I’M no stranger to witnessing people’s behaviour in extremis. War, famine, earthquakes, floods, tsunamis – in almost 40 years as a foreign correspondent I’ve watched as our fellow human beings wrestled with such crises and counted the cost.

To say I find it strange right now to watch my fellow citizens here on my doorstep confronting the threats and hardships brought by the coronavirus would be an understatement. In some ways, it has thrown the events I’ve borne witness to these past four decades into a new perspective.

Proximity is the first thing that comes to mind in this respect. Almost always those catastrophes and calamities with their life-and-death implications have been somewhere else. By and large, they take place in faraway and often inaccessible places that sadly all too frequently bear the brunt of the worst Mother Nature and manmade suffering can throw at them.

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But suddenly right now it’s my own loved ones, friends and neighbours that find themselves facing threats to their health and wellbeing, not to mention their careers and financial prospects.

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The second thing that resonates with me is the sense of uncertainty and what that means for people. Over the years I’ve lost count of the times – be it in refugee camps, devastated cities or remote, parched wastelands – where that same sense of uncertainty has prevailed. What will tomorrow bring? How will I cope? How long will this last?

In my experience, we humans are notoriously bad at assessing risk in the face of uncertainty and we’re often bad at it in different ways that cause us to overestimate or underestimate our personal risks.

This is familiar territory to any journalist who has worked in such circumstances where uncertainty stalks people’s lives. Amid such uncertainty we’re prone also to another kind of contagion besides the virus itself, in the shape of fear and anxiety.

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Human survival has, of course, always depended on a degree of fear and anxiety, but their impact, as I have witnessed many times to my horror, can be dangerously corrosive.

Rumour, misinformation, propaganda and simple ignorance are so often the toxic battery acid of the corrosion that eats negatively into people’s morale and state of mind. The notion that, somehow, we here in the comparative luxury of the so-called developed world and are not susceptible to such things has been blown away by the coronavirus.

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Our social media has at times been awash with false information and downright lies. The UK Government was frankly caught with it pants down over the crisis and in its response, and even now there remains some dithering over its position.

Nor have I for one seen much evidence of the so-called Dunkirk spirit or stiff upper lip to date here in the UK. The idea that such attitudes are as prevalent today as they were in wartime Britain has been shown to be a myth.

If anything, rather the opposite is true, with some pretty unedifying scenes as panic-buyers engage in a kind of dog-eat-dog battle for toilet rolls or pasta or adopt racist positions in apportioning blame for the outbreak.

The very idea that when the chips are down ordinary citizens here will behave more responsibly or with greater dignity and commonsense than their counterparts elsewhere is both patronising and proven nonsense.

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By contrast, times in extremis so often also bring out the very best in the human character. Compassion, selflessness and that sense of collective responsibility is something I’ve encountered from war-torn Iraq and Syria to the epicentre of earthquakes in places as far afield as Pakistan and Haiti.

It’s comforting to know in difficult times that there are always those who rise to the challenge, often putting aside their own personal comfort, safety or security or in some cases putting their very lives on the line to help others.

For those citizens of the world who are no strangers to hardship and crisis in the most fragile, vulnerable and unstable places, it must be odd looking on right now and realising that those they so often saw as safe and secure and wealthy are now struggling to implement coping mechanisms.

Perhaps one of the most frightening things so far about the coronavirus pandemic is that its impact has yet to be felt in many places least equipped to cope.

A few weeks ago, before Covid-19 swept its way relentlessly across most of the globe, I, along with a journalist colleague, was scheduled to journey to conflict-wracked Libya to cover the deteriorating situation there, where the country is riven by civil war.

“Look on the bright side, at least it’s coronavirus-free,” my colleague joked, with the usual black humour common to those in our trade.

The National: An airstrike reduces buildings to rubble in TripoliAn airstrike reduces buildings to rubble in Tripoli

Yes, Libya was – and as I write – remains coronavirus free, but there is a very specific reason for this. With its capital Tripoli all but besieged, the country itself is virtually cut off from the outside world by the war there.

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And what happens if the disease does creep into this country where the health and general infrastructure is fragile to say the least? Likewise, what happens if the disease takes a real grip in other parts of the African continent or elsewhere in regions of the world already vulnerable?

For this veteran world-watcher at least, watching the pandemic play out here at home has been a real eye-opener. It has made me think again about what vulnerability means and our capacity to cope with it as individuals and as a society.

It has made me realise that the state of the world affects our states of mind, and our states of mind affect the world. Coronavirus brings that fact into especially sharp relief. It has been a biting reminder, too, of just how unused we are to living our lives in situations where we have rapidly changing probabilities.

When we come out the other side of this emergency, here’s hoping we will have learned some valuable lessons about ourselves.

Here’s hoping, too, we might in future pause and consider differently what it must be like for our fellow humans around the globe who live almost constantly in extremis.