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JOHN HUMPHRYS says the coronavirus crisis has been a tragedy but has had many benefits

For a time, it seemed to many of us that the nation was about to mutter about the government’s failure to bring the crisis under control. Not enough testing. Not enough masks and dresses. Not enough information.

Treated like children by a government that had no strategy of getting out of the lockdown or deliberately keeping us in the dark because we couldn’t trust more than one basic message: stay at home. And now?

Now it seems that we may not be about to rush out of our homes and defiantly march arm-in-arm to No. 10 with banners saying, “We’ve had enough!” and “Free us!”

Quite the opposite. It’s not just that we largely approved the lockdown at the beginning. All of the polling evidence from respectable outfits like YouGov and the BBC suggests the difficult will get us out of it now.

JOHN HUMPHRYS: Even at street level, the change is palpable. The need to keep our distance has made us notice each other again, making us more polite, respectful and friendly (photo, medics outside William Harvey Hospital in Ashford, Kent)

JOHN HUMPHRYS: Even at street level, the change is palpable. The need to keep our distance has made us notice each other again, making us more polite, respectful and friendly (photo, medics outside William Harvey Hospital in Ashford, Kent)

The BBC’s opinion poll shows that two-thirds of us are reluctant to use bars and restaurants and public transport. Almost half are reluctant to run errands or send our children to school.

I had a confrontation with the police over the weekend because I had dared lean against the wall overlooking the Thames for a few minutes while I waited for my partner to walk with me.

They finally gave in, but only after five different officers were involved. Not that they were needed. It was a perfect spring day, and the Thames was the most alluring, but no more than a handful of people enjoyed it.

Normally it would have been crammed. We have adapted to our new life with amazing speed. It has destroyed many of our certainties.

We’re struggling to find a memorable enough comparison to describe what we’re going through – which may be why World War II was held.

This week we woke up to the news that the number of coronavirus victims had passed the total number of deaths in the Blitz in 1940. The bare statistics may have been correct. The comparison is meaningless. There were approximately 32,000 deaths in the Blitz.

But take a closer look at that figure. Eight thousand of them were children. Another 8,000 children were seriously injured. Many died later or were left seriously disabled for the rest of their lives. Many others were orphaned. Even more were homeless.

That’s what happens when bombs fall on cities.

JOHN HUMPHRYS: Carbon emissions, the engine of climate change, have fallen into free fall (pictured, a rainbow appears over Danbury, Essex)

JOHN HUMPHRYS: Carbon emissions, the engine of climate change, have fallen into free fall (pictured, a rainbow appears over Danbury, Essex)

JOHN HUMPHRYS: Carbon emissions, the engine of climate change, have fallen into free fall (pictured, a rainbow appears over Danbury, Essex)

Covid-19 has shown mercy especially to children and this is crucial to our experience of it. The grief of losing a beloved grandmother is real, but the death of a child goes beyond grief. It also destroys the life of the parents. We have been spared that.

People are creatures of habit. Most of us get used to the way we live and few want it to be disrupted. But the pandemic has drastically changed our way of life and we are starting to master it and even, dare I say, enjoy it. It’s quite nice to have a kid who has gone back to college and live with you again and have time to chat well with some of the old distractions.

We have heard a lot about the abuse of women and children, but fortunately that is the exception. Another result is expected to be an increasing birth rate.

Then there is the revival of the sense of community. Not only is it the extraordinary response to Captain (Colonel!) Tom and the Mail Force’s call, it is the massive growth of a new home industry of clothing makers: the ‘ordinary members of the public’ who have put their sewing machines on to rustle the scrubs, the face masks, the laundry bags that the ‘troops’ of the NHS desperately need.

It is back to Dunkirk and ‘make do and mend’. There is even a welcome by-product of major sporting events being canceled. We now use the word ‘heroes’ to describe those great NHS workers who risk their lives to save others rather than obscenely overpaid men who occasionally manage to kick a ball into a net.

Even at street level, the change is tangible. The need to keep our distance has made us notice each other again, making us more polite, more respectful, and friendlier.

It has come at a terrible price, but another benefit of the crisis may be that we are finally giving social care – so outrageously neglected in this pandemic – the respect and priority it deserves.

Some people may miss the office, but I bet most aren’t. Especially commuting. And the meetings. As an old BBC hand, I’m amazed to see that somehow programs are still being created and broadcast even though countless middle managers don’t spend countless hours in extremely important meetings. It can’t be that they may never have been important, right?

Or that the industry leaders never had to fly to foreign parts to meet other bosses for equally pointless meetings?

And now we come to the big one. The changes that affect the world in which we live and breathe.

Carbon emissions, the engine of climate change, have fallen into free fall. We just enjoyed a record number of days when there was no need to burn coal to provide us with enough energy. Air pollution around the world has evaporated, making cities often in toxic air far safer for the most vulnerable.

Analysis for the Center for Energy and Clean Air Research has calculated that more than 1,700 deaths were avoided in this country alone in the past month due to lower air pollution at closure. There have been 1,600 fewer cases of asthma in children.

JOHN HUMPHRYS: Air pollution around the world has evaporated, making cities often poisonous in air much safer for the most vulnerable (pictured, bells at King's Wood in Kent)

JOHN HUMPHRYS: Air pollution around the world has evaporated, making cities often poisonous in air much safer for the most vulnerable (pictured, bells at King's Wood in Kent)

JOHN HUMPHRYS: Air pollution around the world has evaporated, making cities often poisonous in air much safer for the most vulnerable (pictured, bells at King’s Wood in Kent)

Now is a good time for those who believe in creative destruction: the economic concept that says capitalism must flourish must constantly destroy old systems to create new wealth.

Canary Wharf in the City of London is the ultimate monument to capitalism. The big banks and accounting firms have spent huge sums to compete with each other to build the tallest skyscrapers with the largest offices. This is an ostentation on a Herculean scale.

So if you let the boss of Barclays – one of our largest banks – declare that Canary Wharf could be a thing of the past, as he did this week, you might suspect something big is going on.

If in the end we are not forced to live like this because the virus will no longer exist to act as an enforcer, will we give up all these benefits by blindly going back to the way we lived before Covid struck?

Many will say yes. Including the millions who have lost their jobs. Those priceless benefits – clean air and the reduction of CO2 emissions – have resulted in terrible costs. The collapse of the economy.

If we want to keep those benefits, we have to rebuild the new economy with a different set of values. Because in the end, there is one threat that is even greater than a pandemic.

That is the failure to protect our planet from climate change.

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