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Covid-19: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Published:  24 March, 2020

Writing an opinion piece about the Covid-19 pandemic and what it might mean for society, or the drinks trade specifically, is surely a fool’s errand. The information changes every few hours. It feels rather like trying to bottle goodwill, or as Adele so beautifully sang, setting fire to the rain.

Nonetheless, here are some thoughts and observations. I am borrowing the title of the 1966 western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly as my frame. The film was an Italian led production directed by Sergio Leone. Il buono, il cattivo, il brutto. Those feel appropriate themes for the current crisis, no more so than in Italy, the country with the highest number of deaths, at least for now.

Only a few days ago, on 20 March 2020, Andrea Crisanti and Antonio Cassone, both health specialists in this area, described in The Guardian how the virus was identified and stopped in Vò, a town with 3,000 people near Venice, the place where the first Italian death occurred. Everyone was tested, and those infected (including those with no symptoms) quarantined. In the first round of testing 89 were positive; in the second only 6, and they remained in isolation. Covid-19 was eradicated in 14 days. Everyone recovered.

Crisanti and Cassone argue that while it would be impossible now to test everyone in large cities, “quarantine, distancing and identification of asymptomatic carriers remain the only real measures to control this epidemic. In the UK, authorities could still identify and isolate clusters, and test everyone who has come into contact with those infected.”

A similarly hands on “test widely, identify and seperate strategy” is reported to have halted the virus in China, Taiwan, Singapore and especially South Korea. Yet the latest news is that new infections are rising again in some of those countries, often attributed to carriers arriving from abroad.

An old supplier and long term friend in the Chilean wine business called me yesterday. His daughter is a doctor. Always upbeat, his voice was muted. With 100 cases in Chile, he said the modelling showed the health system would quickly collapse as the virus spreads. Many will die. His daughter was horrified that there will be little she can do to prevent it. I recounted the Crisanti and Cassone experience to him. He said the Chilean Government had neither the money nor the ability to enact such a strategy, despite the cost in life and pesos being a lot higher if they don’t.

It made me think of communities around the globe with little or no health infrastructure. Refugee camps with millions of displaced Syrians in Turkey and Lebanon, or the camps on the Greek islands. Yemen. Open season if – when – the virus gets hold.

The importance of effective leadership

The belated 24th March decision by the UK Government to order a stay at home policy, and the closure of all but essential businesses, came hot on the heels of the previous measures to closepubs, restaurants and other places where people gather, and the financial support to directly help employees and businesses with the 80% salary support and tax breaks.

These measures are welcome – but not without qualification. The administrative processes to get the financial support to its recipients must be lightning fast. The WSTA might use it’s good relations with goverment to champion the speed and ease of enactment for our trade, and indeed all others.

The lock down measures lack clarity. What exactly is an essential business? 

If the core of the strategy is to keep people apart to prevent the virus being transmitted from one to another it needs to be total in its application. Anything less and the virus keeps circulating freely. It is surely time for the UK Government to order the population to stay at home on pain of fine, as in France and Spain, with only a few, unambiguously stated permitted reasons to go out.

The 24 March measures do not go far enough in the edict nor in the sanction. South Korea’s success in heading off Covid-19 depended on clear, unambiguous and unrelenting messaging from the Government and, critically, public buy-in. The UK leadership does not appear to have learnt this lesson.

We saw packed parks in London and crowded beaches from Skegness to Wittering as a result of weakness in edict and message. Unforunately we do not (yet) have sufficient buy-in across the population. Do those who feel well and young enough to have no risk of dying themselves not realise they may be silent carriers, passing it from person to person until an elderly or infirm person dies? Or is this simply individual selfishness championing collective responsibility?

Democracies depend on their leaders knowing when to act in times of national emergency. Failure to do so undermines the democratic system, leaving the door open to anti-democratic strong men. People want decisive leadership from those we have elected.

Boris Johnson claims Winston Churchill as his hero. Alas, he does not compare. Those next to him at the lectern during the daily press conferences show greater knowledge and competence. He delivers the prepared text adequately, then blusters and repeats in the face of questions. Now is the time for him to step up. Having been elected with a large majority we have every right to ask for more.

Adversity produces generosity and creativity

Despite the shock of this new, evolving reality, full of difficulty, there is positivity. People’s response is not limited to selfishly emptying supermarket shelves, nor blithely mixing closely with others. There is, and will continue to be, plenty that is good in response.

I recently took part in a virtual wine tasting organised by Justin Howard-Sneyd of Domaine of the Bee. Thirty of us around the world signed in to hear his reports from the vineyard and to chat with others online, each drinking our chosen wine at home. Elsewhere, people are singing together in a virtual choir, group meditating or dancing. Virtual gatherings can replace physical ones and lift the spirits.

Online platforms like and show people at their best, volunteering to help those who through illness, self-isolation, age or need are unable to help themselves. Helping and being helped by others is golden.

Up until now some on trade premises have adapted by delivering food and drink to customers at home in a battle to stay alive; spirits producers from Brewdog to Pernod Ricard and micro-distilleries are producing hand sanitiser, some distributing it for free; healthy ice cream brand Oppo say their job “has always been to help everyone to feel good” and will be distributing free ice cream to older people in care homes up and down the country “to provide a healthy surprise to lift people’s spirits”.

Amongst many other creative initiatives, issues a clarion call for people to support local businesses by buying a prepaid voucher to exchange for goods and services in future. are enabling the same via their Pay-it-forward campaign. Businesses can sign up, individuals can buy.

Another future is possible

There are lessons too in the response to Covid-19. China’s carbon emissions are estimated to have dropped by 25% in February due to the shutdown, and by 50% from cars in New York. Air pollution is reported to have lifted dramatically over parts of China and Italy as transport and factories closed. These rapid changes show how quickly nature can help us if we let it.

The post pandemic challenge will be to capture all that is good in our response, to absorb the lessons and opportunities from nature, and to create a reinvigorated, thriving world based on a different set of values and priorities. It looks like we may have longer than we would wish to plan for this. One thing seems sure: without good health, a secure environment and stable climate, there will be no stage on which we humans can perform. “Business as usual” needs a radical rethink across the globe.

Jerry Lockspeiser donates his fee for this column to The Millione Foundation which supports education and social justice in Sierra Leone