On Wednesday, the morning of the UK's second day under lockdown after a stay-at-home order issued by Boris Johnson, the news broke that Prince Charles, Queen Elizabeth's eldest son and heir to the British throne, has tested positive for coronavirus. He's currently self-isolating with mild symptoms in Balmoral, Scotland. His wife Camilla, who tested negative for the virus, is self-isolating in a separate part of the estate. His 93-year-old mother the Queen is isolating at Windsor Castle, alongside her husband Prince Philip, who is 98. Many will be able to relate to the experience of separation from their loved ones during the current outbreak. At least, the royals have provided a conspicuous example of how seriously everyone should treat the coronavirus.
As is always the case with breaking news about the royals, it spread like wildfire, immediately prompting questions like "how many servants serve his breakfast?" "why did he get a test when my grandma didn't?" and, of course, "when did he last see his mum?" (March 12, by the way, and a royal source told CNN that Charles had been advised he was contagious from March 13.)
It is unlikely that much of the population will remain unaware of the Prince's status for long. And in a country which -- like the US -- has seen some of its older and more at-risk inhabitants hesitate to treat the coronavirus as a serious threat to their own health, this might prove to be a much-needed injection of public awareness about the urgent risks involved in not heeding the orders to stay home.
There have been troubling reports from both sides of the pond about people failing to comply with government guidelines to stay isolated to stem the tide of the coronavirus. Many of those reports have focused thus far on spring breakers and St Patrick's Day partiers -- but there have also been conspicuous instances of older people who appear reluctant to take public health messaging to heart.
Earlier this week, a 75-year-old caller to BBC Radio Solent said that people in her age bracket didn't care whether they caught the virus, as they'd "had their lives," and that if people are "going to get it," they're "going to get it anyway." Last week, Woman's Hour, a popular BBC Radio show with a broad listenership, featured a caller in her 80s who -- in the presenter's words -- was "incandescent" with rage at what she felt had been patronizing government advice intended to see her left alone in her house "to die."
I have many friends who report their own frustrations with older parents who remain unconvinced that they should give up socializing, keeping regular appointments, or visiting family -- despite the clear evidence that such behavior contributes directly to the coronavirus' spread, and puts them at huge personal risk. It's clearly a common problem -- and much advice in the lifestyle sections of various news sites has been aimed at millennials attempting to convince their elderly relatives that continuing as normal is dangerous.
It's understandable why this has been a hard pill to swallow for some. The beloved "Keep Calm and Carry On"-style rhetoric of World War II is emblematic of a feeling among many that wavering in the face of any threat is a sign of weakness or giving up. Rhetoric suggesting that younger people are overreacting to the coronavirus -- or that the elderly will easily weather it -- features regular references to the war, and the no-fuss personalities it apparently forged.
The 84-year-old writer of a piece titled "I survived rationing, I'm not scared of the coronavirus," published in the The Sunday Times last week, mentioned that he'd spoken to others his age who were also sick of "ageist propaganda," and scoffed at thirty-something "scaredy-cats." Misapplied references to "Blitz spirit" often create a sense of continuing on without allowing normal life to be impeded, rather than acknowledging that the history in question involved a huge sacrifice of personal freedoms.
The sense that a lockdown marks the banishment of hard-won liberties -- as opposed to a necessary public safety intervention -- has even been reflected by royals' favorite newspaper. On Tuesday, the first day of the UK lockdown, The Telegraph, whose average reader as of 2018 was 61-years-old according to its own data -- the oldest audience for a British news brand, according to marketing site The Drum -- led with the front page splash: "The End Of Freedom." On the same day, the paper ran a column titled "The self-pitying 'woke' generation needed a war. In the coronavirus, they've got one." The heavy implication is that anyone who has lived through greater privations than millennials need not bother themselves with new disasters, for they already have the necessary coping mechanisms to weather them.
Considering that so much media messaging has been confused, it is no wonder that many feel they don't need to make concessions to the coronavirus -- either because they have already paid their dues, or because it is simply an overblown fuss. But the seriousness with which Clarence House has dealt with Prince Charles' diagnosis -- despite his apparently mild symptoms -- sends a clear message to that isolation isn't just for one's own sake. It could prompt a rethink among those who have so far assumed that the advice to self-isolate doesn't apply to them.
For many, it probably seems antithetical that the heroic thing to do in this moment is totally at odds with ideas of heroism many have had their whole lives. But as Prince Charles has demonstrated, the best thing to do right now is to keep calm, and stay inside.
Holly Thomas is a writer and editor based in London. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.