A FAMOUS GROUSE
IT starts slowly but once it takes hold and begins to mutate, the fear and idiocy spreads at a breathtaking pace. Like the plague, in fact. We are of course talking about the side effects of the new coronavirus, Covid-19.
South Africa’s first case was reported on Thursday, thereby giving the health minister, Zweli Mkhize, a bit of a problem.
When he was given the job, in May last year, it came with a state-run health sector in stage four decrepitude along with fanciful notions of foisting, against all expert advice, a national health insurance on a long-suffering populace. Quite how the country’s falling-apart hospitals and the health authorities should now cope with a coronavirus crisis, especially in poorer communities, doesn’t bear contemplating.
Still, Mkhize called for calm and did his best to assure Parliament that his department was on the case. “To the general public of South Africa,” he said, “there really is not a risk of the virus spreading in the community.” It had not been detected in schools or taxi-ranks and there were no reasons at this stage to close these places.
Too late, alas, for the fear had already festered and erupted like cankerous boils. According to the Mail & Guardian, government plans to fly out about 150 South Africans who were trapped at the epicentre of the outbreak in Wuhan, China, have been hamstrung because defence force personnel are too scared to make the trip.
The newspaper quoted an unnamed senior official as saying: “We do have an aircraft that is ready to go. There are no warm bodies that want to go to China, as they fear the risk [of contracting Covid-19]. Honestly, no one can force them to go there if they don’t want to. For real, no one expected things to go as smoothly as the government had thought … If you go against the military, they can frustrate you. That’s the latest. So maybe that’s why everyone has not been coming to the front about what the plan really is and when it will be implemented.”
Government later denied the report.
Meanwhile, in the UK, the country’s first coronavirus death has been recorded: a frail 75-year-old woman with “underlying health conditions”. According to The Times, she is thought to have had the virus diagnosed after the NHS started testing intensive care patients with respiratory problems. The woman had not travelled abroad or been in contact with a known case, and it appears that the virus is being passed on undetected in Britain.
Earlier in the week, Boris Johnson, perhaps stung by Labour jibes that he’s “a “part-time prime minister”, emerged from a period of self-isolation to address a press conference on this business of shaking hands. He had, in fact, recently visited a hospital with a Covid-19 patient, adding: “I shook hands with everyone.”
Immediately, the question was raised by commentators: was Boris a super-spreader?
Within hours, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, was telling the Commons that the risk of picking up the virus from shaking hands was “negligible” and the TV news bulletins were looping video clips of the PM with his sleeves rolled up and washing his hands in what could be described as a studied frenzy.
“About blessed time!” the Daily Mail bleated of Johnson’s belated display of leadership. Elsewhere, however, it was suggested his vigorous hand-washing was merely a dry run for the mewling and puking that’s coming to Downing Street later this year now that his fiancée, Carrie Symonds, is pregnant.
The news of the forthcoming addition to the family has not gone down well with the PM’s sister, journalist and former MP Rachel Johnson. In a panel discussion on Brexit with BBC presenter Emma Barnett at London’s Jewish Book Week last weekend, Johnson described the pregnancy as “the withdrawal agreement that went wrong”.
According to The Times, when Barnett explained to the audience that “Boris Johnson is expecting his next child”, Rachel quickly corrected her. “He is not but he has created life yet again,” she said. “And probably again tonight.”
But moving on. In what they claim is an important public service, gossip columnists have identified celebrity “sink-dodgers” who don’t wash their hands after going to the toilet and who should be avoided until Covid-19 is contained. They include foreign secretary Dominic Raab, London mayor Sadiq Khan, former Labour deputy leader Tom Watson, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and, for good measure, Madonna. Such is the growing realisation that this stuff is serious, and we have a global crisis on our hands.
But it wasn’t always like this. A YouGov survey carried out last weekend revealed that Britons were much less concerned that they will contract Covid-19 than other affected countries, with 26% of respondents not scared at all of being infected and 44% not very scared. The corresponding figures for the Philippines, by contrast, were 9% and 15%. This laissez faire disregard was more or less in keeping with the attitude of the expats at the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”).
As far as we were concerned, we wouldn’t be catching what we called the Pangolin Flu around here anytime soon, at least not from a local. As a rule, the home counties natives are that mistrustful and suspicious of foreigners and immigrants that any form of interaction is out of the question. As the Guardian put it, “Say no to a handshake, give up high fives, refuse kisses on the cheek and definitely avoid hugging.”
Speaking of which, and this is indicative of how everyday life is affected, a group calling themselves the Chesham Doggers, organisers of the “biggest and best sex parties in Buckinghamshire [and] dedicated to promoting dogging in the local area” have been forced to cancel all future events until further notice.
The shock announcement, on Twitter, prompted this reaction on social media: “We hear a lot in the mainstream media about the impact coronavirus will have on big business and the economy. What we don’t hear about is how it’s decimating British grassroots culture and community groups.” Another posting read: “Sorry to hear this, guys. Similar problems in the Essex Masters Paintball League. Sounds like we’re both going to have a pile up of fixtures later in the season.”
More conservative commentators have pointed out that, in terms of the UK’s Sexual Offences Act of 2003, anyone caught having sex in a public place can be charged with public lewdness and indecent exposure.
The warning hardly seems necessary, considering the country is now apparently on some sort of war footing and must prepare for the worst, which, the Daily Mail warns, could be very bad indeed. As much as 80% of the population could be infected, with the consequent death toll running into hundreds of thousands. A fifth of all workers could be off sick at the same time, putting enormous pressure on public services. The NHS may have to cancel countless operations and the police may only be able to deal with the most serious crimes.
The country’s “very mettle” could be tested, the newspaper’s Stephen Glover has written. After “decades of peace and plenty”, the UK is “psychologically not well prepared” for the sort of challenge that this could — “and I stress could” — turn into.
Around the world, etiquette is changing to limit the virus’s spread. In China, billboards and loudspeakers urge citizens to join their own hands rather than shake the hands of others. In France, people have been urged to forgo the mwah-mwah, the traditional double-cheek air kiss. American politicians have taken up elbow-bumping. And Australians have been urged to exercise “a degree of care and caution with whom you choose to kiss”. (No dogging Down Under, then.)
Elsewhere, the “Wuhan shake” — the tapping of each other’s feet — has taken off across Asia and Africa. The Tanzanian president John Magufuli, for example, was photographed this week greeting opposition politician Maalim Seif Sharif Hamad by tapping their feet together when they met in Zanzibar earlier this week.
Unfortunately, the temptation to scale up the greeting from a gentle tapping of feet to a full-blown kicking is one that may prove too difficult to resist when greeting some of our local politicians.
Judging by the violent outbursts in the Eastern Cape provincial legislature this week, it would appear that the Economic Freedom Fighters are doing their utmost to encourage the rest of us to maintain a healthy distance from these yobs. One lout was photographed with a bunch of rocks in his grasp, which puts paid to handshaking, and another redshirt was filmed hitting one official in the head with her shoe. A different sort of foot-tapping, you will agree.