I think I first learned about it from online news. thought it was all a storm in a tea-cup. “Afterall, there have been”, I reasoned, ” loads of pandemics even in my lifetime. How many have amounted to anything?” I was aware, of course, of the 1918-19 Influenza pandemic, the Black Death, the destruction wrought by Eurasian disease in the Americas after 1492. But, in our day and age, in 2020, that surely could not happen again. It was a preposterous proposition.
Rather than tell my specific COVID-19 story, as in what I was thinking, I want to record what I was thinking *and* what I now know.
Over the course of February, I remained largely unimpressed by the threat posed by this virus. I later learned that it had first reached the shores of Britain as early as late January. It had claimed its first life, a tourist from China soon after. Writing now, in mid-April, and this is an important point to keep in mind, I didn’t see about any of this. I was busy with my job, Brexit was still all over the news cycle and we had a new government. Moreover, the US Senate trial of Trump was also all over the news. This new virus was covered in a few seconds in the news cycle, as a minor natural disaster largely centred in China. A tragedy, but “one of those things”.
During this period the day-time television celebrity, Philip Schofield had come out as being gay on 7 February. This, for reasons which this writer cannot discern, was a topic of vast public concern. What was happening in Wuhan was rendered peripheral. At least 722 people in China died that day from COVID-19.
As February dragged on and March began, things had clearly begun to change. The reporting seemed more ominous. During this time, reporting from China became more and more extreme. The number of those infected by this new disease, which appeared to have neither vaccine nor cure, was ravaging Wuhan the capital of Hubei Province, where this virus had started life. Within a week, the number of deaths in China had increased from 722 to 1,523. In addition, the number of known reported cases had increased from 35 thousand to 65 thousand. There were lots of news reports about the crisis. I learned then that there was such a thing as a ‘Public Health Emergency of International Concern’ which the World Health Organisation had, apparently, called at the end of the previous month.
But, here in the West, things still looked under control. Donald J. Trump, the President of the United States informed Americans, and by extension the world, on 19 February that “when we get into April, in the warmer weather—that has a very negative effect on that, and that type of a virus.” Later, that month, he claimed, on the 27th, “It’s going to disappear. One day it’s like a miracle—it will disappear.”
Clearly then, Donald Trump had gone, from ignoring the issue almost entirely, to playing it down to suggesting it had been defeated. It was, initially, in his view, a minor issue which would be over in a matter of week if not days. This view did not last long, but it did remain intact for weeks, which proved crucial. Similarly, our new Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, hadn’t really engaged with the issue. This is also crucial.
Much later than today, I learned that the first Coronavirus episode in the UK was the arrival of a tourist from China on 31 January. Throughout the remainder of February, life remained more or less the same, though news reports became increasingly grim from China. A key recollection was when things began to get bad in Spain and Italy. By 25 February Spain had only nine recorded infections, within a week they had 165, within another week 1,695, by 15 March some 7,988 infections.
Throughout March, things became particularly bad. My previously irreverent attitude had given way to the obvious reality. This was not “like another flue” as Donald Trump had claimed. By 15 March COVID-19 had claimed the lives of 69. By the time of writing, on 14 April, it has claimed 23,640. In one month. The UK is no different, 35 to 11,329 deaths in one month.
By the end of February, China had gone into complete lockdown, which dominated the news. Wuhan, where the virus began, seemed to be being clamped down upon with particular force. Where before, reporting from that part of the world had shown civilians in masks, it was now of soldiers in camouflage spraying empty streets spraying down the pavements and roads. At around the same time, or at least shortly after, worrying news began to emerge from Continental Europe. Italy, Spain and France, were all soon bogged down. It was soon a case, as life went on, entirely as normal in the UK, that Italy and Spain had vast problems.
By mid-late February the first lockdown in Italy had begun, which were met by considerable press reportage in the UK. By 8 March, norther Italy as locked down and by 16 March the entire country was in isolation. Over the week prior, in the UK we had seen young medical professionals, worked to the bone, up day and night, pleading with us for resources and with dire warnings regarding what was coming. It was one of the most shocking sights of my life: an advanced economy brought to its very knees in a matter of a couple of weeks. I confess, only then did I really grasp that this was as serious as it is (at time of writing). We learned that Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) was in short supply, as were ventilators, but most importantly, medical staff. Also, that, this disease kills medical staff in huge numbers. That they need PPE.
From the UK, this seemed both incredible and shocking. ‘Still’, I thought, ‘we will be OK’. The government has control of this. This happy view was soon shattered. By early March websites had begun to appear which collated and graphed the number of infected and those who had passed away as a result of the virus. From a UK position, they did not look good. By 20 March the UK had already endured 177 deaths. This was a full month after the first case of COVID-19 had been transmitted on UK soil. Within weeks, on 12 April, that tally had reached 10,612. This will rise. Significantly.
The UK went into lockdown on 23 March.