In 1989 I was working as a district reporter on a daily newspaper – the Western Daily Press.
One Sunday morning, early in the year, I arrived in the office and phoned the newsdesk. They told me a contact of mine had called in with a story.
Forty three people had died of a flu virus at nearby Tone Vale psychiatric hospital. (To put this in some kind of context, as I write, fewer than 10 people have died in the whole South West from the coronavirus).
The story I eventually wrote went big, appeared on our front page, and was picked up by all the national newspapers. I was expecting a storm.
But unlike the mass hysteria of the latest outbreak, the response from Government, local authorities and NHS could not have been more casual. In fact the county press officer told me it was “just one of those things”. I quoted him. The story was gone in less than a week.
Now what really strikes me is the extraordinary contrast in community and corporate attitude, and response, to something that appears, on the face of it, to be the same as today. An uncontrolled virus (all the hospital patients at Tone Vale at that time had been immunised) which takes lives, and spreads like wildfire. Yet rather than public alarm and widespread action, there was passivity and indifference. Human lives being lost at an alarming rate, caused by a public health crisis.
It was, and still is, a global problem too. More than half a million people each year die from influenza around the world. These are not small insignificant numbers of human lives, yet we hear almost nothing of it in the media.
If we are now enforcing (soft tyranny by a professional elite rather than martial law by armed personnel) lockdown rules on an entire population on the basis of this outbreak, then how was this country so bafflingly immune to care and concern in 1989? It makes no sense at all.
I couldn’t find figures for last year, but I did discover in the winter of 2008/2009 more than 13000 people died of influenza….in this country. Not the UK mind you, but England. I was here at the time, and working for the NHS, and can’t remember hearing a thing about it. Let alone draconian public isolation measures being imposed, and mass hysteria.
The annual total for flu deaths in this country in fact ranges somewhere between 5000 and 14000…each year.
What is going on? How is the NHS somehow perfectly equipped to deal with the influenza threat killing thousands of people, but unable to cope at all with the coronavirus? I know ventilators are specialist equipment, but ICU beds are the same year in, year out.
I can only speculate (although I suspect the viral nature of modern day, 24-hour, global media and social media is partly responsible) but why are politicians, public health officials, just about everyone in visible civic leadership…globally… in a frenzy about this, and yet visibly did not bat an eyelid over the horror story I wrote in 1989? It seems to me a form of collective insanity.
When I look back through history at the world leaders who apparently entranced their nations with rhetoric and propoganda, leading them to ignominy and sometimes destruction through awful policies of eugenics and genocide, I now watch the daily government news briefings on the BBC and wonder.
Franz Kafka once said: “It doesn’t matter if something is true, only that it is necessary.”
On that basis, anything is possible as long as those in power can convince the masses of the need. QED social distancing, social isolation, and subjugation.
I have few answers to the conundrum, but I do believe the questions need to be asked and addressed.
The alternative is collective denial and the resulting population-wide symptoms of suppression and isolationism.
Additionally, as a Christian, I guess I believe in absolute, universal truth.
That means religion, as a life and death worldview, has a part to play. And therefore, thus far, the response by the church has been something of a puzzle. I love the church. It is a place of safety, security, comfort, fellowship and warmth, not just for its own, but for all mankind, for anyone.
But it only functions through unity, community, and being a collective body. In other words, church and social isolationism are mutually exclusive. (You could debate that Western living, all living apart in our own private homes, is in itself a form of isolationism).
Its not going too far to say the church would never have been born at all in the current climate of measures in Europe. The Bible says the early Christians were “all together and in one place”. They were in fact in breach of the current directives. The Holy Trinity – God, Son, and Holy Ghost – is a model rebuke to the practice of social distancing.
Meeting together was not only vital to the spread of the early church, it was a template for the church down through the centuries. Relationships mattered! So much so in fact the loyalty and sacrifice meant many gave their lives rather than compromise. Abraham Lincoln called it “the last full measure of devotion”
So the readiness and unseemly eagerness of the church authorities to take a lead in self imposing these individualistic measures appears counter-cultural. Why would a body that thrives and depends on human compassion, intimacy and contact for its very existence, its raison d’etre, its great commission, then retreat to private isolation and refuse to meet?
Again, it makes no sense. Especially when the message of wholeness and healing are so central to the gospel? Every hair on our head is numbered says the scripture. Do not stop meeting together. If any of you is sick, call the elders to lay hands on the sick person and they will be made well. That’s not a fairy tale, its sacred holy text.
Our collective and individual sanity and faith will be pushed and prodded and tested in these coming months of hiding and hibernation. There is safety in numbers, but isolation makes us weaker to the enemy, whoever or whatever that might be.
This invisible virus, with its oppressive media/PR footprint, is out there somewhere…shaking the world. But it is only stronger for the power we give it through our thoughts, words and actions.
Keep Calm and Carry On was great wartime advice. Something the current civic apparatus is determined to test. But the decree of the State is for us to be isolated from one another. I can’t think of many things less healthy for the human soul!