Margaret MacMillan is a professor of history at the University of Toronto and emeritus professor of international history and the former Warden of St. Antony’s College at the University of Oxford.
Sooner or later, we will come to terms with the COVID-19. It may stay with us, flaring up from time to time; it may run its course and disappear, as did the influenza at the end of the First World War; or we may be lucky enough to get a vaccine that keeps it under control. Whatever happens, though, there will be no going back to the world before the epidemic. We will be living in a different sort of “normal,” with the knowledge that there will almost certainly be another pandemic or another sort of global crisis.
So it is not too soon to start asking what we have learned. Why did COVID-19 spread so quickly? Why do some societies seem to be coping better than others? Did we overreact, or could we be doing more or different things? And what lasting effects will there be on the world?
Many of us have been shocked into a sense of our own and our societies’ vulnerability. We were more complacent than we should have been, in retrospect, but that is understandable. For much of the period since the Second World War, the developed world has enjoyed extraordinary prosperity and stability. Incomes and life expectancy went up over the decades, and many of us enjoyed a dizzying range of increasingly cheap consumer goods and opportunities to enjoy ourselves, from cheap travel to entertainment. What were luxuries for all generations before us became simply basic necessities. True, not all of the world shared our good fortune: parts still suffered the plagues of famine, flood and disease. Yet we could see changes in the global South, with agricultural output expanding, industries flourishing and millions of poor being lifted out of poverty. We survived the Cold War, and assumed that major state-to-state wars had receded into the past. The international system seemed to be working reasonably well and an expanding network of organizations was dealing with global issues, from trade to health.
We worried about global warming and the evidence that we were having more frequent severe storms or that the seas were rising, but that was happening gradually, and humanity is not good at looking more than about five years ahead. The occasional crisis – the financial one of 2008 or the appearance of new diseases such as SARS and Ebola – were warnings that our world might be more fragile than we liked to think. But then we weathered those and things appeared to return to an even keel.
Science and medicine in particular have kept making extraordinary progress. Diseases that used to carry off thousands annually, such as smallpox, cholera or typhoid, have been nearly eradicated. Common childhood diseases such as mumps or chickenpox would have been but for the willful blindness of anti-vaccine groups. I am old enough to remember the house up the block that had a large quarantine sign on its door because someone inside had scarlet fever. I remember, too, the annual summer outbreaks of polio and the grim daily tally on the front page of The Globe and Mail reporting new cases. That now seems far in the past, and we have gotten used to the idea that if a new illness appears, the cure will not be far behind.
On average, we are living longer. Eighty is now for many people what 70 used to be – the start of old age. One consequence has been to make us ill-at-ease with our own mortality. We avoid the very words “death” and “dying” in favour of “pass” and “passing.” And we have become much more afraid of risk. Cities close children’s playgrounds in case someone gets hurt; our food packaging is plastered with warnings to the point of absurdity. “Careful, may contain nuts,” warn packages of cashews.
Suddenly many of us are facing a risk unlike any we have ever seen and there is, as yet, no reassuring end in sight. Our lives have not prepared us to deal with our own premature deaths or those of our loved ones. The 1918 influenza probably killed far more people than COVID-19 will, but it hit a world where death from disease was tragically commonplace and familiar. Children died in infancy, women in childbirth. A diseased appendix could mean an early death even for the healthiest. Millions of men had just died in the First World War. Of course people mourned those who died of the influenza, but the world moved on surprisingly quickly. There are few memorials to the victims of the flu and writers and artists of the time barely mention it.
When the first reports started coming of a new respiratory illness in Wuhan, China – and we now know that it was appearing as early as last December – it seemed far away and less pressing than local concerns such as Brexit for the United Kingdom or the approaching presidential election in the United States. When the WHO declared a pandemic in March, we in the West were psychologically ill-prepared to deal with its meaning and its consequences. It took us a while to come to grips with the rates of infection and the spread into our societies. And it only gradually began to dawn on us that there were dangerous downsides in globalization. Just-in-time ordering, long supply lines and manufacturing spread over many countries meant that vital ingredients such as reagents needed for tests or critical equipment such as masks or ventilators had not been stockpiled, could not easily be manufactured at home and, as competition increased, were not available for love or money.
It did not help, either, that many governments that had been in the grip of the neo-liberal ideology of slashing spending and outsourcing to the private sector no longer had sufficiently robust public services or enough resources at hand. In Britain, the National Health Service has been underfunded for decades, its hospitals obliged to work on a 95-per-cent-full bed capacity. That does not leave much room for dealing with sudden spikes in illness. The U.S. did not replenish its supplies of emergency equipment or conduct the regular inspections needed to ensure what it had remained usable.
