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A Pandemic May be Reported Like a War, But They’re Very Different

Photograph Source: Photographer Robert Capa during the Spanish civil war, May 1937. Photo by Gerda Taro – Public Domain

I was walking in the early evening down an empty street in Canterbury, wondering how residents were coping with fear and isolation stemming from the coronavirus outbreak. People living there must have been in their houses judging by the cars parked outside, but there were few lights in the windows suggesting that they were in their kitchens out the back.

The silence was complete aside from the twitter of birds, eerie but magical, reminding me of streets in Beirut or Baghdad during a lull in the fighting. But then Lebanese and Iraqis have all had too much experience of crises when it was too risky to set foot outside one’s own home. For people in Canterbury it is a new and worrying experience.

I had my worst experience of loneliness when I was six years old in 1956 and I caught polio in an epidemic in Cork. An ambulance took me to a ward in St Finbarr’s hospital in Cork city which only doctors, nurses and clergy were allowed to enter. I had grown up within a tight family group and felt frightened and bewildered. One day I saw my parents waving their hands frantically and with manically cheerful smiles on the other side of an oval window in a door leading into the ward.

I discovered early on that reading was the easiest way to escape from an unappealing world. As a child, I would become wholly absorbed in historical adventure stories by the once vastly popular G A Henty and, rather more contemporary ones set in or around the two world wars by Captain WE Johns, featuring the war heroes Biggles and Gimlet.

As a foreign reporter my luggage used to be weighed down with books to fend off potential tedium. A hazard for journalists specialising in the Middle East was once a call from a Libyan diplomatic mission saying that one had been granted an exclusive interview with the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

This sounded too good to be true and so it was, but was difficult to turn down, even though one was aware that the Libyans had probably made the same promise of exclusivity to a dozen journalists and there was a better than even chance that none of us would see the mercurial Gaddafi. Since the only way to find this out for sure was to go to Tripoli and wait, I travelled with a full helping of Jane Austen. I would lie on my bed in the hotel in Tripoli reading Pride and Prejudice, Emma or Mansfield Park, disappearing into the country house world of the early 19th century English gentry.

More fraught situations required a less genteel reading list: wars require boring periods of waiting for something to happen and I discovered that an effective antidote to tedium or self-pity was books about even nastier conflicts, like the battles of Verdun or Stalingrad, showing that, however bad things might be for oneself, they had been a great deal worse for others.

In the coronavirus pandemic, as has happened in past wars, politicians make irritating efforts to evoke wartime spirit and camaraderie. The media highlights upbeat items designed to demonstrate national solidarity and raise morale.

The tone is unnecessarily patronising since most people are capable of dealing with a solitary or uncertain existence so long as it does not go on too long and they and their family are together and not under direct threat. The worst affected in most crises are people who were not doing too well pre-crisis: an adviser in a Citizens Advice Bureau told me that she was most worried about what would happen to her mentally ill clients who not only could not operate online, but are frightened of telephones.

Curiously, the pandemic has re-established the use of the telephone as the best way of keeping in touch with friends and colleagues. I have always found emails to be a chilly and not very satisfactory way of making contact with people. In the present lockdown, many others have reached the same conclusion. Telecommunication companies in the US say that they had expected a big increase to be in the use of the internet, but found instead that the number of phone calls has increased much faster and are twice what they used to be.

My experience of coping with isolation and loneliness has to do mostly with armed conflict in places like Belfast, Grozny, Baghdad, Beirut and Benghazi. At first glance, this would seem to fit in neatly with what happens to people facing lockdown and possible infection today. Certainly there are points in common, but the analogy is not as helpful as it might seem.

The Covid-19 pandemic is really not like a war despite innumerable comparisons: the number of fatalities caused by the virus worldwide totals around 100,000 compared to an estimated 20 million deaths in the First World War and 56 million in the 1939-45 conflict.

In one respect, however, the pandemic is very similar to a war: they are reported the same way by the media. War reporting tends to mislead, not so much because of “the fog of war” or propaganda, but because it dwells so exclusively on melodrama; reports of epidemics are equally sensationalist and catastrophist.

“If it bleeds, it leads” is a well-established principle of the news business and always will be. Political leaders, for their part, revel in threat inflation as it puts them centre stage and enables them to extend their authority without opposition. The cruellest current example of this epidemic-fuelled authoritarianism is in India, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered a lockdown with only four hours’ notice, forcing millions of unemployed migrant labourers to take to the roads in a desperate bid to reach their home villages. In South Africa shanty towns, police beat people for not staying in their houses full time even when their house consists of a few pieces of plywood and corrugated iron.

As with war reporting, objective and substantiated information is difficult to come by despite, or even because of, the tidal wave of news. How far, for instance, does the death rate in each country exceed the normal death rate for this time of year? The vulnerable health service workers in every country are being rightly lauded for their selfless courage, but does the significantly lower death rate in Veneto compared to Lombardy reflect the fact that fewer patients are hospitalised in the former region and the hospitals themselves may be a prime source of fatal infections?

There is a politics of pandemics, just as there is a politics of war in which conspiracy theories abound. In the small but vicious polio epidemic in Cork, where I caught the disease, as in Wuhan today, local people were convinced that the authorities were lying about the number of fatalities and were secretly burying the dead in mass graves.

A pandemic, like a war, requires decision making in circumstances in which crucial information is scant or unreliable. The cooperation of many countries and individuals is needed to stop a war or an epidemic disease, which explains why it takes so long to end them.

Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).

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