The coronavirus threat was made alarmingly vivid Wednesday to millions of people in the United Kingdom with the news that Prince Charles has contracted the virus, albeit in mild form.

Already reeling from anxiety and uncertainty, this announcement from Clarence House suddenly brought home to the British the stakes for the future as COVID-19 continues its seemingly inexorable march around the globe.

Americans might wonder: Why is this such a big deal? However imperfect the analogy, they should think of this in the same way they would greet news that the vice president of the United States had tested positive.

The Prince of Wales, 71, is Britain’s future head of state as King Charles III. He is first in line after his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, who turns 94 next month. If something were to happen to both of them, his elder son, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, 37, would become King William V. 

More:Prince Charles tests positive for coronavirus; unclear if Queen Elizabeth II has been tested

“It is unequivocally important,” says Sally Bedell Smith, the acclaimed American biographer of multiple royals, including Charles. “It’s a very big deal because Charles is the heir apparent and if anything happens to him, then his son will become the heir apparent and will be next in line.”

Even though the monarch has no overt power in a constitutional monarchy, Smith says the British monarch is still crucial to the functioning of the British government, as the head of the military, for instance. If the heir to the crown is suddenly threatened, it’s unsettling to say the least, Smith says.

Moreover, millions of Brits have known no other heir than Prince Charles, the longest-serving Prince of Wales in British history.  


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