Coronavirus offers a stinging rebuke to protectionists

The outbreak reminds us that all the important problems in the world are global rather than national or local – and we have to accept this fact of life

In the past two years, Britain has seen an explosion of book festivals beyond the big events in Edinburgh and Cheltenham to include even small country towns such as Wigtown in Scotland, Southwold in England and Bangor in Northern Ireland. For authors, festivals are a great way to promote books but also an excuse to travel across the country to meet audiences who – as you might expect – tend to be well-read, opinionated and fun.

But then along comes that great spoiler, coronavirus.

Two of the three events I was expecting to attend in the past few days, in Liverpool and Glasgow, have been cancelled. But the third did something imaginative. It is a small festival in Keswick in the Lake District, a beautiful area of England stretching up towards the Scottish border. Rather than cancel the festival, the organisers arranged for me to stay at home and talk to the audience of about 300 on Skype or Facetime.

This is just one of the many ways in which people are being inventive and trying to connect with each other despite the obvious difficulties. In Siena, a beautiful medieval town in northern Italy, local residents have been singing together – not in a choir but in their separate homes. Neighbours separated by walls are singing sentimental ballads while the streets between them remain empty. The human desire to connect and be sociable is almost unstoppable, and it highlights something even more fundamental.

The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland share an island – and a border. But do not share a government. On one side of that border, the Irish government in Dublin has decided to close all schools, taking drastic action in the hope of stopping the spread of coronavirus. North of that border, the local administration in Belfast has taken a different approach, so far keeping schools open in line with that of the UK government.

Motorists pass an Anti Brexit poster close to the Irish border, beside the town of Newry, Northern Ireland, Saturday, Feb. 1, 2020. While Britain formally left the EU at 11 p.m. local time Friday, the hard work of building a new economic relationship between the bloc and its ex-member has just begun. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)
John Donne got it right four centuries ago when he wrote: 'No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main'

Unless you are an expert virologist or public health official, I do not see how you can tell who is right and who is wrong. Perhaps both are right in the sense that we are all struggling to figure out the best way to fight a pandemic.

But the more important point is that coronavirus reminds us that, even though we disagree on many things, all the really important problems in the world are global rather than national or local – disease control, climate change, economic prosperity and poverty, war, terrorism, security, crime, drug trafficking, money laundering, how to cope with fakery on social media and so on.

Commenting on the difference of opinion on how to handle coronavirus in the two parts of Ireland, a Northern Ireland-born journalist, Andrea Catherwood, tweeted an exchange with her children:

Son 1: "Our cousins in Ireland are all off school for at least two weeks."

Son 2: “No, only the Dublin cousins, the Belfast ones are still at school."

Son 1: “Why? Does coronavirus know there’s a border?”

UNSPECIFIED - 1930:  Portrait of sociologist Sir Patrick Geddes, who was commissioned by the British government to modernize and design buildings for Hebrew University on the Mount of Olives in Palestine.  (Photo by Underwood And Underwood/Underwood And Underwood/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images)

Ms Catherwood’s boys are very smart. Coronavirus does not respect borders or walls, and however much we try to isolate ourselves, it will affect all of us eventually in some way. And so will so many other problems in the world.

The phrase "think global, act local" is credited to the Scottish town planner Patrick Geddes. In 1915, Geddes published Cities in Evolution, a book in which he argued the while we all love the "local character" of the places in which we live, that character depends upon "the whole environment, and in active sympathy with the essential and characteristic life of the place concerned".

Geddes’ work inspired the environmental movement and others, and maybe as we watch the cancellation of so many of the things we love – book festivals, sporting events, holidays and going to the movies – just maybe we should think about these inter-connections in the “whole environment” more than our sense of individualism and isolation.

John Donne (1572- 1631) English poet, satirist, lawyer and a cleric in the Church of England. He is considered the pre-eminent representative of the metaphysical poets. Engraving by W. Bromley. Colored. (Photo by Ipsumpix/Corbis via Getty Images)

US President Donald Trump was elected on promises to put "America First" and to "Build A Wall". Brexit – nowhere near completed – was partly sold to the British people as an "island race" that "stood alone" in the Second World War and which, therefore, will survive and thrive outside the European Union. But as Mr Trump's difficulties over coronavirus demonstrate, a serious threat to health anywhere can become a threat everywhere; a serious threat to the Chinese economy can become a worldwide stockmarket meltdown.

Or, as book festival lovers will recall, the English poet John Donne got it right four centuries ago when he wrote: “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”

Donne was a Christian churchman as well as a poet, and he concluded this meditation by considering that the church bells ringing out at a funeral have an important message for all of us. He famously wrote: “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”

Gavin Esler is a journalist, author and presenter

Gavin Esler

Gavin Esler

Gavin Esler is a broadcaster and UK columnist for The National