Coronavirus and the madness of elites

Their panicked response stems from their fear of the masses.

Norman Lewis

Last week, the world stock markets suffered their worst week since the financial crisis in 2008, with $6 trillion wiped from shares and, in some markets, a sell-off at a rate not seen since the Great Depression almost a century ago. Why? Because global investors are in a panic about the potential economic fallout from the coronavirus epidemic.

Many commentators are making the point that this is mad. Ross Clark argues convincingly in the Spectator that the ‘most dangerous thing about coronavirus is the hysteria’. Philip Aldrick, economics editor of The Times, agrees. He says it is the ‘panic we should fear more than the virus itself’.

Our appetite for doom and fear of the unknown are offered as explanations for this behaviour. Risk culture and a predisposition to overreacting to threats are also certainly components of what is happening. But there is another equally important element linked to these that is not being raised – that this madness is not being driven by the ‘low-information’, knuckle-dragging, gullible ignorant masses, but by the information-rich, university-educated and refined global business and government elites.

The contrast between the responses to coronavirus from the elites and ordinary people has been stark. Even as the level of panic in the mainstream reporting around coronavirus has risen, ordinary people have just gotten on with their lives. The supposedly well-informed elites, who often accuse the ‘dumb’ masses of being vulnerable to hysteria and ‘fake news’, have themselves been prodded into panic. Meanwhile, where they are not in lockdowns, ordinary people are still going to work, commuting, going to bars… They’re simply getting on with their lives, while taking note of the potential risks.

The elites are in free-falling panic; like a herd of wildebeest, panicked by the sight of a predator and rushing blindly across crocodile-infested waters, they have sparked a potential global economic meltdown. Meanwhile, we see stoic common sense, simple but profound wisdom, on the part of the ‘great unwashed’.

The elite response is, in part, a product of misanthropy. For decades now, our culture has succumbed to the idea that human beings are the source of the world’s problems. People are always depicted as the problem: whether we’re destroying the planet or carrying threatening diseases.

This has a long-established pedigree in Western society. Louis Pasteur, the great 19th-century scientist who discovered microbes, had a horror of democracy. In the words of David Bodanis, Pasteur saw the mob as ‘a collection of small infecting creatures that decent people didn’t ordinarily see, but which was always there, ready to pounce, to enter our society and take over and grow’.

This metaphor of the masses as like bacteria – small things swarming everywhere, ready to strike, to grow and to propagate – captured the right-wing fear of the masses at the time.

Throughout the 20th century, especially after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, when the masses became a real social and political force in society, the bacteria / mass metaphor became particularly prevalent. When Lenin was sent into Russia in 1917, he was described ‘like a plague bacillus’ in his sealed train. Western European leaders used the phrase ‘cordon sanitaire’ to describe the policy of encircling the new entity over there, to keep its contamination from seeping out.

In 1920, Winston Churchill, then secretary of state for war and air, described the Bolshevik revolution as ‘a poisoned Russia, an infected Russia, a plague-bearing Russia, a Russia of armed hordes smiting not only with bayonet and with cannon, but accompanied and preceded by the swarms of typhus-bearing vermin which slay the bodies of men, and political doctrines which destroy the health and even the soul of nations’.

Meanwhile, Hitler and the Nazis saw Judaism as a deadly virus and Jews as its carrier, and thus the only solution was their eradication. The postwar containment theory aimed at stopping the spread of communism, or in the case of communist China, the ‘Yellow Peril’, is a more modern version of the same sentiment. McCarthyism in the US was an attempt to stop communism spreading like a bacterium at home.

This type of language is not being used widely in today’s panic about coronavirus, of course. (Although there have been some references to a new ‘Yellow Peril’.) Still, the underlying sentiment is definitely present: whether it is people boycotting Chinatowns in city centres, or populist politicians like Matteo Salvini or Marine Le Pen blaming foreigners for the spread of the disease.

People are presented as the danger – the unwitting but deadly bearers of an invisible threat. This plays to a pre-existing, misanthropic narrative that can only further divide society, increase a sense of atomised vulnerability, and let the panicked irrational global elites off the hook in the process.

It is tragic. Deaths from Covid-19, to use its official name, are deeply regrettable. But we need a sense of proportion. The virus’s fatality rate is believed to be around one per cent. This is around seven times higher than the fatality rate of standard flu, but a fraction of the rate for 2003’s severe acute respiratory syndrome (9.6 per cent) and 2012’s Middle East respiratory syndrome (34.4 per cent).

