over. Likewise, those who have lost loved ones or close family members to the virus cannot easily forget the government’s failure to lock down earlier. For relatives of the 180,000 British dead, it is impossible to move forward until the long-promised public inquiry into the pandemic has delivered its verdict.
This is why in the rush to forget, it is essential to take stock and remember so that our experiences are available for future generations. Arguably the reason we were so ill-prepared for Covid-19 and the lockdowns that accompanied it was that we hadn’t paid enough attention to how companies had resorted to similar measures to d other times and places. Quarantines are a tried and true response to epidemics, one that has changed little since 1377, when Dubrovnik banned travelers from plague-infested areas from entering the city. Yet when we saw the footage from Wuhan and later Bergamo, we couldn’t imagine the same thing happening here.
We must not make the same mistake again. To ensure our memories and experiences are available for future generations, the Science Museum has started collecting objects and artefacts from the pandemic – in its medical gallery you can currently see the Downing Street press conference lectern bearing the message ‘Stay Home – Protect the NHS – Save Lives’ and ceramic pot by artist Grayson Perry depicting the traumatic confinement experiences of his alter ego, Alan Measles.
One of the reasons the museum is so keen on collecting these objects is that it has poorly documented previous pandemics – for example, its collections contain virtually no objects from the 1918 Spanish flu, a pandemic which, like Covid, swept the globe in successive waves, disrupting social life and killing some 50 million people. But as we look to the future, perhaps a better analog is with the “Russian flu” pandemic of 1889-92, which some scientists believe may have been mistakenly attributed to influenza and which may also be due to coronavirus.
Just as Covid-19 coincided with the final years of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, the Russian flu – so called because the first reported outbreak occurred in St Petersburg in November 1889 – coincided with the final years of the reign of Queen Victoria.
In total, some four million people in England and Wales were sick in the first wave. But unlike the Spanish flu, which ended in 12 months, the Russian flu came back again and again. And just as Covid felled prelates, princes and the poor, the Russian flu sickened people of all social classes, including William Connor Magee, the Archbishop of York, and Prince Albert Victor, grandson of Queen Victoria (both deceased). Most worrying of all, the pandemic has triggered particular nervous illnesses and states of fatigue reminiscent of the long Covid. But rather than dismissing these states of fatigue as psychosomatic and treating convalescents with suspicion, Victorian neurologists blamed “overwork” and “too much worry,” key tropes of masculinity and modernity.
The result was that by the mid-1890s, the image of a nation of convalescents, too weakened to work or resume their daily routines and plagued by mysterious neurological symptoms, had become central to the medical and cultural iconography of the time. As Thomas Clouston, a contemporary medical observer, put it, the Russian flu had “left the nerves and minds of the European world far worse than it found them, and they have scarcely regained their tone. natural”.
All the more reason why, as we stop to toast the Queen this weekend, we shouldn’t be in too much of a rush to get back to business as usual, but should remember Coronapause and what ‘she taught us about our anxious present and the possibilities of human flourishing in the future.
“We are very discreet seers,” Melandri concluded in his letter from Italy. “If we look to the more distant future, the future which is unknown to you too, we can only tell you this: when all this is over, the world will not be the same.”