A Royal Reality Check

The heir to the British throne getting the coronavirus will make this outbreak seem real to many people.

Prince Charles surrounded by red dots.
Max Mumby / Getty / The Atlantic

“A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa,” Mark Zuckerberg once told his colleagues at Facebook. People were outraged, of course. People are always outraged when someone points out one of the indefensible things we nonetheless all believe.

As China was ravaged by the coronavirus at the start of the year, life carried on as normal for many in the West. The complacency largely continued even as Italy was overwhelmed by the virus. And that lack of urgency was not limited to ordinary citizens, who can be excused, but extended to politicians and opinion-forming commentators.

After complacency came amorphous panic. The news that Prince Charles, the 71-year-old heir to the throne, has tested positive for the coronavirus begins the next chapter of the story here in Britain. Within minutes of the news breaking, I received the first of several texts from friends that all said, essentially, the same thing: “Shit just got real.” The sentiment might have been smothered in the ironic language of the internet, but it was genuine. Until now, the coronavirus has been an abstract idea for most Britons. This news brings it home. People you know—whether in real life or through the media—will get the virus. Some of them will become very ill. A few will die.

It is ghoulish to contemplate, but having such a high-profile confirmed sufferer of the virus might save lives. Britain has just embarked on a lockdown period, which is being more lightly enforced than those in Italy and France. With fewer police officers per head than in those countries, its success relies on compliance from the public. The outbreak needs to feel real. When someone you know catches COVID-19—even if it’s someone you only know through a television screen—the pandemic materializes, no longer a ghost story but a concrete problem.

Over the past few weeks, fellow journalists have fretted to me about the difficulty of conveying the seriousness of the situation. When disasters strike, they often yield vivid images: the town lost to a tsunami, the towering wall of fire at the roadside. Why, one friend wondered, were we not seeing inside Italian intensive-care units? Perhaps broadcasters judged that these images were too raw—death by drowning in your own lungs is not pretty—or perhaps families would not consent to the intrusion. The short Sky News report I did see from an Italian hospital was terrifying—not just the patients gasping for breath, but their loneliness, the way their individualism was stripped away, and the surreal horror-movie styling of the “bubble helmets” used to supply oxygen.

Before the announcement about Prince Charles, two things made the coronavirus real to me, in that immediate squirrel-in-the-road sense we need to foster. The first was an image from Google Earth of Iran’s mass graves. A country that had covered up the true extent of its crisis, where young men filmed themselves licking holy relics to demonstrate their contempt for the virus, could not hide its death toll forever. The second was the family of Theo Usherwood, a British radio journalist who is an acquaintance of mine—and, crucially, someone my age—revealing that he had been hospitalized with pneumonia from complications of the coronavirus. The news punctured the false assurance I had carried that COVID-19 was someone else’s disease—someone old, someone vulnerable, someone not like me.

In the case of Prince Charles, his diagnosis prompted immediate questions. How did he get a test, if he is reporting only mild symptoms and has had no known contact with an identified sufferer? (The official statement insists that he met the criteria.) When did he last see his 93-year-old mother, Queen Elizabeth? (March 12.) How many people did the prince infect during royal engagements, where one of his primary duties is to shake people’s hands? (Like many of us, he has struggled with the new pandemic etiquette.)

So far, celebrity contributions to the conversation around the pandemic have tended toward the narcissistic—think Madonna in a rose-petal-strewn bath, warning us from her luxury townhouse that the coronavirus is a great leveler, or various comedians and actors ruining John Lennon’s “Imagine.” In the coming days, we will undoubtedly hear about more high-profile diagnoses: The rich and famous can afford to get private tests, and some people (such as politicians) seem mysteriously able to bypass the long waits experienced by ordinary citizens.

Every celebrity coronavirus case will keep the pandemic in the headlines once there is little else “new” to report. Harsh as it may sound, when the coverage moves to recording that there are still deaths, still intensive-care shortages, still lockdowns, some people will tune out. Behavioral scientists are worried that populations may succumb to a phenomenon known as “intervention fatigue,” reducing the effectiveness of social distancing.

The news that Prince Charles has the coronavirus broke through the encroaching sense of fatigue. And the more names and faces we can put to this pandemic, the better chance we have of fighting it. When the sick and dead exist only as a list of ages and “underlying health conditions,” provoking empathy is impossible. The coronavirus is relevant to your interests, and the media have to keep it that way.