The problem with history is that it takes a long time.
Often it takes a long time to happen, but more importantly, it takes a long time to work out what happened, how important it was, and what caused it. And more importantly – it takes even longer (if at all) to learn the lesson it teaches.
And there was an awful lot of “history” last year!
COVID 19, and the resulting lockdowns blighted last year, and continue to blight 2021. According to the John Hopkins COVID Resource Centre as of mid-January 2021 97m people have had COVID worldwide and 2.1m people have died (https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html). World economic output has dropped by 7%, the biggest drop since World War 2.
No doubt, the immediate impact of COVID is significant, but what of the long-term trends. And what of the “unintended” consequences?
In his extraordinary 1998 book, “Guns Germs and Steel”, Jared Diamond explained the impact on civilisation of transgenic diseases jumping from farmed animals to humans. Specifically, the part smallpox played in decimating the native populations of North and South America, making the European conquest of these continents so much easier.
So, in 10 or 20 years, what will we have learned from COVID-19, what might be the “unintended” consequences ?
It appears that COVID 19 was also a transgenic disease, jumping species somewhere in China. That deadly “chance” highlights the appalling damage (not to mention suffering) caused by rearing and slaughtering 80 billion animals a year, so we can eat meat. Might COVID-19 encourage a move to Veganism?
COVID 19 shows how a long term, high impact, yet relatively unlikely, risk can devastate … if it happens. It illustrates how ignoring those risks, to deal with more likely, but less impactful issues, comes back to haunt you. Might it provided us with a terrible “wake up call”, (hopefully) forcing us to deal with climate change?
COVID 19 has highlighted inequality. Inequality between those children who can keep up with their remote lessons because they have a laptop, and those who don’t, and can’t. Inequality between higher skilled workers who can mostly work from home, and those who can’t. Inequality between races, where the pandemic seems to hit the BAME community harder than the white community. And finally, inequality between the rich world, racing to vaccinate their population, and the rest of the world …. where vaccines are too expensive, too difficult to manufacture or too difficult to distribute. Will COVID-19 force democratic governments to do more to address growing inequality?
And finally, in those western democracies the state has stepped into citizen’s lives in ways that would have been unimaginable even 2 years ago – and mostly for the good (or at least with good intentions – let’s not talk about the outcomes!). One lesson history teaches is that, when sates take more control of their citizen’s lives, they give it up reluctantly.
Will COVID-19 lead to more authoritarian states, with greater control over their citizens?
To return to my first paragraph, history will take time to work out where all this ends. Dramatic events can have huge, unintended consequences. That’s particularly true of diseases.
You can draw a line between smallpox and the colonization of the Americas, between the Black Death and the end of serfdom in England, between African’s relative immunity to malarial mosquitoes and the Atlantic slave trade, and between the Spanish Flu, the great depression, the rise of Fascism and World War 2.
History has a funny way of things working out!
David Calder, Cashroom