By now, Coronavirus, or Covid-19, is one of the most well-known illnesses around the globe. It has caused widespread fear, panic-buying, stockpiling and empty supermarket shelves, closed down schools and businesses, caused a shortage of hospital beds and ventilators, and of course many, many deaths. It has shut down entire countries, one by one like dominoes falling in a line and is likely to lead to a pretty serious worldwide recession not seen since the great depression of the 1930’s. It’s a very strange time to be alive, and certainly one that will be taught in the history books in the future. Living through it feels exactly like every Hollywood disaster movie – the signs were there but were we too slow to take action?
Looking back with hindsight, it’s interesting to reflect on how the timeline unfolded, how in January, the news of the virus spreading in China was interesting, but not causing much panic. We watched from afar as things in China got worse, and saw how China shut down around mid-January after calls for them to respond better to the situation. Then it started spreading, slowly at first, then onto a large cruise ship, The Diamond Princess, which briefly had more cases outside of China than anywhere else.
Then there was the ski resort in France – in the UK in mid February almost all of the first 5 or 6 cases were traced back to a man named Steve, believed to have brought it from Singapore and then spread it to others at the French ski resort before returning to the UK. Then we saw around 100 Britons repatriated to the UK from China and forcibly quarantined in a hotel in the Wirral, and we were surprised to discover they were not at liberty to leave – by court order.
As the UK continued to track and trace the first 11 or so cases, through late February, we watched as things in Italy worsened and certain towns like Lombardy went into quarantine, and Italy began to overtake The Diamond Princess for numbers of cases. People started queueing for food and the first signs of panic-buying in Europe began in several countries.
On the 8th March, we in the UK were still mostly going about our business as usual, the fear was growing but not yet overwhelming. I attended a public photography exhibition that day to celebrate International Women’s Day, along with around 500 other people, and it didn’t occur to any of us that we shouldn’t have been there. No one at that point was telling us not to gather in large groups. That was the same day we watched in shock as Italy quarantined 16 million people across the northern region, the biggest quarantine of it’s kind outside of China. By the 9th March, they extended the lockdown to the whole of Italy.
At that point, by the 9th March, the UK had had 5 deaths and approx 320 confirmed cases, and the Government were starting to ramp up emergency meetings. The stock markets around the world started to shake a little, though not by much, and suddenly everyone started panic-buying toilet paper. The rest of the week the fear was starting to feel more palpable. Already streets were emptier, quieter, more people were choosing to stay home and a number of businesses were suggesting that staff work from home if they could. Supermarket shelves were starting to get bare all over, with fewer and fewer items left on the shelves. Flights were starting to get cancelled and countries started to introduce mandatory quarantines for people entering the country from anywhere. There were fewer and fewer children showing up at our nursery each day, and the parks were quiet. Various major events started to get cancelled.
By the week of the 16th March, people were placing bets on when the UK schools would close, after several other countries including Spain went into full lockdowns, as cases and deaths increased massively in Italy and Spain, and questions were arising about why the UK was waiting so long, and what would happen to all the people who couldn’t do their jobs from home. Already pubs, bars, restaurants, airlines and theatres were seeing huge drops in sales and were starting to fire staff and shut down, Global markets were plunging, and unemployment was likely to soar, as the Government started making pledges to support the economy through the crisis. It became clear that London was by far the worst hit so far, and although no formal lockdown was in place, more and more guidance was being issued asking people to stay at home, especially vulnerable and elderly people, and avoid crowds. Most shops sold out of paracetamol, as well as loo roll, and started placing restrictions on most items to avoid panic-buying and stockpiling.
On the 18th March they announced that the schools, nurseries and colleges would be closed from the 20th March, except for key workers such as NHS staff, who were needed at hospitals and still needed childcare provisions.
On the evening of the 23rd March, the Prime Minister announced a formal lockdown for the UK, aiming to last for 3 weeks, and bringing in extreme measures such as allowing police to break up groups of more than 2 people congregating in public, stimulus packages to support income for those who would be laid off during the crisis. At this point, all non-essential shops such as clothing shops were forced to close until further notice, along with bars, restaurants, theatres and more, and any non-essential trips outside of your home were prohibited. You could only leave home for essentials such as food shopping or to access medical treatment, to go to work if you absolutely have to, or for daily exercise once a day, as long as you stay away from other people as much as you can.
