In my lifetime – and I was born in 1963 – there have been what I can only describe as unsettling moments – where life couldn’t carry on as normal. The current Coronavirus pandemic is certainly one of those moments.
The streets of my home city, London, are noticeably emptier than usual. The tube train and buses have empty seats. In fact yesterday I found myself in an empty train carriage that would normally be full on a Saturday.
Which made me think – when had I experienced similar moments in my lifetime where the world seemed a more dangerous place?
Well, for something on this scale, I’d have to go back to the aftermath of 9/11 back in 2001. In the days that followed the Al Qaeda attack on the Twin Towers in New York, people in London were worried that similar terrorist outrages could happen on our streets.
There were fears of so-called “dirty bombs” – a radiological dispersal device (even held in a suitcase) – being released in public places. On TV, we had dramatised scenarios where a terrorist would knowingly infect people with a deadly virus by brushing again them in a lift. Reports circulated of nuclear facilities in the former Soviet Union being robbed of lethal chemicals and we wondered if London could be made uninhabitable for a century or more.
Back in 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear reactor went into meltdown. Radioactive material was scattered all over the Ukraine and eastern Europe. I was living in Liverpool at the time and recall being locked out of my flat and caught in a downpour. A friend “joked” that as sheep in nearby north Wales had been shown to have higher than usual levels of radiation, I had probably absorbed some radiation too!
If I look back on the unsettling moments that affected society around me in my life – the two big themes are disease and terrorism. On the disease side of things, for example, there was the outbreak of “mad cow” disease in the late 1980s and early 1990s (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy or BSE for short) – which led us to shun British beef in favour of Argentinian or not eat beef at all.
There was the horror and anguish of the HIV/AIDS virus and the loss of people to that terrible disease, which first emerged very publicly in the early 1980s. It struck terror into the gay community but affected other groups as well. What shocks us now is the lack of sympathy in the tabloid press back then that dubbed the virus – the “gay plague”.
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On the terrorism side, there have been the ISIS bombings in recent years in London, Paris and Brussels. I was in Paris shortly after the 2015 atrocities and saw heavily armed troops patrolling outside Notre Dame. While outside the Bataclan concert hall where terrorist shot up the audience at a rock gig, thousands of young people lit candles and wept.
Back in my childhood – in the 1970s – the terrorist threat came from the Irish Republican Army who in the middle of that decade carried out two notorious and bloody bombings in Guildford and Birmingham. That was a spill over of the conflict raging in Northern Ireland between Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries. There were periods when more vigilance was required and the public was noticeably more tense and anxious.
Outside of terrorism and disease – the only other thing that comes to mind is the threat of superpower conflict. Forty years ago, we worried about the Soviet Union and the United States blowing each other up. Now – in a more multi-polar world – that’s not such a looming threat. The political danger instead comes from multiple sources and is far less predictable.
In short – these periods of heightened risk happen every so often in human history. Plague, war, famine….we’ve been here before. It’s when we realise that despite our modernity and technology – we are still very vulnerable to things beyond our control.