I was wrong about the Covid-19 virus. On Friday 6 March I met with my students in Cambridge to reassure them that I had every intention of taking them to Berlin for their overseas field class: at that time there were just 8 recorded cases of the coronavirus in Berlin and there seemed little reason to simply cancel the planned trip. Just 24 hours later I had changed my mind. The latest figures from the Robert Koch Institute indicate over 2,000 cases of the virus in Berlin (with over 53,000 cases across Germany as a whole). All of the cafes, museums, and restaurants that we would have visited are closed. As a group of 25 people all of our planned field excursions to parks and nature reserves would have been illegal.
As I write this blog I am sitting at home in Stoke Newington in North London. Under placid blue skies there is an apprehensive atmosphere. Many people wear improvised face masks. Some strangers swerve to avoid each other in the street whilst others walk towards you out of defiance towards new rules on social distancing. The few shops still trading have long and anxious queues snaking into side streets. The other day an army truck trundled down Church Street as if a distant coup was underway but not yet announced to the wider population. Strange notices appear such as anti-jogging signs in the local park. Accumulations of refuse suggest that public services are beginning to fray under the pressure. At night the city is quieter than I have ever known—the silence is broken only by the sound of foxes and distant ambulance sirens.
The coronavirus pandemic is already revealing stark differences in the public health preparedness of different nations. The contrast between the UK and Germany is striking: whilst senior members of the UK government fall sick after failing to follow their own half-baked advice it is already apparent that mass testing in Germany, combined with a better prepared health care system, is saving many lives.