What was the first song you ever learned? It could have been ‘Bah-Bah Black Sheep’, perhaps for the urbanites ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’ and were the climate-change-aware millennials throwing themselves under ‘The Wheels on the Bus’? Whichever it was, there’s a strong chance ‘Ring-a-Ring o’ Roses’ is up there with the best of them. The tune, like all great rhymes, is maddeningly catchy and stays with you for life. However, it may come as a surprise that its words, the lyrics, concern the most devastating pandemic ever to sweep the earth, the Black Death.
The disease, variously known as the plague, the pestilence, or the bubonic curse, occupies a potent and most relevant space in our minds. The ‘ring o’ roses’ refers to the apparently distinctive disease marks on the skin; carrying a posy of flowers was done so to ward off miasmas; ‘atishoo, atishoo’ highlighted the symptoms; and the grimly obvious ‘we all fall down’ indicated the way it ended for many people. In reality, the plague was no child’s play. Somewhat coincidentally, our own 17th century outbreak originated in China a century or two earlier and would kill an estimated 25 million people, a third of the world’s population, including 70,000 Londoners alone.
If this coronavirus crisis teaches us anything it is that nothing is stable, everything will change: the way we shop, the way we spend, the way we interact, the way we invest, the way we use tech, the way we live. What is certain is that, by the time this pandemic has passed, the world will be different. And so will we.
Neither individualism nor nationalism could surmount this crisis. As it transpires, collectivism, social purpose and partnership stepped-up to the mark and working together has been the name of the game. We’ve all been rudely reminded how much we depend on labour, and on one-another, to keep our homes, hospitals, factories, offices, shops and country working. Right now the priority has to be fighting Covid-19 and preventing its constant creep but we also have to prepare for what’s coming down the line: recession (at best) and its impact on individuals, organisations, companies and working families’ jobs, livelihoods and means of operation. One thing is crystal clear, there’s no going back to business as usual.
Any individual who has come through a severe illness or trauma will know that the experience changes you forever, all too aware of both your frailty and your strength. A population that goes through such a collective crisis will emerge similarly changed and chastened. We will carry this with us, we will never be able to forget. A little like those damned nursey rhymes of our childhood!