Show caption Italian author Francesca Melandri: ‘We are very low-key seers.’ Photograph: Carlo Traina Opinion The great Coronapause is over, but history tells us that complacency can be a killer Mark Honigsbaum Just as in the flu pandemic of the 19th century, waves of infections in the US and Portugal should remind us that Covid shows no signs of going away Sun 5 Jun 2022 09.30 BST Share on Facebook
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Shortly before the first British lockdown, the Italian novelist Francesca Melandri wrote an open letter to the UK describing our soon-to-be coronavirus future. At the time, Melandri had been under lockdown in Rome for three weeks and cemeteries in Lombardy, in northern Italy, had run out of plots to bury the dead. “We are but a few steps ahead of you in the path of time, just like Wuhan was a few weeks ahead of us,” Melandri warned. “You [will] hold the same arguments we did until a short time ago, between those who still say ‘it’s only a flu, why all the fuss?’ and those who have already understood.”
Melandri’s predictions proved spot on. As British ICU wards filled with coronavirus patients, some commentators dismissed the measures as a media scare, arguing that Covid-19 was no worse than the 2009 swine flu. Others, grasping the urgency of the situation, offered to get the shopping in for elderly neighbours while cursing panic-buyers and joggers who refused to keep their distance.
Challenging as those early days of lockdown were, they were also precious. As the juggernaut of modernity slowed, new horizons opened. With our workaday lives stilled by the Coronapause, we suddenly had time to reflect and imagine a different way of life and, perhaps, a better future for our children.
But that was then. What does the future hold now that the war in Ukraine has displaced Covid from the front pages and we find ourselves consumed once more by a succession of political and economic crises? Is the pandemic over or is this merely an intermission before the virus mutates again?
As Justin Welby’s Covid-enforced absence from the Queen’s thanksgiving service at St Paul’s Cathedral last Friday illustrated, Covid-19 has not gone away but continues to be a source of considerable inconvenience and, for those unlucky to end up in hospital, ongoing misery. Despite hopes that herd immunity would have kicked in by now, the US is in the midst of its fourth-biggest Covid surge, while Portugal, where 90% of the population is vaccinated, has registered an astonishing 2,447 new cases per million people in the last seven days, driven by the Omicron sub-variant BA.5.
Is the pandemic over or is this merely an intermission before the virus mutates again?
In a world that had absorbed the lessons of previous waves, these figures would make us pause once more. Instead, we think of making up for lost beach time by cramming into airports crippled by post-Covid worker shortages before rushing back to half-empty offices just in case Jacob Rees-Mogg or Elon Musk should pay an impromptu visit. Never mind that studies show that hybrid working is more productive and results in happier, more contented employees. Now the Coronapause is over, the powers that be are determined to call time on work from home and restore the status quo. But for the two million Britons struggling with the debilitating effects of long Covid, the pandemic is not over. Nor can those who have lost loved ones or close family members to the virus readily forget the government’s failure to lock down sooner. For relatives of the 180,000 British dead, there can be no moving on until the long-promised public inquiry into the pandemic has delivered its verdict.
That is why in the rush to forget it is critical to take stock and remember so that our experiences are available to future generations. Arguably, the reason we were so poorly prepared for Covid-19 and the lockdowns that attended it is that we had failed to pay sufficient heed to how societies had resorted to similar measures at other times and places. Quarantines are a tried and tested response to outbreaks, one that has changed little since 1377, when Dubrovnik banned travellers from plague-infested areas entering the city. Yet when we saw the pictures from Wuhan and later Bergamo, we could not imagine the same thing might happen here.
We must not make the same mistake again. To ensure our memories and experiences are available to future generations, the Science Museum has begun collecting objects and artefacts from the pandemic – in its medical gallery you can currently see the lectern from the Downing Street press conference carrying the message “Stay At Home – Protect the NHS – Save Lives” and the artist Grayson Perry’s ceramic jar depicting the traumatic lockdown experiences of his alter ego, Alan Measles.
When we saw the pictures from Wuhan and later Bergamo, we could not imagine the same thing might happen here
One reason the museum has been so keen to gather these objects is that it has done a poor job of documenting previous pandemics – for instance, its collections contain virtually no objects from the 1918 Spanish flu, a pandemic that, like Covid, swept round the globe in successive waves, upending social life and killing some 50 million people. But as we look to the future, perhaps a better analogue is with the 1889-92 “Russian influenza” pandemic, which some scientists think may have been wrongly attributed to flu and which may also have been due to a coronavirus.
Just as Covid-19 has coincided with the closing years of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, so the Russian flu – so-called because the first reported outbreak occurred in St Petersburg in November 1889 – coincided with the final years of Queen Victoria’s rule.
In all, some four million people in England and Wales were sickened during the first wave. But, unlike the Spanish flu, which was over in 12 months, the Russian flu returned again and again. And just as Covid has felled prelates, princes and paupers, so the Russian flu sickened people from all social classes, including William Connor Magee, the archbishop of York, and Prince Albert Victor, Queen Victoria’s grandson (both of whom died). Most worrying of all, the pandemic triggered peculiar nervous illnesses and fatigue states reminiscent of long Covid. But rather than dismissing these fatigue states as psychosomatic and treating convalescents with suspicion, Victorian nerve doctors blamed “overwork” and “over-worry”, key tropes of masculinity and modernity.
The result was that by the middle 1890s the image of a nation of convalescents, too debilitated to work or return to daily routines and plagued by mysterious neurological symptoms, had become central to the period’s medical and cultural iconography. As Thomas Clouston, a contemporary medical observer put it, the Russian flu had “left the European world’s nerves and spirits in a far worse state than it found them, and that they scarcely yet have recovered their natural tone”.
All the more reason why, as we pause to toast the Queen this weekend, we should not be in too much of a hurry to resume business as usual, but should remember the Coronapause and what it taught us about our anxious present and the possibilities for human flourishing in future.
“We are very low-key seers,” Melandri concluded in her letter from Italy. “If we turn our gaze to the more distant future, the future which is unknown both to you and to us too, we can only tell you this: when all of this is over, the world won’t be the same.”
• Mark Honigsbaum is the author of The Pandemic Century