Passengers wearing masks wait to board trains at the Beijing West Railway Station, in Beijing, China January 20, 2020. | Reuters/Stringer

My old editor at The Observer, David Astor, used to say: “There are some problems in the world to which we think we know the answers. There are other problems to which there are no answers. A third category is problems to which there may be answers, but we don’t happen to know what they are.” Coronavirus (or Covid-19, as we must learn to call it) falls into that third category.

Donald Rumsfeld, the American Defence Secretary at the time of the Iraq war, was saying something similar when he talked about “known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns.” In that formulation, the epidemic falls into the second category.

The truth is that nobody knows how seriously Covid-19 could become. It might peak for three weeks, then come down by the time of the Easter holidays, or the numbers might keep growing into something the planet has never known before. The British government was right to prepare for the worst scenario, though the likelihood of 80 per cent of the UK falling victim to the disease may seem excessive.

Doctors and scientists have to take into account the history of previous pandemics, including Sars, Mers and Swine Flu. The worst epidemic of the last century was the Spanish flu of 1919, which killed 228,000 people in Britain, many more than died in the First World War. Asian flu in 1957-58 killed 33,000 people in the UK, especially children, and Hong Kong flu in 1968-69 caused 80,000 UK deaths.

Yet none of these epidemics had such a strong psychological impact as the present one. This may be because of the speed of communications in the new cyberworld and the demand by modern publics to be told everything that affects their welfare.

“Keep Calm and Carry on” has been the British government’s watchword - and rightly so, though the phrase itself, contrary to popular belief, was hardly used in World War 2 propaganda, and owes its recent popularity to the commercialisation of some posters found in a Northumberland bookshop in 2000.

Some selfish idiots will always panic and buy up medical and other supplies, thereby creating artificial shortages which make people panic more. The measured tone of Professor Chris Witty, the British government’s chief medical adviser, in providing the facts as he knows them and forecasting the future with caution, should help to keep the country calm.
In the world at large the percentage of people currently dying after contracting the disease is 3.4%. In Britain, where care is much higher than average, that figure may be nearer 2%. To put these figures into context, an average of 56,000 people die of influenza or flu-related illnesses in Britain every year – about thee-quarters of whom are people over 65.

It is only human to look for hope in these situations. Prof. Witty points to a number of positive factors: that the rate of increase is slowing in China, that Covid-19 may be like flu in receding in good weather, that many victims are suffering only mild symptoms and are recovering quickly, that children are relatively unaffected, and that research on a vaccine is proceeding at pace around the world.

Even on an optimistic scenario about the current outbreak, however, the economic costs will be extensive and will have to be paid for. Companies may follow FlyBe in going to the wall. People may lose jobs or not get paid. We have had warnings enough about the perils of climate change. The global spread of disease is another – and possibly more immediate – threat to human life.

And yet it seems no time at all since the world was congratulating itself on its achievements: the end of the Cold War, possibly the end of all wars, the eradication of poverty and disease, the extension of human life, the massive triumphs of technology, including the work-saving development of artificial intelligence.

Then, in 2001, terrorism and the clash of civilisations reached a new peak. The powerlessness of Western armies was demonstrated in Afghanistan and Iraq. Global organisations and individual governments were equally powerless to halt economic collapse in 2008.

Genocide re-emerged in Rwanda and Syria. And nuclear destruction can never be taken off the agenda while unstable countries like North Korea, Pakistan and probably Iran have the power to inflict it.

If, as we all hope, Covid-19 is conquered, or at least marginalised, in the next six months, it may still serve as a timely warning of yet another deadly global threat: the vulnerability of the planet to disease in an era of unprecedented travel. There could well be more horrific epidemics to come, for which countries should learn how to avoid and prepare. Pandemic-proofing should be the new global mantra.

Transgender “hate crimes

Transgender is such an ethical minefield that I have tried to steer clear of it. Unfortunately, many other people have done the same, with the result that the field is dominated by extremists who insist that anyone who disagrees with them is guilty of a “hate crime.”

I can see the case for self-identification by men who want to be treated as women, and vice-versa. Medical tribunals can provide no answer for people whose mental outlook is set on a different direction. One also has to sympathise with the pain they may have suffered as children in the confusion about their gender.

However, self-identification surely cannot gain people born as men automatic entry into all areas and activities where women operate. Women may reasonably object to women claiming to be men joining them in changing rooms or women’s prisons or hospital wards. There have been cases of sexual abuse, even rape. To be concerned about the risk and to seek some precautions is surely not a hate crime, as the Labour leadership candidate Rebecca Long-Bailey would argue, but common sense.

The issue is becoming a crisis in so-called women’s sport. The International Olympic Committee says the test is the level of testosterone in their bodies when they compete. But that is a cop-out. Men have greater lung capacity, greater bone density and very different musculature to women – and these physical characteristics mostly survive the chemical and medical treatments many transgender people have.

To allow them access to women’s rugby, football, cricket, tennis, athletics etc., would be grossly unfair –and if it is a hate crime to say that, then I enter a plea of guilty but sane.