Of all the things to pick a fight to the death with, why choose a coronavirus?
Viruses are almost as old as life on Earth. They have a 3.5 billion-year head start on humans. Close to 10% of our genome consists of viral material embedded in our DNA.
Coronaviruses are particularly well-adapted to human traits like sociability, indoor living and livestock-keeping.
Their trick is to spread efficiently without killing too many of their human or animal hosts along the way. Our trick is not to succumb to viral infections easily, and to adapt quickly to and constantly to new strains as they arise.
We can lay temporary defences against the worst effects of virus outbreaks, just as we build local defences against the sea and the weather.
But humans can no more “beat” coronaviruses than we can “beat” the weather.
The virus is absolutely guaranteed to win, simply by doing what it has perfected over 3.5 billion years: killing only a tiny fraction of those it infects.
Those it doesn’t kill, it lives with. And we live with viruses in return. We’re crawling with them in their trillions, all the time. Some have no effect on us. Our immune systems deal with some on a daily housekeeping basis.
Some make us ill with colds or flu every now and then. It’s how they spread. All the same, we coexist. It’s why 99.95% of people alive today won’t die during this outbreak of even a relatively nasty strain like SARS-CoV-2.
And it is the ultimate in hubristic madness to believe humankind could eliminate something that is everywhere in each and every one of us.
But last year for some reason, the leaders of nearly all the world’s most advanced technocratic societies entered into a battle of elimination with SARS-CoV-2 with the rallying cry ‘Zero Covid’.
A battle of elimination means doing whatever it takes to win. Britain’s classically-tuned prime minister doubtless goes to sleep with his head full of epic vignettes in which he, Boris the Hero, the Resolute, the Greatly-Admired And Envied, gloriously annihilates COVID-19 in a modern battle of Cannae or Teutoburg Forest.
Unfortunately for Johnson’s legacy, he seems to be unable to grasp a fundamental difference between those battles and his own scatter-brained campaign against a virus.
Most battles start out with two potential winners. Even the Battle of Asculum of 279 AD, from which we get the term Pyrrhic victory, began with two possible winners on the field. Unfortunately for eventual winner King Pyrrhus, victory cost his army so much it was tantamount to defeat.
Johnson (and to be fair a good many other leaders) charged headlong into a struggle with Covid that was only ever going to end in their defeat.
There will be no elimination of the virus; only unprecedented societal devastation wrought by insanely disproportionate measures. Which is why the government is already spending a fortune on adverts making out it’s the voters’ fault for not taking the virus seriously.
Though there is one thing Johnson may be remembered for after all this.
For causing an even greater humiliation than the one the victor of Asculum inflicted on his people.
A Pyrrhic Defeat.