The story of the “Y2K bug” is a parable from which most of us have taken the wrong lesson. No, the world didn’t overreact to a nonexistent threat of computers crashing as 1999 became 2000. Experts identified a problem and took steps to solve it. The measure of their success is that Y2K now feels like a nonevent.
The same logic holds for pandemics. If a government successfully limits the spread of the coronavirus, and the most apocalyptic scenarios do not manifest, some people will suggest that the authorities overreacted. Brutally, though, this is a better problem for a government to have than the one facing Italy, where overstretched hospitals are struggling to cope with large numbers of cases and facing difficult decisions about who most deserves treatment.
Here in Britain, the government has made a divisive calculation. It has so far held off from measures such as closing schools and banning public gatherings, believing that in an individualist, democratic society, such measures will be hard to implement and even harder to maintain over significant periods of time. Put simply, people need to be anxious enough about the coronavirus to obey the rules, and if the government can expect only a few weeks of compliance, it needs to time that window for maximum effect.
Each country’s response to coronavirus has been informed by its unique caseload, media architecture, appetite for state intervention, and the competence of its politicians. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been careful to foreground experts in public health. This week, he conducted a Q&A session with the deputy chief medical officer, covering basic topics such as symptoms and the importance of hand-washing. Despite this, there has been a persistent (and now-growing) drumbeat of discontent at the slowness of the government’s response. The former Conservative lawmaker Rory Stewart, now running for mayor of London, called for much more stringent measures at the start of the week, citing his experience with the Ebola crisis. The opposition Labour Party’s health spokesman, Jon Ashworth, last night asked if the government had placed too much emphasis on “behavioral science.”
At the same time, because this is Britain, pundits have been suggesting that this is another example of “Project Fear.” This phrase, popularized during the 2014 Scottish referendum, was used to denigrate the mainstream economic opinion that Scottish independence would harm Scotland’s economic growth. It was enthusiastically taken up by Brexiteers when forecasters made the same prediction about Britain leaving the European Union. The term appeals to a particular kind of British sensibility, one in which young people are “snowflakes,” and we need to return to the days when milkmen cheerily continued their rounds through the bombed-out rubble of London’s East End during the Second World War.
That mythology flatters older people in Britain, who see themselves as stoic and unruffled, immune to the excesses of a “nanny state” that wants to warn consumers about peanut packets containing nuts. (It is also, in the context of a pandemic, extremely dangerous. Older people are most at risk of dying from the coronavirus.) “I have discovered in conversation with the over-70s in my own family that *none* of them were rigorously following hand-washing protocols,” tweeted the palliative-care doctor Rachel Clarke. “‘Blitz spirit.’ ‘Overreaction.’ ‘The young today’ ... were phrases used.”
We can add to this antipathy another problem. Over the past two decades, as Islamic and far-right terrorism have led to occasional violence, the advice has been: Go about your daily life, free from fear, or the terrorists have won. After the financial crisis, the official advice was similar: Keep spending, keep traveling, keep living. Don’t let the economy seize up. British people began buying a poster bearing the jaunty slogan Keep calm and carry on, which supposedly derived from World War II. (Former Prime Minister David Cameron liked it so much, he had a version as a cutting board in his kitchen.)
However, this appeal to Blitz spirit, to the unbowed might of Albion, to the idea that Britain withstood the Luftwaffe—all of it is deeply unhelpful when dealing with an infectious disease. As the government inevitably restricts Britons’ lives to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the country has to reject the voices urging us that we are overreacting, that we should stoically stagger on, as Saint George or Boudicca or Winston Churchill might have done. Hopefully, our actions will look like overreactions in a few months’ time. That’s the measure of success.
In other words, keep calm and don’t carry on.
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