THEY still play The Last Post at the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres at 8pm daily — as they have done every day since it opened in 1928.
Only, for the past seven weeks, nobody has been there to hear it. Just a lone bugler; how incredibly poignant.
The reason, of course, is the coronavirus. People have been told to stay away, and, in Belgium, where Ypres is, they don’t need to be told twice.
A hundred years after the Great War devastated that small, proud country, a lethal enemy has laid waste to it again.
Belgium has, by some distance, the worst mortality rate of all countries affected by Covid-19.
In a nation of 11 million people, almost 8,000 have died, relating to 655 deaths per million; far more than even Italy and Spain.
The mortality rate in Belgium amounts to 14.6% of all people who have tested positive for the virus,
At this juncture, it’s fashionable to suggest that many more Belgians will have had Covid-19 but not shown any symptoms and not been tested, thus lowering the mortality rate, which is true.
But I prefer to look at it another way. Anyone who has felt poorly has surely sought a test. So 14.6% of those who have noticeably felt ill and been found to have Covid-19 have died.
Let me tell you, I don’t like those odds one bit.
And let me tell you something else that will startle you.
It’s hard to know the mortality rate of armies during World War I, who fought in places like Ypres and Passchendaele in Belgium. But the best estimates for British and Irish soldiers put it at around 10-12%.
You read that right.
You had more chance of surviving the horrors of the Great War — the ghastly trenches, bullets and bombs, the infected wounds and diseases — than you do of surviving Covid-19 in Belgium, once you are told you have it.
And yet, this week the clamour for an end to lockdown here, the cocksure attitude of ‘Sure, I’ll take my chances’, the cries of ‘But what about the economy?’, have grown shriller with each passing day.
As though we have it beaten.
As though the war is over.
At least in the Great War, the guns and cannons stopped firing.
This invisible enemy is altogether different and is still killing at an alarming rate.
Indeed, of all cases globally which have reached an outcome (death or survival), 19% ended with a person in a coffin. That’s almost one in five.
Thankfully, in Ireland — despite our willingness to report as many deaths as possible from the coronavirus — our mortality rate is far lower, at 4.6%.
It’s hard to know why poor Belgium is suffering so badly, but let’s not be complacent about that 4.6%. It’s reckoned only around 6% of Americans died in World War II, but that wasn’t much consolation to the parents when their loved ones returned in body bags.
An estimated 8.4% of British soldiers died in World War II — meaning they were only twice as likely to die in that conflict as an Irish person is to succumb to Covid-19 after being diagnosed.
That 4.6% doesn’t sound so low now, does it?
Early claims that this was just a bad dose of flu have proved spectacularly wide of the mark — because of China allegedly grossly under-reporting its deaths. Even the most conservative estimates — which involve predicting large numbers of those infected having no symptoms — suggest Covid-19 is at least eight times more deadly than the flu.
And flu, remember, is risky enough to require a mass vaccination campaign every year.
Yet people still want to return to normal life here after the current lockdown order ends on Tuesday?
It’s true that the main reason we had a lockdown in the first place was to reduce the burden on our hospitals, and ensure we didn’t deny someone seriously ill an intensive care bed and oxygen when they needed it.
We have achieved that so far, and it remains the prime reason for the lockdown.
But there is an equal imperative to this drastic action: quite simply, in the words of Woody Allen, I’m not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.
I really don’t want to die, and I don’t want my loved ones and friends, some old and some young, to die. And ending lockdown now would greatly increase that risk.
One of the great fallacies about Covid-19 is that it only takes the old and vulnerable. It’s true that these are the main victims, but I have read far too many tragic stories of late that refer to young and apparently heathy people dying of the disease.
I saw one case of a young father in the UK, whose social media posts spoke of Easter Sunday chats on Skype to his parents, his love for his girlfriend, and his desire to adopt her baby as his.
Then, last Saturday, he posted: “So, I’ve spent the last few days in hospital. If you think Covid-19 won’t affect you, you are wrong. I thought that, and I was almost a goner.” They were the last words on his social media account. On Sunday night his brother wrote on it: “Sadly, my brother passed away peacefully overnight. He was a truly remarkable man. The biggest tribute you can pay to my brother is to stay home.”
Still feel confident about lifting lockdown anytime soon?
Also in the UK, a 36-year-old former soldier, who had no reported underlying conditions, died of the disease. On his Facebook page, shortly before his death, he wrote: “I can’t stay home, I’m a trucker.”
Young people, men in particular, tend to think they are invincible. They’re not.
The worst thing that could happen now is that we reduce the lockdown and there is a surge in cases, which puts the health services under renewed pressure and forces the government to return us to lockdown. That would be a real kick in the teeth.
In a UK poll this week, two-thirds of people said they preferred to remain in lockdown until Covid-19 is “fully contained”.
There is a warning from history we should all heed.
In the Spanish flu epidemic a century ago, San Francisco lifted lockdown after just four weeks, when statistics showed cases and deaths were falling. Group gatherings were allowed and people were told they didn’t have to wear masks.
It proved fatally complacent. The disease returned — with a vengeance. A prolonged second wave saw twice the amount of deaths as the first, and the lockdown had to be resumed, much to the public’s anger.
That was in 1918, the year the guns finally fell silent on the Western Front in Belgium. The most bleak mortality rates now suggest this is our own Great War.
If you’re among those calling for an end to lockdown, bear this in mind: In this war on a deadly virus, it is still firing and killing in large numbers.
This war is not over. Yet many among us think we can drop our guard and lift our heads above the trenches?