So much now reminds me of my childhood. My companion of those early years, 18 months younger than me and who even into his 80th year referred to me as his big brother, died on my birthday, far away and unable to be visited during his last illness. We spoke on the telephone of our childhood memories, of going to the air raid shelter, of the sound of bombs and anti-aircraft guns, the blackout and smoke screen across the city, of seeing Mr Churchill and his famous V-sign during a rain storm.
And I remembered the news. Every day on the wireless we heard of defeats, victories, heroics and deaths, and we wondered what news there would be after the war ended. As our paths through life diverged, we kept in touch and remembered this shared bond of living through the war and post-war austerity.
Since March this year, we have similarly heard little on the radio and television about anything other than COVID-19 and its effects on our lives and the economy. Children now must be thinking, what will they find to talk about when it is over, indeed will it ever end? Well, I think I know. It will be the austerity, the unemployment, migration, the worldwide economic disruption, a completely different world to the one most people now recognise as normal. Because there is a frightening inevitability about what has been happening in this world over the past 30 years that may not be obvious to younger people. They may regard a few decades of relative peace and prosperity as being the normal, but I fear it is not.
The normal is conflict, destructive conflict engineered by groups of people seeking wealth and power, seeking to persuade others by demagoguery to support their cause and to regard others as inferior. Such groups claim to have answers to the world's problems, magical answers that only they hold. Some may become known as fascists, some as communists, but whether they head left or right, the desired outcome is some form of dictatorship. COVID-19 has brought us to a turning point but is only a symptom of a more severe disease.
My brother and I grew up learning geography on a map of the world coloured red from the Caribbean and Canada to Australia, via much of Africa, India, Malaya, islands in the Pacific and even the striped Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. We were told tales of conquest and the spread of civilisation, by teachers for whom British world domination had been the normal; the war and the prolonged subsequent austerity and Cold War changed all that. Britain began to find its true place in the world, an honest broker rather than a plunderer, part of Europe and still respected worldwide, but for different reasons. And this period brought great benefits in the form of the Welfare State. Younger people than us grew up in this different world, in this new normal. The war had acted as a leveller and the Attlee Government took advantage of and consolidated this.
This younger Thatcher generation became complacent, regarding public provision of goods as a right, forgetting that someone must pay. They have now formed all recent governments which have abetted this by promising more goods for lower taxes. A curious post-war economic idea called neo-liberalism had caught their attention, whereby government should be reduced to providing an essential lifeline and goods would be provided by private enterprise, the normal of the entrepreneur. The USA, much of Europe, and those previously red-coloured countries espoused this ideology; greed for money and possessions became the norm and we got the economic crash of 2008.
Life for the less fortunate became even worse but those responsible, the bankers, the plutocrats and speculators continued to prosper. The money did not trickle down, it coursed upwards and outwards defying gravity. Public services, the lifeline of the poor, became threadbare. Then came the extraordinary consequence, the echo of the 1930s.
On both sides of the Atlantic, the suffering poor were persuaded to vote for parties and causes offering easy solutions to complex problems, based on lies. Russia regressed to the dictatorship of its tsarist years, the new overlords investing the public's wealth in offshore properties and accounts. China went in the opposite direction, through communism but also to absolute dictatorship and started behaving like Victorian Britain, but more subtly.
The USA elected an extreme example of both narcissism and cupidity as President in the belief that his predecessor had destroyed the country but that he would make it great again by building walls. And we managed to elect an unprincipled demagogue as Prime Minister heading a party of Little Englanders. Many countries are now headed by people unsuitable to look after anything or anyone but themselves, and then came the challenge, COVID-19 combined with the now obvious effects of climate change and the hazard of Brexit. This is the new normal that people will be confronting for the next century.
Those who have read my articles will know my views on these challenges. COVID-19 and climate change are linked. Both relate to an increasing world population and its needs for energy and food. Both are exacerbated by the increasing division in societies between the rich and the poor, so the wealthy and the wealthy nations use a disproportionate amount of goods and the poorer suffer the greatest hardships. The poor eat what they can get from food markets that provide opportunities for viruses to exchange genes and the rich jet around the world spreading them far and wide, as our consumption of both energy and food drives climate change (and on a world scale most in this country are rich).
Climate change drives whole populations in Africa, South America, the Middle East and even the USA to migrate from drought, hunger, fire and flood, and migrating populations feed the worst appetites of unprincipled demagogues, as the Jews know only too well. This drives the desire for walls and Brexit. The demagogues need only to get the ear of the dispossessed, the oppressed and the disgruntled, and we are on a downward path to dictatorship. Now they do it through lies in their newspapers and so-called social media.
Confronting these challenges requires a close collaboration between governments and people. We need governments to be honest and tell it as it is, and we require the people to cooperate with the painful advice that is necessary. This my brother and I learnt in the war and post-war period. Churchill did not make empty promises, nor did he propose magical solutions; rather he told us to expect blood, toil, tears and sweat.
The people of these islands endured bombing, food rationing, an economy turned over to making weapons, and endless queuing at shops for the few commodities available. Nobody had a holiday for five years and families were separated from their fathers, but we had faith in our government that it had leaders who knew what they were doing and were taking the best available advice. Many died for the eventual victory, both in the armed services and on the home front, but even as children we knew why life was uncomfortable. Posters urged us all to do our bit. After the war, taxation rose to levels nobody would believe today.
