Phlegmatism & Black Humour: The UK Faces Up To The Coronavirus:

Keep Calm And Carry On”: That’s been the gist of the advice emanating from the British Government as the epidemic has spread around the country. Coupled with this has been the recommendation, first by the leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg and then by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, that we should all frequently and thoroughly wash our hands, accompanied by a rendering of either the National Anthem or “Happy Birthday” (twice). Most people in Britain seem inclined to follow these guidelines, except maybe for the singing part and moreover – the BBC’s Health Correspondent, Dominic Hughes, noted on the 10’Clock News on 6th March – are determined not to allow the virus to radically change their lives.

As an example, two ladies in Huddersfield, Sandra and Lynda, patently belonging to the older, reputedly “vulnerable generation”, when speaking to Hughes on the programme insisted that they were “keeping a sensible head” and were still going out and about as usual. This relatively relaxed attitude was of some concern to a group of foreign students interviewed by BBC London News outside Kings Cross Station: “We’re worried”, they remarked “but the public doesn’t seem to be”.

The “Independent” correspondent, Stefano Hatfield, contends that the British traditionally employ “stoicism when confronted with truly miserable conditions and black humour in the face of adversity”. Their instinctive phlegmatism, he believes, is “very much a unifying defining characteristic that will persist for generations”. The EF (Education First) language school blogger, Simon, agrees: The British, he points out, use humour to lighten even the most unfortunate moments: “There are few subjects we don’t joke about. It’s not used to shock and offend but rather because the British turn to laughter as a form of medicine when life knocks them and those around them down”.

That’s acceptable, the American author, Paul Lewis, has emphasised on so long as it doesn’t have ethnic undertones or disseminate misinformation. In the 7th March edition of the Spectator magazine, its polemical columnist Rod Liddle jested that if the virus eliminates a large swathe of the elderly who voted for Brexit, the 48% of the population who wanted to remain in the European Union would demand a rerun of the Referendum. He also maintained that the prediction by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development) of an imminent global economic collapse provides reasonable grounds for optimism in view of their previous (by implication, incorrect) prognostications.

In the same publication, Liddle’s colleague. Mary Killen, asserted that “it’s not all bad news” and that even a deadly pandemic has its positives, such as a reduction in carbon emissions because we’ll all be taking fewer planes. The best approach, in her opinion, is to assume that we’re all going to get it anyway, including if we hide in our houses and avoid the Tube and crowded gatherings. What about the things, she asks, that come through the post and in the hands of the delivery van drivers?

Yet another Spectator contributor, Ross Clark, on 29th February depicted the “Covid-19” hysteria” as the latest phenomenon to fulfil a weird and growing appetite for doom among the populations of developed countries: “We are living in the healthiest, most peaceful time in history, yet cannot seem to accept it”. He may have adjusted his judgement of the situation in view of developments since then.

At his coronavirus press conference on 3rd March, the Prime Minister was noticeably more jovial than the two advisers who flanked him at the podium – England’s Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty and the UK’s Chief Scientific Officer, Sir Patrick Vallance. Whitty implied that “only 1%” of the UK populace, namely the over 70’s, would be seriously at risk from the virus, which probably won’t have reassured anyone in that apparently dispensable category. He slightly amended this assessment when he appeared before a specially convened House of Commons health committee on 5th March by declaring that the over-80’s shouldn’t assume that they would automatically be “goners” if they became infected.

A much gloomier appraisal was provided by Dr Richard Hatchett, CEO of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, to Channel 4 News on 6th March. He depicted the coronavirus as the worst and most fearsome epidemic since the Spanish flu of 1918 and that “it could be with us in perpetuity”.

The proverb “A pessimist is a well-informed optimist”, attributed to the American author Mark Twain, could perhaps be applied to both Whitty and Hatchett. Their observations might also explain why UK supermarket customers have been emptying the shelves of staple products such as rice, pasta, couscous, bottled water, yoghurt, butter and long-life milk as well as bathroom items and the increased demand at the pharmacies for ibuprofen, paracetamol and immune-boosting tablets such as Berocca.

This hasn’t, however, (so far) been on the scale of the panic buying in (among many others) Japan, South Korea, Poland, New Zealand and Australia – in the latter two cases of which shoppers have been televised (and subsequently arrested) while battling each other for packs of toilet paper.

Filed under: Healthcare, Society | Posted on March 9th, 2020 by Colin D Gordon

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