COVID-19 is both a wake-up call and a cruel teacher. If we are to learn its lessons, we must look at those countries that have appeared to be more effective than others and ask why that’s the case. Why have Germany, New Zealand, Iceland and Singapore kept the death rates low and the U.S., Italy and Iran apparently suffered more? There is no clear answer yet and no one model. Sweden is managing its epidemic by allowing many ordinary activities to continue as usual and by asking its citizens to be sensible and not take unnecessary risks. At the other extreme is South Korea, which has used a strict lockdown, massive testing and intensive contact tracing. A leading Swedish epidemiologist has argued that by next year, the death rates with either type of response may end up being virtually the same. If he is right – and he admits he may not be – the question then arises of whether it would be less costly for society in other ways, such as in terms of economic output or lost educational opportunities for the young, to have a short sharp lockdown with a spike in deaths, or to have fewer restrictions over a longer period.
Already, we can begin to discern some important factors that may help us in the future. Resources matter. It is a false economy that relies on cutting back essential supplies and services to the bone. We take out insurance on our property even though we hope that we will never see a fire, flood or tornado. And we cannot count on ramping up supplies rapidly.
Even if global production recovers and the old patterns establish themselves again, governments and their publics are going to need to take steps to protect themselves, even if it means cutting back on lucrative exports. Resources matter in another way, too: Increasing evidence is coming in that the effects of the virus are being felt disproportionately by those who breathe polluted air, cannot afford soap, lack access to clean water and live in crowded slums. In the postmortems that will inevitably come, let us hope we will take greater account of the economic and social divisions within countries as well as among them, and resolve to do something about them.
Have we learned anything about what types of governments work best especially in a crisis? Is China, which locked down millions overnight and closely monitors its citizens through their cellphones, the model for the future? Authoritarian governments are more capable of imposing strict quarantines, but they can’t do so if they lack the means to enforce them; that’s why China can, while Russia and Turkey cannot. And we will need to know more about what actually happened and is happening in China before we count its policies a stunning success and a model for the rest of us. What is already clear, however, is that local authorities covered up the outbreak at first out of fear of getting into trouble, and that the government in Beijing was slow to respond. Furthermore, the Chinese authorities were slow to share vital information with the World Health Organization and other governments.
Democracies can only go the route of severe restrictions on society if – and this is crucial – their citizens trust the authorities and the politicians. Germans have rated Chancellor Angela Merkel highly for her government’s handling of the epidemic because she talks directly to them about her government’s policies and the risks involved. New Zealanders already trusted Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern because of her magnificent handling of the ghastly shootings in Christchurch, and her government currently has an approval rating of nearly 90 per cent for its management of the epidemic. The two leaders speak bluntly and are open about the dangers and challenges in the future. “We have avoided the worst,” Ms. Ardern told New Zealanders recently, but she added a warning: “We are opening up the economy, but we’re not opening up people’s social lives.”
For all our grumbling, Canadians tend to trust their governments and, except for a fringe of the willfully deluded, tend to have confidence in the medical profession. It is striking to see how the public has largely accepted the restrictions on its activities by willingly self-isolating and has, so the polls say, high levels of confidence in the medical establishment, public health officers and in our elected politicians. And Canada, like Germany, has seen a high level of co-operation among the federal, provincial and municipal governments.
To find a dysfunctional federal state, we can look to India, Brazil, or, much closer to hand, just south of the border. The United States’ response has been fitful and chaotic partly because of a deeply engrained suspicion of big government and that mythical beast, “the deep state.” The fear of government – along with the hatred of taxation, which goes back deep into the American past – has been fanned more recently by conservative think tanks, lobby groups such as the National Rifle Association and the radical right, which has taken over most of the Republican Party. The governors of states such as Florida, Georgia and South Dakota have distinguished themselves only by their failures to grasp the seriousness of the epidemic, or to lead. On the other end of the spectrum, governors in California, Washington and New York State have shown what decisive action and public understanding and co-operation can achieve in mitigating and controlling the epidemic. Regional responses are vitally important everywhere, but, since viruses do not respect borders, national policies and leadership matter as well.
It is the United States’ great misfortune that fate has provided it with a president who is so manifestly incapable of occupying the office, much less dealing with a serious crisis. Donald Trump has pretty much driven out any of those who were good at their jobs and surrounded himself with sycophants with few other discernible talents. Perhaps states, federal institutions, medical practitioners and many willing volunteers will carry the U.S. through the crisis and limit the damage. But what will the lasting lessons be, and who will pay attention and act on them?
