World goes viral

The Olympic torch was lit during a ceremony in Olympia, Greece, on Thursday, marking the beginning of its winding path to the Tokyo Games. It was a quiet affair. In attendance was just a small group of select guests; the public barred by the International Olympic Committee, citing coronavirus fears.

It followed the National Basketball Association’s decision to suspend its season in America, after a player tested positive for the virus. Major festivals – from South by Southwest in Texas to Tasmania’s Dark Mofo – were cancelled, as was Ireland’s St Patrick’s Day celebration. Cities across Europe banned any gatherings of more than 1000 people. In Japan, the Nakameguro cherry blossom festival, a major tourist magnet, was called off.

Now focus has turned to the Tokyo Olympics, awaiting a decision about whether the event will go ahead in July; a question that raises the curious prospect of a Games without any spectators. Those towering stadiums, purpose built, without a single seat filled.

This was the week the virus tipped over, morphing from the biggest story in the world to the only story in the world.

Harvey Weinstein was handed a 23-year jail sentence; Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman arrested several members of his family in a dramatic power grab. Peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban stalled at the first hurdle. None of it registered.

There was only the virus. And the fear and the panic, which have begun to take on a life of their own.

The gap is troublesome – the vast chasm between the health threat posed by COVID-19 and the intense response provoked, so far beyond anything seen before.

Proportionality is now key. The atomised nature of our lives may mean many schools and businesses can close their doors and operate almost wholly online, in a way not possible during previous pandemics. But that doesn’t mean they should.

Governments and institutions must separate what is possible from what is necessary.

For the elderly and the immunocompromised, concern about COVID-19 is valid. For the broader public though, fear poses its own threat of contagion. And the fallout may endure long after the flu season has ended.

Stimulus measures, such as those announced by the Morrison government this week, will go some way to halting the spread.

But the true challenge will be for the world’s populist leaders to move against their instincts, to manage down the anxieties of their constituents rather than whipping them up for political ends. The destructive potential of the latter should not be underestimated.

“I’m just trying to tell people to stay reasonably calm about this,” Australia’s chief medical officer, Brendan Murphy, urged on Wednesday. “For most people who get this virus, it is a very mild illness … At the moment, there is no reason for community panic in Australia.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 14, 2020 as "World goes viral".

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