For thousands of years, wars, epidemics, and economic and natural disasters have reshaped cultures and changed the directions of societies. Recorded history goes back only a half dozen millennia or so, but the same forces were molding the world’s history long before that. In its own way, the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 is taking its place among them. The question is whether there are historical precedents that might shed light on where we could be headed after it passes.
Looking at the lessons of war and natural disaster will probably not help. Wars, for all their slaughter, tend to generate high levels of employment and technological advancements. True, they bankrupt nations, but in their wake is opportunity for entrepreneurs to employ wartime technologies for beneficial peacetime use. Natural disasters are usually localized events that can destroy everything in their paths, but the rest of the world continues on with barely a notice. Pandemics and epidemics have global impacts, but don’t destroy property as they destroy lives.
Previous examples are the places to look for potential guidance. For instance, the so called Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 proved isolation and social distancing helped stem its spread. Failure to do so helped accelerate the contagion, making it more deadly. Truth be told, it probably should have been called the “Kansas Flu” since the first major outbreak occurred among returning soldiers bivouacked in Kansas. Beyond that, 1918 may not be terribly instructive. It came on the heels of WWI, which for all its terrible cost, set the stage for the economic and technological swagger of the “Roaring Twenties,” which, in their turn, set the stage for the global depression of the 30s leading to WWII.
What we know about our own pandemic is this. We had been cruising along on the crest of history’s longest sustained wave of economic growth. Although political and economic warning bells were ringing, few took them seriously. It didn’t matter; the warning bells could not anticipate a viral pandemic, so even their ringers were taken be surprise. The majority of American business and industry was shut down in an instant, not for economic reasons, but to enforce infection containment measures. Normal daily life for most people has come to an abrupt halt. The economic impact on their lives has been immediate and brutal. Goods and services are unavailable at any price, not because they’re scarce, but because businesses are closed, and some may not survive.
The social impact is tolerable for the time being, but social distancing deflates joy from life, and makes optimistic planning for the near future difficult. It leads to a shared sense of dark, unpredictable times that’s not good for our collective mental health.
Is this another time of plague, another Black Death (1347-1352) sweeping away enormous portions of the population? No, it isn’t. The social distancing measures governments have imposed on their populations will prevent it from becoming anything like that. They can’t stop or cure the outbreak, but they will slow it down, save lives, and limit its duration. Nevertheless, the 14th century plague that decimated Europe and portions of Asia may offer some instruction. The severe disruption caused by the deaths of more than a third of the population cleared the way for significant changes leading to renaissance in learning, art, technology, international trade, land use, new forms of government and greater freedom for peasants. It was a high cost to pay. Those who benefitted most from the old ways didn’t give them up easily. Still, the seeds of modernity were sown. Therein lies the lesson. Massive wide spread dislocation of social and economic life caused by pandemic opens opportunities for new and better ways to emerge.
Our time of “plague” will last perhaps months, not years. It will not be as deadly, because we are taking the precautions others didn’t, and have better ways of caring for the sick. The essentials of economic recovery remain in place. War hasn’t destroyed vast swaths of the nation; it’s all there to resume operating when it is safe to do so. Once social distancing is no longer needed, life will return speedily, but not without change. The demise of some businesses and ways of doing business will open pathways for new forms to emerge. A sense of national unity and shared responsibility will linger for a time. The illusion of America First, and America alone will have been shattered. Massive governmental intervention needed to contain the effects of equally massive economic dislocations will have political ramifications not unlike those of FDR’s New Deal. It won’t be dreaded socialism, but it will embed more progressive ways of governing – hopefully under a different president.
Nativists, isolationists, libertarians, white supremacists, and tea partiers will scream, rail and whine, but what they most fear will have been shown to be a chimera. With luck, their howling will no longer be politically influential. Right wing scare mongering on talk radio, internet sites and cable t.v. will not go away, but maybe more people will stop listening and believing. We can hope so.