London Calling: Global Gloom

Jaba Self Help Group

As I write this we are in the grip of a truly international health crisis. Originating in China, in December 2019, hence no doubt its scientific moniker Covid-19, coronavirus has rapidly spread across most parts of the world in the first three months of this year and become a global pandemic. So 2020 has not had an auspicious beginning; how it will pan out remains to be seen.

I have changed the opening of this piece and the rest of the planned content several times already, because we are dealing with a fast-moving scenario with constant updates on all fronts and the story should be familiar to everyone anyway.   

What has happened so far is truly earth-shaking: border closures; flight bans; cancellation of sports fixtures, public gatherings and other events; declarations of states of emergency – these are just some of the universal responses to coronavirus.  In individual countries, other measures taken reflect local concerns and conditions.  In the UK, municipal and mayoral elections have been postponed for a whole year, schools have closed for an indefinite period and the latest casualty are cafes, bars and restaurants and leisure establishments which were ordered to shut down with immediate effect, something that did not happen even during World War II. In Italy, Spain and France, severe restrictions on movement of people have been imposed, with residents having to show evidence of a valid reason for being outside their homes.  Elsewhere, there are reports of curfews, quarantines and lockdowns; we expect these here too.

Businesses, including airlines and other travel related enterprises, are in dire straits. Stocks and shares and other financial markets have also suffered significant losses or downturns.  Governments, certainly in the developed countries, have taken emergency steps to prop up all sectors of the economy and to alleviate the suffering of their respective populations. In the UK, a most generous package of measures on an unprecedented scale has been announced to safeguard jobs and support employers.

But of course this is not the full picture. Most concerning of all is the rising incidence of hospital admissions and deaths in all countries affected by the virus, with mounting pressures on health services as the number of virus-victims continues to multiply exponentially.

It is not as if the world has not known this kind of calamity before: a hundred years ago there was the Spanish Flu that caused the deaths of millions worldwide, and fifty years later the Hong Kong Flu also resulted in about a million dead.  But this one is different, because basically the world has moved on since in terms, among other things, of mass migration, globalisation, advances in technology and greater interconnectedness all round.

We are actually living through a global catastrophe in the present, the ramifications of which are continuing. That there has been widespread disruption at every level and in every sphere of our national, local and personal lives is an understatement. To give a prosaic example, already I have had to cancel pre-booked outings and forthcoming appointments.  That is a minor inconvenience.  More immediately, with the panic-buying spree that has become a national disgrace, it is impossible to get even the most basic necessities from local shops and supermarkets whose shelves are stripped bare as soon as stocks are replaced, as and when deliveries take place. 

And we have to be mindful of the official advice that is being repeatedly broadcast: to avoid people to people physical contact (no shaking hands, hugging, kissing) and to keep a `social distance`, especially where the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions are involved.  Being nearly 80, one is regarded as falling within this vulnerable category, and no matter how fit and well, I have to remind myself that coronavirus is no respecter of persons!  

By any standards, then, these are extraordinary, unsettling and troubling times. Coronavirus has now become the new global reality and is dominating our public discourse and private conversations. What we are seeing or hearing on all media outlets can best be described as an unbroken series of `breaking news`. There is also no dearth of programmes and other coverage to keep the public informed about the virus. 

 We are thus in the midst of something that is going to be life-changing for all of us, if we survive.  It is still early days but all the signs are that it is going to be a very rough ride indeed, and there is no knowing what it will do to our mental, physical and psychological state. In particular, for the vast majority of the younger and working population, what being cooped up in their homes with a spouse or partner and children, for months on end, will do to their relationships and morale, never mind everything else?


All this pales into insignificance when we consider that in the past year, the world has witnessed massive floods, bushfires and, in Africa, even a plague of locusts, leaving a vast trail of damage and destruction all round.  My worry is that countries like Kenya are ill equipped to deal with the coronavirus epidemic.  One hardly needs to spell out the reasons: poverty, malnutrition, overcrowding, a shortage of health professionals, plus many other factors. And while the more developed countries are pre-occupied with their own problems, it is unlikely that these countries will receive much attention or assistance.

You would think this would make an excellent subject for a sci-fi movie or novel.  All the ingredients for a script are there; you don`t need to invent anything. It is not as if fiction writers and film makers have not imagined such a stark portrayal of a virtual global shutdown of `apocalypse now` proportions.  Now it is for real and ready-made!  Any takers?

Notwithstanding the scale and detail of what coronavirus has unleashed so far, despite all the gloom and fears about what lies ahead and stark instances of selfish behaviour on the part of many people, we can take comfort from the fact it has brought out their good side also, as neighbours are starting to look out for those among them who may need help, and numerous community and nationwide initiatives are afoot to provide relief and support to those in need. The humanitarian instinct for the common good is thus also beginning to be seen in evidence.

What I have written here can hardly be described as either original or profound, and by the time this appears it will already be dated.  In the circumstances, however, let it stand as a record of what it feels like right now – to be so uncertain about the future!  Wish you all the best.

Ramnik Shah


  • Born in Kenya, practiced law in Nairobi from 1964 to ’74 and then for the next 30 years in England, where since retirement he has been engaged in academic research and writing on migration and diaspora related subjects and general literature. He is the author of ‘Empire’s Child’. See also