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17th March 2020

"Events dear boy, events" …cancelled

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We live in a culture of accelerated globalisation, but how that changes course towards isolated dystopia – and one story's saturation of news coverage – is yet to be written.

I am not going to try.

Events, and I mean seismic events – have we seen any as sensationally global as the coronavirus outbreak? Sub-prime banking crisis, 9/11 attacks, volcanos closing airspace and that tsunami. I would add climate change, but it's consumed us as a narrative as much as a story.   

“Events dear boy, events,” the phrase attributed to British Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan in the 1960s to describe the reason the government was blown off course. But seismic events that rock the economy – or the slow onset crawl towards them – in news saturation are rare.

If Boris wanted his Churchillian crisis, he is now staring down the barrel at one.      

We haven’t seen a crisis response quite like Covid-19. The swift sharing of data, as very different systems of government navigate their way.

We hear the word virus today and think of a cyber-attack, a phone hacked. Not anymore.     

I'll not compare coronavirus to the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918, although the mitigation and common-sense advice isn't so different now. But global connectivity – air travel, corporate timelines, social media – adds the very different dynamics of scale and speed on top of the known unknowns, such as herd immunity and untraceable carriers.

It doesn't just postpone the season it moves the goalposts, and this is what is testing government resilience in this crisis.

From chief scientific advisors to medics and data modellers, clever people will see data-mapping, crisis planning, scenarios and war-gaming at odds with real-time challenges and inaccurate projections. But though some of this will be found wanting, the energy and dynamism will have been worth it. It will have saved lives.        

Covid-19 has shown its own mapping as the pathogen now reaches much of the globe. That's some export from a Chinese live meat market. Here be more than dragons.

Air travel blocked, shelves emptying, schools shut, sport fixtures cancelled, markets slumped, rates cut, budgets rewritten, elections postponed, borders closed, movies unreleased. No Time to Die …no Mr Bond, we expect you to self-isolate.

Canada’s prime minister is among other politicians, cardinals, football players, film stars and the vulnerable now isolating – along with up to 60 per cent of working populations if we are to brace ourselves for the weeks ahead.

So much for free movement of people. Just when we thought we were done with Brexit, saturated with every political colour and comment, here we have a successor story that will run and run. 

When news is saturated (with no other content in the 29-minute bulletin), one story eclipses all others. Yes, we go elsewhere online for what interests us. Governments have people tracking what matters. But things get missed or reprioritised; stories get ignored or forgotten in the distraction.
          
With any major story, editors need to simplify and balance output. But with Covid-19, national broadcast becomes public information. The political opinions thin-out for factual updates, emergency legislation …and a dose of proportion.   

Nothing has blown governments off course quite as fast as this.             

It was 10 years ago that planes were grounded for two weeks by airspace closures across northern Europe as Iceland's volcano erupted. It caused more than a headache for airlines, where the industry's loss of revenue was only offset by its reduced carbon footprint – some 2.8 million tonnes of CO2. Travel sectors were impacted severely, with the economic loss to aviation put at $1.7 billion. Millions of passengers inconvenienced; events cancelled. But an absence of noise pollution with the skies clear of vapour trails was the oddity for most.

The thing with a virus outbreak is the lack of horizon. We may not be flying long haul, but governments are reconfiguring to go the distance. Sustainability can be a scary word when clinicians include it. Draconian policies are rare in many countries, and for good reason. Markets fall faster with shock actions, unable to price-in the economic impact. The unknown unknowns. 

Yes, hope to control a peak to build resilience into health resources; reallocate budgets to develop a vaccine; task car factories with making ventilators. It was the public spirit behind an urgent operational requirement that got Spitfires built 80 years ago. But Covid-19 is likely to remain a seasonally contracted illness.

I'll choose national endeavour over dystopia, whichever leadership we’re trusting in – or sooner flip over a dollar bill and go with that advice – hoping public rationale has a shelf-life. A reasonable rationale instilled in us to win through in the long run, not running on empty because the store is out of it.   

Whether you’re cancelling a holiday, washing hands or bumping elbows, rescheduling life as we live it – as we knew it – was never on our bucket list for the decade.

 

Jonathan Spencer

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