How often have we heard government Ministers bleating that the global Covid-19 pandemic is “unprecedented” by way of an excuse for their incompetence? I can only conclude that they either rely on different dictionaries from the ones I use, or that they prefer not to go near a dictionary because they like words to mean what they want them to mean rather than what they do actually mean. The Oxford Concise defines ‘unprecedented’, entirely unsurprisingly, as meaning ‘having no precedent’ or ‘unparalleled’; and my Chambers, which often allows itself to be more idiosyncratic than the Oxford, defines it, no less unsurprisingly, as meaning ‘of which there has been no previous instance.’
One doesn’t need to go back as far as the Black Death, which killed an estimated 50 million people, including roughly 60% of the entire population of Europe, in the 14th century to know that it is wholly untrue to claim that Covid-19 is ‘unparallelled’ as a pandemic. Three centuries later, in 1665, the plague is estimated to have killed more than 20% of the population of London. Even with a sequence of potential further ‘spikes’, Covid-19 seems unlikely to devastate London as badly as that, in spite of its being, thus far, our worst hit city. But there is no need to delve too far back in history to find precedents and parallels: the 20th century provided at least three comparable pandemics.
The 1918 H1N1 ‘Spanish’ influenza pandemic killed at least 30 million people world-wide. Estimates of the death toll range from 30 to 100 million and the disease often manifested itself far more rapidly and dramatically than Covid-19, with some people waking up feeling well in the morning but dying before the end of the day. The H2N2 ‘Asian’ influenza pandemic in 1957-8 resulted in well over a million deaths, with 40-50 percent of the world’s population being infected. By early 1958 as many as 9 million people in UK are estimated to have been victims, with over 600 deaths in one week being recorded in October 1957. And in 1968 the H3N2 ‘Hong Kong’ flu pandemic was responsible for around 3 million deaths, with some 30,000 deaths in UK. That virus spread so rapidly that an estimated 500,000 people had been infected within two weeks of the disease being identified. This century, the Ebola epidemic killed more than 11,000 people in West Africa in 2014-15, and the rest of the world was only spared because Ebola, unlike the other three viruses mentioned above, doesn’t spread through the air. So precisely what is supposed to be ‘unprecedented’ about Covid-19?
It is, of course, possible that those among our English Nationalist Cabinet Ministers who aren’t deliberately lying when they tell us that Covid-19 is ‘unprecedented’ are simply too dim to know what the word means, and think it means “unpredictable”. It would be interesting to know precisely what the average IQ is of a Cabinet that still apparently thinks that a hard Brexit is a good idea, even in present circumstances. But even if they do think Covid-19 couldn’t have been predicted, they are wrong. In a TED talk in April 2015 Bill Gates described the situation very starkly: ‘We are not ready…. We need to get going because time is not on our side. If we start now we can be ready for the next epidemic.’
But our ideologically-driven UK government was far too busy being obsessed with its ‘austerity’ shibboleth and its suspicion of foreigners to ‘get going’ on anything else. The State had to be shrunk; the cost of public services, including the NHS, had to be cut; the funding available to the local councils responsible for social care needed to be driven down (too bad about the consequential increase in childhood poverty and reliance on food-banks); and so on. Making life as difficult as possible for immigrants, including asylum seekers, also kept government busy. Not being ready for the next epidemic has inevitably resulted in a peace time ballooning of the National Debt with few, if any precedents.
Talking about the Covid-19 pandemic as ‘unprecedented’ is, whether deliberately duplicitous or simply ignorant, a denial of history: a convenient forgetting both of the other pandemics that have ravaged the world in the past, including the relatively recent past, and of the many warnings of the likelihood of equally devastating pandemics in the future. As George Santayana said: ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’