There have been moments in history when the whole of society seemed to be seized by a communal panic. Since mid-March 2020 this year, almost our entire news output from TV, newspapers and online has been Coronavirus related. We have been in a communal panic of epic proportions.
That’s not to say Coronavirus is fake as some have claimed. But the virus has shaken us all severely. It’s altered every aspect of our daily lives. As widespread panic goes – this is probably the most fundamental episode of collective anxiety I’ve ever seen.
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 about when had I experienced similar episodes of panic in my lifetime where the world seemed a more dangerous place?
PANIC IN HISTORY: The aftermath of 9/11
Well, for a panic on the scale of the Coronavirus, 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.
PANIC IN HISTORY: Chernobyl
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!
I must admit that for us in Britain, the health panic around Chernobyl was nothing compared to the fear in places closer to the nuclear site like Ukraine and the Balkans. And it certainly didn’t match the huge impact of the Coronavirus in 2020.
If I look back on the unsettling moments that affected society around me in my life – two big themes are disease and terrorism. These moments have sometimes created a sense of panic similar to what we’re feeling today about the Coronavirus.
On the disease side of things, 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.
PANIC IN HISTORY: HIV/AIDS
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”.
I guess one difference between the panic around Coronavirus today and the fear of AIDS back then is that most people in the 1980s thought they were completely immune to AIDS. They assumed it was a virus only affected LGBT people and certain parts of the world.
FIND OUT MORE: A warning to anti-vaxxers from history
PANIC IN HISTORY: Terrorism
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.
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PANIC IN HISTORY: Threat of nuclear war
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.