We never really believed it. Over the years we have watched disaster movies, and read science fiction novels, about global pandemics threatening the survival of humanity, and, in the same way that we treat horror films such as Dracula as a way of experiencing a vicarious thrill, we always emerge into the daylight confident that, in the end, it was just a fantasy.
Intellectually we know that twenty miles above our head begins a darkness which goes on for billions of light years, that our little lifespans are nothing compared to the billions of years which have already passed, and the billions yet to come, and that each and every one of us will eventually die. Nevertheless emotionally we don't believe it. That the bright Earth is a tiny speck, that the history of humanity a passing instant, lasting no longer than the flap of a gnat's wing, or that individually we will cease to exist, at least in this life, all seem incomprehensible.
Now however, out of the darkness, conjuring up our most basic atavistic fears and instincts, the pale horse of Revelation, death, has suddenly appeared, accompanied by the white horse, plague, and who knows if their two companions, war and famine will be far behind. One doesn't need to be religious to feel fear at the way in which our world has been turned upside down in a few short months, relegating all those things which just recently seemed so important to secondary concerns. How many now, apart from a few fanatics, are wringing their hands at the possibility of climate change, or, even more ridiculously, seeking to fight absurd gender wars.
Even Brexit, which for many of us, has been the major issue for a very long time, falls back into the past, as Churchill said in another context, not merely distant, but prosaic. We should be grateful that that particular war was won when it was, and that we are not still in the limbo which existed until the election in December drew a line under it. The disarray in Europe gives the lie to the idealistic, but foolish, belief that, when threatened, nations will put membership of organisations such as the EU before the interests of their own people. The closure of European borders now taking place is quite understandable, laying bare the idiocy of the much trumpeted free movement principles supposedly so central to the European project, and the refusal of Germany to offer assistance to Italy with supplies of medical equipment shows that sauve qui peut, rather than one for all, and all for one, is the true watchword of the European project. That the single currency will collapse seems almost certain, and the final failure of the whole misconceived idea of a single European state will surely not be far behind. Some commentators in Europe, who were vociferous opponents of Brexit, now admit that we were right, and envy the fact that we escaped just in time.
As some have pointed out the crisis has exposed the utter stupidity of so many of the causes which, only what seems like yesterday, exercised the Western world, and endless column inches were used discussing concepts which are now seen as the absurdities which they always were. The distortion of our national life to accommodate the demands of a vanishingly small group of so called 'trans' activists, the attempted imposition of a version of 'Newspeak' in order avoid supposedly offending the sensibilities of a bunch of snowflakes, the toleration of eco-warriors, who, in the name of an unproven theory, disrupt normal activities, can now be seen as the nonsense they always were. The ridiculous actions by over privileged and ignorant students to impose 'no platforming' and 'trigger warnings' now, exposed by the cold light of reason, are being treated with the contempt they deserve.
Various fatuous celebrities, who have long treated us to their inane idiocies, whether it be to describe themselves in the plural, or to drone on about their 'woke' credentials, suddenly find that the reaction is no longer admiration, but a demand that they grow up, shut up, and try living in the real world. The true celebrities now are the NHS workers, the volunteers who are helping keep the vulnerable supplied with essentials, and those who are trying to ensure that services such as water, power and transport continue to run.
One major result of this crisis is to make clear that the effects on supply chains confirms that off shoring production has gone too far, leaving us dependent on foreign imports for even vital materials, and should provoke a return to this country of domestic manufacture of such goods.
Of course this is not the first time humanity has been threatened by the kind of invisible enemy which now confronts us. In the fourteenth century the Black Death is estimated to have killed 30% to 60% of Europe's people, reducing the population of the world from an estimated 475 million to 350–375 million. English sweating sickness, or English sweat, was a mysterious and contagious disease that struck England, and later continental Europe in a series of epidemics beginning in 1485. The last outbreak occurred in 1551, after which the disease apparently vanished. The onset of symptoms was sudden, with death often occurring within hours. Its cause remains unknown, although it has been suggested that an unknown species of virus was responsible. In 1558 Queen Mary died in the influenza epidemic which killed vast numbers across Europe, including 61% of the population of Verona. The great plague of 1665 killed an estimated 100,000 people, almost a quarter of London's population, in 18 months, and the death toll from the Spanish flu of 1918 is estimated to have been anywhere from 17 million to 50 million, and possibly as high as 100 million, making it one of the deadliest epidemics in human history.
So far the current pandemic does not appear to be as virulent, while we have much more effective medical resources with which to fight it. However we should not forget that, while the world population just prior to the Black Death was less than 500 million, still less than 700 million by 1700, and around the 2 billion mark in 1918, we now have over 7 billion people in the world, a vast reservoir which viruses can use to mutate, and that, whereas in mediaeval times, most people did not travel far from their place of birth, today the volume of international travel allows a pestilence to spread like wildfire in a very short time. It is well known that some villages in the Middle Ages survived by in effect cutting themselves off from the world, but in our interdependent world this is now almost impossible. An even more dangerous foe may arise, and unless we now make changes, slowing our rate of reproduction, reducing the extent to which we travel abroad, putting enormous resources into research, and giving medical services the upmost priority, then one day that sound over the horizon will not be that of distant thunder, but the hoofbeats of the approaching four horsemen.
We do not know who will survive this crisis, and one thing is certain, it will be a different world that emerges. I, for one, am thankful that at the time of crisis we have a Prime Minister who is not only a libertarian, but competent, with a solid working majority, and whose senior ministers appear to be efficient. If we had an incompetent leader we would be in great trouble, and anyone with authoritarian leanings would represent a future danger to our democracy, as the powers which have become necessary could very easily also become permanent. Like any of us Boris has his faults, but we must get behind him in this emergency.
The choices facing the government are hard indeed, and those who constantly snipe from their armchairs should wake up to the fact that we must all pull together if we are to get through the mess in which we find ourselves. It is easy to claim, when one has no responsibility to take decisions, that whatever measures are implemented are wrong, but now is the time for the kind of national solidarity we normally only see in wartime. The enemy is among us, and we must fight it shoulder to shoulder.