Opinion | The University should close, because all universities should be forced to close

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By, Oscar Clarke, Second Year PHd, History

Coronavirus is getting out of control. A University of Bristol student has just tested positive for coronavirus. It's been reported that Metropolitan Met, LSE and Durham university have all closed; surely it's time for Bristol to close too.

The other day, I was reading Arthur Koestler’s address at the opening of the Berlin Congress for Cultural Freedom in June 1950. Koestler was challenging the bien pensantsof the European left to admit that no “third way” was possible in the Cold War. Either you accept American money, or you get ready to submit to Soviet domination. It is no good, he implored, to “preach neutrality towards the bubonic plague”. Koestler, like Camus in his novel about the Nazi occupation of France, was using the plague as a metaphor. Nonetheless, we now learn that some people really will appease a deadly contagion.

We now learn that some people really will appease a deadly contagion / Unsplash | CDC

Boris Johnson’s first response, in the early stages of the outbreak, was to invoke the school of thought that we should “take it on the chin” and let the disease do its worst. Most people that get it will be fine; as for the others, well, let’s not talk about the others. As the news from Italy got worse, though, being a bit closer to home than China or Iran, the scale of the human sacrifice started to dawn on some members of the “ignore it and it’ll go away” school.

But that does not mean that they are now prepared to take the appropriate measures to do something to stop it. Johnson now simply asks us to accept that families will “lose loved ones before their time”.

The news that a student at the University of Bristol has the virus is immaterial. The University should close, not of its own initiative, but because all universities should be forced to close. It may be, right now, that the economic costs of a shutdown are considered too great, but the state of the world markets is a fine clue that they are unavoidable. We are not buying time; we are delaying the inevitable.

And the economic costs, like the human ones, will be all the greater for our tardiness. Spain will probably be the next country to do what Italy has done already. In Madrid, the health service is already in disarray; in Barcelona, I am told, people are raiding the supermarkets. At least they have no delusions.

Though I am a little miffed at having missed the boat during the great hand sanitiser rush, washing your hands every ten minutes is not going to stop the spread of a virus that already has potentially thousands of hosts in this country. I am afraid it is also futile to politely request that people stay home if they feel a bit ill. Most people will do as requested, but many – under pressure from their employers, or unaccustomed to following government advice – will not.

Here’s an anecdote to demonstrate the point: I have a weekend job in a London Museum (I’m a distance learning student). Last week, an indiscreet toddler was talking to one of my colleagues in one of the children’s galleries. “Do you know why I’m not at school?”, she asked. “Why?”, he replied. “Because we have just been on holiday to Italy and my family is in quarantine”. It transpired that her family had driven up to London from Devon.

We must take the firmest containment measures immediately, and not only for our own sakes. John Donne’s counsel – in spite of geography and 52 per cent of voters – is truer than ever: no man is an island. The countries which have had outbreaks have an especial duty towards those which haven’t.

And the economic costs, like the human ones, will be all the greater for our tardiness.

If, for instance, an outbreak occurs in India, which seems, thus far, to have managed to contain its cases, the death toll would likely be orders of magnitude greater than Italy’s. One is also given to wonder what the long-term implications will be if some countries manage to eradicate it while it thrives elsewhere. Will it not just rebound in waves? Imagine the “economic costs” of that. Best not imagine the human ones.

Boris Johnson claims to be guided by the science, but common-sense dictates that you can’t contain a virus if you don’t contain people. Though China could have avoided Draconian measures if it wasn’t considered criminal in that country to oppose the truth to the ‘party line’ – everyone knows the story of the silenced Doctor – no one else now has that option.

It was reported in the Guardian yesterday that a scientific study of the Chinese effort in Wuhan concluded that “interventions have a huge effect on the spread of Coronavirus”. Is that not the most obvious conclusion to any study conducted, into anything, ever?


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