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Unprecedented?

Updated: Apr 7

COVID-19, lacklustre journalism and persons obsessed with themselves


Helen Sullivan of the Guardian has pledged to keep her readers updated during this 'unprecedented crisis'. I expect this largely means updates on the number of deaths and cases in the UK and world, reminders that virtually everything is closed and something on the odd ruffian or crowd flouting the rules in a park.


'Twenty-seven more coronavirus deaths in Wales as hundreds more test positive for COVID-19' reported WalesOnline earlier today as if we thought we were not leaving the house for fun.


The mainstream news has become bleak, boring and void, with an update on the rising number of deaths we can do nothing about (literally and necessarily) and updates on how much nothing is happening in Europe, the US and their economies because when everyone is inside there are no crowds around the Eiffel Tower and Statue of Liberty spending money. Then, there is a surprise that people are stockpiling. Today, we were even told by the BBC about a South African couple who were arrested for a 'lockdown wedding'. At the time of writing, this has been chosen as the top news article on the internet and it is not even the most recent. It's close to 'man fined for 240-mile round trip to buy bread'.


Of far better quality and erudition on the matter of COVID-19 are the superb articles on this very website written by others for free. Remarkably, journalists who write for handsome sums of money pressured to deadlines often resort to repetitive articles and dangerous exaggeration.

Yet there is one word that needs to be dropped without hesitation or remorse. 'Unprecedented' is no adjective for this crisis unless one commits self- and present-centredness to bend the definition. Individuals today have had it much worse and individuals from the past had it much worse, and while deaths from COVID-19 are naturally horrendous, the media is not warranted to apply 'unprecedented' to the situation as a whole.


The Black Death from 1348 ravaged the whole of Europe in a century of plague, famine and war. Not only are we currently so insensitive to this time, we have failed to learn from it. Italy was Europe's first major victim of China's COVID-19. The Black Death was an enemy from the East that arrived in Europe via the ports of Italy, hollowing beautiful cities like Florence. At that time, we were confused and had little choice but to await our fate terrified as reports of spread started to arrive. Today, why didn't we shut our borders immediately? Why did we not implement the lockdown earlier and take greater responsibility? Some are praising the Government's response to the pandemic, but I think it has been terribly slow and lacklustre. Never mind the 'unprecedented' and bleak updates, a critique of the actions taken is wanting. Indeed, when we drop the 'unprecedented' and the panic that ensues from the novelty that ideally rare word onsets when it is seriously applied, we see the bigger picture more clearly and calmly and may very well have found that the best response was the one now in place, which has come only after a frustrating delay. Britain could have done more looking on the Mediterranean from a distance, faster to learn how and why it unfolded there.


Did preoccupation with money slow the response that now seemed inevitable? Is this also a pertinent question regarding our response to the so-called climate crisis?


In 1665, a respite from war with the Dutch was occasioned by a plague that wiped out twenty per cent of London's population before the city was almost utterly destroyed by the Great Fire less than a year later. This affords a near-incomprehensible blend of tragedy. Regarding the plague, Samuel Pepys wearied over scenes of melancholy and complained about a gaggle of rogues outside his window who flouted rules from the top to stay indoors. Their world was no less important to them than ours is to us.

More recently the world experienced a flu pandemic that killed over 200,000 people in this country alone and in global terms was a greater single disaster than the Black Death. And all that just after WWI.

The current situation is unprecedented to us, and even that excludes a substantial number, including vast swathes of people in Africa.

I do not see why unfortunate deaths in the more distant past are not collectively remembered with equal gravity if we remember them for their own sake and not ours. Even if we do remember them for our own sake we will do well to note that the whole past produces the whole present, and once something enters that unattainable realm of time called the past, it is metaphysically equal to everything else in it. Simon Jenkins raised an interesting question on Good Morning Britain when, while arguing against remembrance days, he asked why we only enthusiastically remember those who died during relatively recent wars when we wear the poppy. However, such a question leads me to a different conclusion than his. This is not without irony, for his Short History of England is the source of much of this article.

A greater proximity to the present does not endow one with greater humanity or capacity to suffer. We should remember all those who suffered unjustly on the perilous road to today and for their sake exercise great caution before using extreme words like 'unprecedented'.

Jack Margetson









The student project covering international relations and foreign affairs

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