The Greek playwright Aeschylus once observed: “In war, the first casualty is truth.” And in the thousands of years since, those words have come true repeatedly in conflict after conflict.
Aeschylus’ tragedies focused on the difficult choices men have to make and their consequences. For his pains, Western literature considers him the father of tragedy.
He would be hard-pressed to recognise a world where the fateful choices of leaders are boiled down to a tweet or scoffed at in a WhatsApp blast in which falsehood has greater currency than fact.
The inconvenient truth has cost the lives of countless martyrs who would die rather than lie.
In a week where the pious and apostate alike slammed the Anglican Church which, leading from the front, reached one step ahead of the public health authorities to suspend services in a bid to protect the lives of its mostly elderly parishioners, we are reminded of another calamity nearly 250 years ago.
In the Russian plague of 1771, Archbishop Ambrosius actually urged the crowds not to gather for worship. He was murdered for his efforts, as Muscovites, broke from quarantine in anger and terror and sparked a riot.
In 5,000 years of recorded plagues – we call them pandemics now – some truths have not changed. And the science of public health has not evolved greatly. Quarantine and isolation work. Ignorance, arrogance and fear do not.
The media’s job to speak truth to power cannot extend only to the great and powerful. It would be as disingenuous as it is potentially deadly to fix critical eyes only on authority figures and the powerful – not anymore; not now that a fool with a phone is more apt to be believed than scores of brave, wise men and woman acting in the service of the nation.
Not now, when increasingly this newspaper receives reports which cause us to question the efficacy of our much-vaunted education system can we ignore a looming self-inflicted tragedy.
For the truth, fatal and tragic as it may be is that we, the people, faced with the greatest health crisis in 102 years, will have none but ourselves to blame for the rage of the contagion in our midst.
We have people scoffing self-quarantine, greedy shoppers, dumb people with smartphones spreading fear and loathing, panic and paranoia, judgmental folks rushing to prejudice, and people who dare not darken a church door vowing that the church won’t get a penny of theirs.
Granted we are not China. A democracy without dissent is no democracy. But the public health authorities and the decision-makers who must act on their advice and the science of biology, do not seek agreement but compliance for the sake of saving lives.
The truth is that our health care system is set to be overrun by scores, then hundreds, then thousands of sick people, as those stricken by a virus – young and old alike – will be caught in a battle for life and breath.
COVID-19 is a form of SARS – Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome – which could progress to pneumonia and respiratory failure. That the early symptoms are flu-like does not mean the disease is ‘like the flu’ or ‘no worse than flu’. There is no known resistance to this new strain of coronavirus.
The viral death toll of Italy – population 60 million – is twice that of China’s – population one billion. This is not because, as some have said, that the Italians are ‘less hygienic’ than the Chinese or anyone else, for that matter. Italy, with the world’s second-oldest population, has a medium age of 45.5 years. Spain, whose coronavirus death toll is now spiralling upwards, is another ageing nation, with a median age of 42.7. China’s is 37.4 Barbados’ is 38.6.
Sober and solemn action to preserve the lives of young and old is what is required of us, not fear nor fatalism nor stupefying defiance.
The paradox is that should this contagion end with neither a bang nor whimper, with the call-in programmes flooded with “what-was-the-fuss-all-about” calls, then it means that sound public health and disaster preparedness would have won. If not, we are about to enter a nightmare entirely of our own making.
The truth is a bitter pill we should all swallow that we might live.
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