The idea of the coronavirus spreading around the UK is a scary one, but not unfathomable. With a growing number of individuals in the UK recieving treatment or being held in quarantine, coronavirus is no longer an overseas threat, but a present predicament. People are fearful, misinformed and confused.
You only have to take the train to York to see this in its raw form. After a University of York student was diagnosed, the university has been plastered with posters about preventing the virus spreading. One student told me the town centre has been quieter than usual, and the ‘Yorkfess III’ Facebook page promulgates paranoid memes and dissatisfaction about the lack of information available.
The UK’s response to the global crisis is shrouded in secrecy. There is little information put out about just how the UK is mitigating the spread of the virus. Health Secretary Matt Hancock seems to feel that ministerial accountability to the public can be fulfilled by occasional updates on his Twitter account, rather than conducting any press interviews. Perhaps this is intended to prevent the fear of the virus swelling out of proportion in the public consciousness. Yet, it seems that this has had the opposite effect, enabling misinformation and scaremongering to take root.
A visible symptom of this fear is increased hostility towards people of Asian descent. Rather than sympathy for those affected by the virus, many fear for themselves and the country. A Chinese woman, who had experienced people shifting away from her on the Tube, said, “Fear for me is having half my family in quarantine in Wuhan – the hysterical fear that many in Western countries have is quite insulting to me.”
A source also reported a general racist attitude about Chinese students, with a sentiment of “avoid Chinese people” prevalent in York. Fear and uncertainty are undoubtedly behind these mass generalisations.
With almost 70,000 reported cases around the world and a significant death toll, this fear is understandable. So far in the UK, nine people have been diagnosed.
The UK have provided two flights home for Brits who were trapped in the town of Wuhan. There were plans to fly these citizens to a military facility where they would be quarantined for two weeks to monitor for symptoms of the virus. This seems rather drastic. Perhaps it bares to question whether the government are responding proportionately to the threat of the virus, or proportionately to the fear of the public. After all, this strand of the coronavirus has a lower death rate than the flu according to reported figures so far (approximately 2.1% mortality rate). Is quarantine commensurate with the risk the virus poses?
Further precautions include airlines such as British Airlines cancelling all flights to China, from January 29th. Stringent measures are being taken to prevent the virus from having a significant impact in the UK. This seems to echo the UK’s response to the Ebola outbreak in 2014, where the concern was internal rather than particularly sympathetic to the international impact.
The global financial response to the Ebola outbreak was branded a “cycle of panic and neglect”. Britain has since contributed over £10 million to the World Health Organisation contingency fund, set up in 2015 after the devastating impact of the slow response to the 2014- 2015 Ebola outbreak.
Furthermore, the UK has donated £20million pounds to speed up the process of finding a vaccine for this strand of coronavirus. Yet, despite significant financial input, it seems Britain is still disconnected and deliberately isolationist in its political response.
Indeed, Labour representatives called the government’s response to the virus “shambolic”. This was in reply to Stanley Johnson passing on a message from the ambassador of China, who expressed concern that PM Boris Johnson was yet to get in touch with Beijing about the crisis. In stark contrast, the US Secretary of State said the US had helped transport about 18 tons of donated medical supplies, including masks, gowns and gauze, to China in the past week.
The UK’s response to the coronavirus is somewhat contradictory, and certainly subject to change as the nature and scope of the threat alters.
Image: British citizens evacuated from Wuhan being transported from RAF Brize Norton, Oxfordshire, to Arrowe Park Hospital on the Wirral, to be quarantined (Leon Neil/Getty Images)