COVID-19 requires the same spirit from the people and similar inspired leadership from the government. I am sorry to observe that neither has so far come close. A few examples of rank government tell part of the tale. The Prime Minister, assuming the garb of The Wizard of Oz
, announces a series of magical solutions that nobody believes – 'We'll beat this thing, Whack a mole, World-leading tests, Moonshot' – seeing the sunny prospect ahead in April, then constantly changing his mind and contradicting himself.
An ideological belief in private enterprise led to farming out highly technical matters to incompetent companies with no relevant experience. Public health provision is part-privatised and the experience of a century of local management is cast aside in favour of a central command and control management under someone also with no relevant background. Alongside this, the cooperation of a noisy minority of the people has been notably pathetic, especially among the me-first generation and including some Tory MPs.
As soon as lockdown was ended, instead of recognising that close contact in closed spaces was the main cause of spread, people started asking for exact instructions, which buildings, how many feet apart, would the police come and get us if we disobey? People, encouraged by the Prime Minister, flocked into pubs and urged they be allowed to go to football matches, apparently ignorant of the likely consequences. Unbelievably, pubs and small indoor eating places were opened before large half-empty churches or concert halls where numbers were more easily controlled.
The government was right in getting the children and students back to places of learning, outdoor workers back to their jobs, and providing massive financial support for stricken industry, for furloughed workers and for the scientists working on vaccines and immunological tests (note in passing how much of this work comes from Britain's public universities, one of the few remaining parts of the UK still with a worldwide reputation). But the epidemic is still here, and the risks are rising daily, inevitably as more people mix.
This week, I have watched the important numbers; not so much the total new infections which must have been greatly underestimated in the early part of the pandemic, but the hospitalisations, numbers in intensive care, and deaths. All are now rising, though Scotland lags slightly behind the rest of the UK and is enduring a lower relative rate of deaths at present; with effective test and trace we may yet hold it at bay.
It was apparent that the UK Government had lost control of the spread of infection in England and that a major second outbreak was on the way. Mr Rees-Mogg may call on us to rejoice in the brilliant science that will produce a vaccine, and he is right, but his remark recalls fiddling while Rome burns, music only to those close to him. We are now in a new Cold War, an uneasy peace during which anything could happen but between us we can prevent the worst. Part of this will be severe economic constraints.
Today I heard the Prime Minister address parliament, and for the first time I agreed with everything he said. No longer the sunny upland ahead, but severe restrictions on all of us, probably for six months. He has seen the light, but a different light. No longer is it 'go to the office if you can, enjoy yourselves in pubs and restaurants'. Restrictions on gatherings in homes and sports events. He is speaking, rightly, with the support of the leaders of all countries of the UK. It is far from blood, toil, tears and sweat, but let's hope it is enough. There will be a need for continued support for industry and workers put out of their jobs, and the First Minister's early remarks make clear she at least is addressing this huge problem.
I have written many articles through this pandemic and fear I have become boring. At the risk of confirming this, I repeat what I have said before. Our UK Government is at last waking up, but success in suppressing the pandemic depends on us doing as much we can to protect ourselves and others for the long term. This is now our new way of life. Wash hands frequently, wear masks when out and with others, avoid crowded places, especially indoors, and keep a good distance from people who are facing us, don't touch other people, wash or sanitise hands after touching anything outside the home and keep hands off faces. Keep windows open indoors when possible. Forget about enjoying ourselves and having holidays or parties for this year at least. Christmas will still come, but treat it as a time for reflection, not for over-consumption.
If you get a frequent or paroxysmal cough, loss of smell or a fever, isolate and get a test. If you only get sneezing and a runny nose, assume it is a cold (lots around just now) and don't try to get a test but keep to yourself for a day or two until it goes. If we take this as seriously as we should, these measures will also reduce our risks of catching all the other seasonal viruses and reduce further the annual pressure on the NHS.
The evidence from other countries and past experience suggest strongly that COVID-19 will remain a threat indefinitely and we shall have to learn to live with it as we do with influenza, even after a vaccine arrives. This means that our governments will have to get real about public health and put it back on a locally-organised basis under directors of public health as soon as possible and return the funding and equipment that their foolish predecessors took from it on the basis of central management being more efficient. It isn't – especially during a pandemic. Their job is to facilitate the work of the local experts by providing the infrastructure, the hospitals and social care, the protective and testing equipment, and an overall strategy that redresses imbalances in provision.
My brother and I lived long enough to watch the decline of the British Empire, the subsequent moral decline of Britain itself, and its governments' sad roles in encouraging divisions among its people. Unlike most grandparents of the generation before us, we lived to see our grandchildren and, for their sakes and for yours, I continue to hope that this pandemic has at last woken our leaders to the realities and obligations of gaining power. Meanwhile, if you are young, be careful and prepare for the different life that you will adapt to and where there will be new opportunities. If you are middle aged, set a good example, and if you are elderly, lay in a few good books. All of us will need to be patient until a vaccine arrives. Or, as we were once urged, we should keep calm and carry on as best we can.
Anthony Seaton is Emeritus Professor of Environmental and Occupational Medicine at Aberdeen University and Senior Consultant to the Edinburgh Institute of Occupational Medicine. The views expressed are his own