Coronavirus is far more infectious than SARS and MERS. But scientists are working flat-out to find treatments and vaccines. The World Health Organisation believes that the drug remdesivir, developed by the company Gilead Sciences, may be an effective treatment, and it is currently in clinical trials.

Human creativity and our capacity to solve problems can and will contain coronavirus. People are not the problem. But the global elites certainly are. Their behaviour is fuelling more panic, and now threatens billions with economic recession. We need to embrace the calm and wisdom of the masses, not the madness of elites.

Norman Lewis works on innovation networks and is a co-author of Big Potatoes: The London Manifesto for Innovation.

Picture by: Getty.

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Ricky Allen

6th March 2020 at 7:10 pm

Do not underestimate the seriousness here. Viral infections spread exponentially amongst vulnerable populations. The apparently slow rate of spread initially is often overlooked as ‘it’s not that big a problem’ when this is actually the period where radical action can make a difference. If there is inaction the typical accelerated phase will occur and by that time the initiative is lost. We’re at that point now. Consider that ( if they are to be believed) the Chinese have brought this under control in China despite little warning of the virus appearing. The U.K. was forewarned by weeks but the necessary action was not taken and now the virus is everywhere around us. The Convid-19 virus is not just a flu like illness in its clinical picture or mortality. Influenza has a mortality of approx 0.1%. Convid -19 on the basis of stats so far has a mortality rate of 20 -40 times that rate. Also the clinical picture appears to be of a self limiting flue like illness as the initial phase followed by apparent recovery and then relapse a week or so later with respiratory failure and multi organ failure. The next 1-2 weeks will give a more accurate projection for what is to come. The demographics of the U.K. mean that a very large number of lives could be lost. Also, the fact that our health service already operates at max capacity means that it will be rapidly overwhelmed with affected individuals self treating and dying in their own homes. This is new territory for the population of the U.K. likewise services and supply chains will rapidly break down across multiple sectors which will also be a novel experience for this nation. I should add that I am a doctor. Last night I spoke to a friend who is a consultant anaesthetist at a large U.K. DGH. She painted a very distressing picture of what was going on there in itu with convid-19 infected patients and an at capacity infectious disease unit with similar patients . To quote her: “It’s much worse than the news. The government are not on top of it. They should cancel all elective surgery and non essential admissions because incoming patients will get infected in this cess put” She opened her message to me with “I’m ok at the moment but I think I’m about to get Convid-19”.

Bill East

8th March 2020 at 11:04 am

Exactly, Ricky. Articles like this are patronising, ill-informed and just plain ignorant. There could be upwards of 100,000 deaths in the UK from Covid-19, yet this “writer” tries to suggest that doctors like me who said that all flying from China should be shut down weeks ago are scare-mongering. In fact, we are not scaring people enough—the sheer complacency of politicians around the globe is appalling and they are aided and abetted by “writers” like Norman Lewis. This virus is potentially devastating and could do what viruses always do and mutate, perhaps into something as deadly as SARS..

Bill East

4th March 2020 at 7:13 pm

There was not enough panic—-if ALL travel from China had been stopped immediately this “new” virus emerged, we would not now be facing a pandemic. Politicians ALWAYS react too slowly and they continue to do so—-they are still saying they will close schools and other places which are potential reservoirs of infection if/when things get worse!!
Incidentally, the death rate from this virus is 3.4%, predominantly among the elderly (I’m 78!!!) ——–perhaps politicians see this is the perfect “solution” to the care crisis? They certainly are always closing the stable door after the horse has departed. Utterly useless crew.

steve moxon

4th March 2020 at 10:28 pm

Unbelievable lax stupidity.
And the principle of extra vigilance because of the unknowns re this virus that should have dictated responses is now being shown to have been all too right with developments.
It has just been announced that the mortality rate is considerably higher than had bee n previously calculated: 3.4%, which is 34x the mortality of flu (0.1%).
And it is also now known that there is a far worse newer strain that is deadlier and more infectious than the original strain, and that this is now accounting for most infections, though the differential is narrowing simply because the new strain is causing such serious illness that those infected are less effective as vectors.
Other strains are expected to be found.
The NHS’ worst-case scenario is now out-of-date. The worst-case scenario is now UK deaths in not six but seven figures.
This is serious, to say the least, and the article above is getting dafter in context by the day.

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