Humans have faced pandemics before, but some unusual features of covid-19 and modern society have conspired to create the perfect storm this time
6 January 2021
WAS “unprecedented” the most overused word of 2020? There is no doubt that covid-19 has had an extraordinary range of consequences, from turning toilet paper into a treasured commodity and making handshakes taboo to closing schools and putting whole countries in lockdown. But humans have always had to face diseases. Is this one really so different from the others?
As vaccines come into use and we start to see light at the end of the tunnel, it is worth considering this question. There is no doubt that governments, institutions and individuals have made mistakes when trying to deal with covid-19. But perhaps we can be forgiven for some of those failings, because over the past year it has become clear that this disease has unusual attributes. These, combined with certain features of the modern world, may have created the perfect pandemic storm. Whether in our judgements about lockdown and personal risk or in questions about where the virus came from and is going, we really have faced some unprecedented challenges.
The lockdown dilemma
In January 2020, as news emerged that a lockdown had been imposed in Wuhan, China, in an attempt to stop the spread of a new disease, few citizens of other countries could have imagined that their lives would soon be similarly restricted.
Quarantine has long been used as a weapon against infectious diseases, from the English village of Eyam’s response to plague in 1665 to action taken in West Africa to curb Ebola outbreaks in the 21st century. However, a …