Coronavirus – and panic in history

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.

Chernobyl unsettled all of us back in 1986

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.

DISCOVER: Movies that promote conspiracy theories

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.

Brave New World – dystopia in literature

NBC/Universal in the US and Sky One in the UK are broadcasting a new dramatisation of the 1932 novel Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. It presents what we call a dystopian view of the future – one that is thoroughly pessimistic. As opposed to a brighter utopia.

Huxley wrote his story at a time when capitalism was reeling from the 1929 stock market crash and the Soviet Union was embarking on a series of bloody purges under its dictator, Stalin.

A few decades earlier, Victorians at the end of the 19th century had imagined that the world could improve and advance with every forward step. Science, technology and reason would lead us to a genuinely brave new world. But the First World War literally shot that optimism to pieces.

Even the hope for a revolution that would liberate humanity from want and deprivation was questioned. The year 1917 saw the Bolshevik revolution in Russia and the creation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). But after the Bolshevik leader Lenin died, his successor Stalin oversaw the creation of a bureaucratic, nightmarish, totalitarian dystopia.

Writers responded to this new gloom and uncertainty. George Orwell wrote 1984 while Aldous Huxley gave us Brave New World. They in turn were inspired by centuries of authors and political thinkers who penned their own visions of the future to make a point.

Brave New World – not a new concept

Great thinkers like the Greek philosopher Plato or the sixteenth century statesman Thomas More imagined perfect societies of the future. They wanted to show their readers what a properly ordered world could look like. It was a description of something More called Utopia.

But – Utopia has a grim opposite: Dystopia.

Dystopian visions of the future depict a very different world. It’s an unpleasant place where human beings are alienated or terrified. The authorities may be dictatorial or even totalitarian. Thoughts might be controlled. Terrible, unspeakable things have been normalised, becoming a part of everyday life.

The 20th century saw dystopian views of the future portrayed more and more. Two world wars, fascism, dictatorship, murder on an industrial scale and the erosion of democracy by faceless forces made the future seem a lot bleaker. The cheery optimism of the Victorian age where every day would be better than the next gave way to growing uncertainty.

1984

Many early 20th century dystopians were deeply disillusioned by the direction Russia took after the 1917 communist revolution. Hopes for the creation of a society under working class control gave way to the reality of Stalin’s bureaucratic hell. George Orwell summed up his gloomy prognosis in 1984. A world where Big Brother is watching you at all times and people indulge in “doublespeak”, never saying what they really mean.

The dystopia of Aldous Huxley

In 1931, the author Aldous Huxley depicted another dystopia where there is no sexual intercourse and people are created through artificial wombs. Humans are bred differently with healthier, taller and intelligent people being graded alpha or beta while those cloned in mass production and consequently dimmer and smaller do menial tasks as gammas, deltas and epsilons. All citizens are kept happy by ingesting a drug called “soma”.

Huxley denied he was influenced by a Russian author called Yevgeny Zamyatin who described a very similar totalitarian state where science had been misused to control humanity in his novel, We.

The Soviet Union provoked visions of dystopia in the 1920s and 1930s but in the 1970s, it was fears of a post-nuclear world where the two superpowers – the United States and USSR – had fried the planet.

DISCOVER: Man in the High Castle – based on real American Nazis?

Ape rule as a dystopia

Planet of the Apes ends with the realisation that ape rule has only been possible because human beings have rained nuclear bombs down on their civilisation. Damnation Alley sees the protagonists driving across a post-nuclear America. 

Logan’s Run has people living under sealed domes and subjected to enforced euthanasia at the age of 30 – but believing they are being renewed. All horrific takes on dystopia.

The 1970s embraced dystopia as it grappled with the threat of nuclear war; the end of the Vietnam War; the near impeachment of President Nixon and severe economic crisis. It’s not surprising that in equally turbulent times, we are reaching back to dystopia and forming again a very gloomy and nihilistic view of the future.