On the 25th March, It was estimated that 25% of the world’s population were in lockdown and staying inside their homes, a shockingly massive figure that will no doubt have enormous environmental ramifications, though it’s not yet clear if it is enough to stem the tide of Covid-19 around the globe. Donald Trump continues to spout nonsense that seems to go against all sensible advice, and the US is looking likely to be the next major epicentre after Europe. In Kenya, Senegal and several other countries they “discovered” that the virus can only be spread at night, so have started curfews at night, but continue to have business as usual during the day, possibly to avoid the economic ramifications of a full lockdown but unlikely to have a significant impact on the spread of the disease sadly. One assumes that most of these countries can’t afford to keep their economies going at all during a shutdown, so are trying their best to avoid it.
By the 26th March, as the UK announced a new field hospital was being set up with military support with capacity for 4000 beds in a conference centre in London to cope with the strain on the NHS, there were 578 deaths related to Covid-19 in the UK, out of 11,600 confirmed cases. Worldwide at this point there had been over 470,000 confirmed cases and 21,270 deaths.
By 28th March the figures are showing a steep upcurve as it spreads to move countries, with almost 650,000 confirmed cases and over 30,000 deaths worldwide, and over 1,000 deaths in the UK.
So that’s the recap of where we are and how we got here, from what I can remember (apologies if some of the dates are off here and there). If that doesn’t sound like the plot of a blockbuster disaster movie I don’t know what does. I thought it would be sensible to try and capture it from an ordinary person’s perspective, as I see it at least, so I am planning to keep a brief lockdown diary from here on out, in these extraordinary times.
Ever since this crisis began, I have been reflecting on the peculiarities of this pandemic and it’s reaction across the globe, and one thing in particular has, (and continues to) bother me. It is very clear that the final death toll of this pandemic will be significant, (for comparison I believe that the swine flu pandemic in 2009 caused approx 200,000 deaths worldwide, and it seems as though this is likely to be higher by a significant margin). However, as a humanitarian, I am used to the uphill battle of trying to make people in wealthier western countries care about people dying in places Iraq, South Sudan or Yemen, to care about deadly cholera outbreaks or ebola epidemics in countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo where funding is low and it seems like no-one else really cares. In one severe cholera outbreak, over 12,000 people died just in one city alone (Goma), a statistic that has not yet been seen in any one city in this current pandemic (though it may yet). This shockingly high number of deaths from one massive cholera outbreak did not garner much media attention or support from the rest of the world, in fact it mostly passed everyone else by. The Ebola crisis in West Africa in 2014 certainly made a few headlines, but again didn’t draw much in the way of funding or support to stem it. In this pandemic, the death rate is all anyone cares about – people are frightened and scared, and rightly so, but it still sits uncomfortably for me.
Since the 1st Jan, to date, roughly 30,000 people have died globally of Covid-19, which is a huge and tragic number. In that same three month time period, over 250,000 people have died of tuberculosis around the world*. I cannot really fathom why those numbers don’t shock and sadden more people. I understand of course that that this virus is new, and scary and we have no defences against it, so it is an unknown entity, which is more scary to us in the developed world than something like TB, which we have vaccines and treatments for.
But for the people of the world who have no access to treatments or vaccines for TB, it probably doesn’t matter which contagious deadly lung infection kills you – I imagine they are just as scary, and TB is currently killing at a rate over 10 times higher than Covid-19. Yet there is no panic, there is no fundraising to vaccinate the globe, to reach out and help those countries whose healthcare systems are overwhelmed and have been for a long time. We have vaccinated the developed world, and left the other countries to fend for themselves (which they are clearly unable to do), and I wonder if once Europe and the USA and the rest of the developed world have achieved herd immunity against Covid-19, if we won’t do the same again and leave the poorer countries to fend for themselves.
My colleagues and I have seen health crises again and again in developing countries where it overwhelms already creaking healthcare systems and thousands of people die out in the streets for lack of hospital beds or access to treatment. It really feels more stark now than ever that no-one really cares about the mass deaths of poor people in the developing world, and it makes me feel sad that 1000 Italian lives appear to be worth more than 1000 Yemeni lives (14 million Yemenis are on the brink of starvation and have been dying of a combination of hunger and cholera for 5 years now, which in 2016 was named by the UN as the worst humanitarian crisis around the globe).
A deeply sad thought, and something that after 10 years of humanitarian work I still cannot fathom, why some lives are worth more than others. I’ve made it my life’s work to care about all those other deaths, and I am not sure I will ever understand why no-one is freaking out or particularly bothered about those other 250,000 deaths that happened from January to March 2020.
*Statistics from Information is Beautiful, based on average daily death rate of 3000 deaths per day for TB worldwide.