“Anything we say in advance of a pandemic happening is alarmist; anything we say afterwards is inadequate.” — Michael Leavitt, US Health and Human Services Secretary, March 30, 2006
A crew of gathered customers were busying themselves this Friday evening at the BWS (Beer, Wine and Spirits for the uninitiated) along Elizabeth Street in Melbourne, sporting shirts heavy with sponsorship. Some were surly; others were trying to keep their spirits up. “Things to do in Melbourne when you are not going to the Formula One,” a sprightly one chirped, looking at his phone with mild amusement. “Go to the zoo; or you may use the famous tram network. Do observe the wonderful left-hook turn on the road.” Another customer was keen to get back to her home stomping ground – Sydney. It was seeing cars racing, or nothing. “If I cannot get a flight out tonight, I will simply drive.” Appropriate for a Formula One fan, perhaps. “And why don’t they close the tram network anyway?” she blurted. “So many people, close and cramped.”
Another tournament had been cancelled, this time the Australian Grand Prix. It was one of the last major international holdouts in what has been (pun intended), a contagion of cancellation. The sponsors and fans were promised their fill till the last moment. A note of blithe confidence prevailed.
Then came the news. A member of one of the participating teams – McLaren – had tested positive to COVID-19. Tittering followed; Formula One drivers baulked. A stuttering management concluded that the event should be cancelled. Begging bowls were readied. “A cancellation of this nature has a lot of consequences and some of those are contractual and financial,” reflected Australian Grand Prix executive Andrew Westacott. A topless Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes, hamming it up in his hotel, expressed the view to his followers, that he did not want to leave the hotel room.
Across the globe, events are being cancelled, rallies are being limited, gatherings are being treated with suspicion. It is an authoritarian’s wet dream of control, and it does not look pretty. Tournaments that have not been cancelled or suspended are taking place behind closed doors, with the gulf between the watchers and performers increasingly vast. All English and Scottish football is being suspended till April 3. All Champions League and Europa League matches have been postponed till further notice. Golf, with its spoiling-of-a-good-walk charm, has also been postponed or cancelled in various forms.
Continuing tournaments in the absence of spectators is as much a statement of sponsorship and power as it is about a certain chilliness shown by sporting management to paying customers. Doing so has caused a divide in the sporting community. Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola finds the whole matter distasteful. “I would prefer not to play games without people watching,” he said before a match between his side and Arsenal was called off. “It doesn’t make sense to play professional football without the people, because they are the ones we do it for.” At least to a point.
Responses, globally, have varied, as are the report cards. Slow and dangerously inefficient in Iran; rapid, effective but harsh in China. South Korea’s own formula was praised by virologist Rupert Beale as a blueprint for disease response in a democracy. “They quickly ramped up their testing capacity, educated the public about self-isolation, shut down large gatherings, restricted travel, increased hospital capacity.”
The same cannot be said about the United States, which veers between the poles of indifference – President Donald Trump and the flu school of thinking – and the firm views of director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, Anthony Fauci, that old “public face of science”. Fauci’s testimony before the House Oversight Committee suggested a degree of seriousness the less than serious Trump has preferred to ignore.
The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed mild schizophrenia as a result. “CDC,” went a statement earlier this month, “is no longer reporting the number of persons under investigation (PUIs) that have been tested, as well as PUIs that have tested negative. Now that states are testing and reporting their own representatives, CDC’s numbers are not representative all of [sic] testing being done nationwide.”
Winds are now blowing differently, and Trump has had to show renewed interest. As of March 4, there were a mere 233 COVID-19 cases in the US, the result of small scale testing. By March 13, there were 1,701 confirmed COVID-19 cases, along with 40 deaths. As a result, a national emergency – “two very big words”, claimed Trump – has been declared.
As the pandemic spreads, paranoia is proving delightfully variegated. It is contagion as purpose; contagion as a way of life. It is excuse and apologetics mixed with accusation and incompetence. For the more pragmatic inclined, behavioural changes are anticipated, notably with regards regular sanitation. (According to the charity WaterAid, four out of five people globally do not tend to wash their hands.) The term “social distancing” may pass from vogue to dull currency. Self-isolation is already having its effects, with those doing so suffering, as a study in The Lancet concludes, post-traumatic stress symptoms, confusion, and anger. “Humanity will get through this fine,” Beale writes, quoting a colleague in infectious diseases, “but be prepared for major changes in how we function and behave as a society until either we’re through the pandemic or we have mass immunisation available.”