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Analysis: Why the COVID-19 pandemic shows how civilised we are

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Elizabeth Dalziel/ AP Photo
Elizabeth Dalziel/ AP Photo   -   Copyright  Elizabeth Dalziel/ AP Photo
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In the autumn of 2011, I struggled to find my seat in a packed cinema (remember those) and settled down to watch the Hollywood blockbuster Contagion, starring Matt Damon and Kate Winslet.

The blurb goes as follows: “The global action thriller revolves around the threat of a deadly outbreak of a fatal disease and the people determined to keep it at bay. As the fast-moving epidemic grows, the worldwide medical community races to find a cure and control the panic that spreads faster than the virus itself.”

Does that all sound terribly familiar? Well, the film is actually very watchable and (having re-watched it during this actual pandemic), surprisingly accurate. The virus, coincidentally, is passed from a bat to a pig, before human transmission... I know! I remember, as the credits rolled that autumn night, hearing people cough, and feeling a little uneasy. We have all grown very used to that feeling recently.

However, the film diverges from our reality about one third in, when society starts to break down. Widespread looting begins, lockdowns are broken, house break-ins rise and shootings mark a United States simply unable to cope with the strains the virus places on its populace.

Now, the fictional virus was far more deadly than COVID-19 and thus it is difficult to know how we would all react in more extreme circumstances. But I think many have been surprised by how compliant and trusting most of us have been. Yes, we have all seen those images from some American states of a gun-toting crowd demanding the reopening of businesses. Clearly, relations are strained between the World Health Organization and the White House and, indeed, between China and many other parts of the world. Though, this is as much about geopolitics as it is about a pandemic.

Over the past couple of months, whether it is in America or here in Europe, most of us have adhered to our government's advice. We have stayed indoors, shut our businesses and lots more of us are wearing face masks in public. Yes, fines have been handed out, parties have taken place, not everyone has complied, but the vast majority of us have. In fact, some governments have been taken aback by just how many.

At the time, one of the reasons the UK claimed it didn’t rush into a full lockdown earlier, was due to concerns that people would bore of it too quickly; that lots of people would break the rules just before the peak of infections. They couldn’t have got it more wrong. If anything Boris Johnson is now having to coax a worried British population out of their homes and back to work.

All this despite years of growing mistrust in politicians and in politics - and, indeed, in unelected experts, who think they know best. Outside of countries like Sweden, the governing elite have taken a hammering in recent decades. That seems to have changed this year.

And, table-thumping and harsh words aside, the WHO’s guidance has been largely followed; PPE was sent to China from Europe in February and China is now returning the favour. Albania sent doctors to Italy. Germany flew patients from overwhelmed Italian hospitals to their underused ICU wards. Russia even supplied the United States with ventilators; now the US is sending some to Moscow. The Russian ones didn’t work... But, perhaps it is the thought that counts?

A civilised world ultimately relies on consent and, throughout this crisis, our societies have held up (even with the weird toilet-roll panic buying) and people have come together. They are doing so right now, in trying to find a vaccine. For all of us. These have been desperately sad times for many, and there will be more pain to come. But the coronavirus has also brought out the best in us, the best in humanity.

Darren McCaffrey is Euronews' political editor.

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