Historians do not like to predict the future. We know how many variables go into creating events or trends, and we have a healthy respect for the role of accident. But I somehow doubt very much that we – our societies and the world – can go back to where we were before the start of this year. As individuals, we have been reminded, more forcefully than we would like, of our own mortality. I myself am in my mid-70s and had not thought of myself as old – until now. I don’t like being in the vulnerable at-risk category. I am dismayed at the idea being floated by the British government – that my group may have to remain in lockdown until next year.
What we have also been reminded of is the importance of relationships. We all know how toxic bad ones can be, but perhaps we had not realized enough how important our friends and families are to us. Or even the importance of the casual “good morning” and “what a nice day," said in passing on the streets. I find myself regularly talking – mostly on the internet – to family and close friends and catching up with those I haven’t seen for ages. We can grant a grudging thanks to COVID-19 for reminding us that we are social beings.
And we owe another grudging thanks to it for showing us how important community is, as well as the web of informal and formal institutions that bind and reinforce it. The volunteers making personal protective equipment or taking food to the elderly, the grandparents teaching their grandchildren over the internet, the entertainers creating online works – these are just the latest manifestations of a willingness to help each other, which we do not always appreciate enough in what passes for normal times. Canadian society is coping now and will cope in the future because of the wealth of groups across the country who have for years supported charities, volunteered, participated in their communities, or gotten engaged in politics.
We are also realizing the importance of good government. In too many countries, including Canada, we have undermined our civil services. “Bureaucrat” has become a word signalling disapproval and disdain. Frequent reorganizations following the latest whim of expensive management consultants have left government departments under-resourced, demoralized, unwilling or incapable of offering strong advice, and unlikely in any case to get the ear of the minister who might rely instead on political appointees. Where the brightest and the best once aspired to work for government, they now go into business or the professions. We have some rebuilding to do.
While the war analogy is overdone and tired, we also need leaders who will make difficult decisions and take responsibility as good ones do in wartime. Easing the lockdown is going to have to come in stages and it will be messy. Until we have a vaccine and proven treatments, we must expect fresh waves of COVID-19. Governments have no choice but to try the difficult and painful task of balancing the risk of more infections and deaths that will come from easing up restrictions against the hardships, illnesses and deaths that will result from a prolonged economic downturn. There are no easy answers, and the refuge that governments such as the one in Britain have deployed by citing “the science” is a cop-out. Scientists can inform us about the virus and how it spreads, and they can do the modelling of various scenarios, but they cannot make what is ultimately a political and moral decision.
If governments do not come clean with their publics – if they do not lay out the alternatives and describe the steps they intend to take – then the publics will lose confidence, and rightly so. And we, as members of the public, need to come to terms with the fact that we cannot be safe forever, but that we can take steps to keep ourselves and other as safe as possible. We will need to do better and repeated planning, to ensure our supply lines are secure, and to build in redundant capacity in places such as our hospitals, even if it seems unnecessarily costly. Most difficult of all, we will have to learn with uncertainty. So we must say yes to face masks, even homemade ones, if they stop us from infecting others, and we must say yes to washing our hands repeatedly and not touching our faces. We know that the evidence shows that such steps delay the transmission of the virus. But we are deluding ourselves as much as Mr. Trump is if we think we are going to get a magic potion any time soon, and that we will all get to live happily ever after.
At the moment, we are thinking of ourselves, our own communities and our countries. Yet we will have to think more broadly about the global order, too, and ask whether it is strong enough to cope with this challenge and the ones to come. Our international institutions are far from perfect, but they have served us well. It is not clear that they will be able carry on if the U.S. – which has provided the leadership and much of the funding for the United Nations and its allied organizations since the end of the Second World War – continues to turn away from engagement in the world. The Trump administration has temporarily frozen its contributions to the WHO and is threatening to allocate U.S. funding in future to other international NGOs or, according to one idea Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has floated, to create a new, rival international health organization. As the United States and China blame each other for the pandemic and their rivalry deepens divisions in the world, it is becoming increasingly difficult to imagine an effective international order in a world after COVID-19, or even one where the disease is reduced. We may well come to regret the one we are losing.
The world will go on, at least for the foreseeable future, but it will be a changed, more introverted and possibly nastier one. Government surveillance of the public is likely to increase, certainly in dictatorships. In democracies, we may well decide that the loss of privacy is worthwhile if we can control the spread of disease. Populist leaders are already finding COVID-19 a convenient excuse to extend their powers and to whip up feeling against outsiders and minorities: Under the pretense of dealing with the crisis, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has assailed civil liberties, muzzled the press and governed by decree, while in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s governing BJP is already blaming Muslims for the epidemic. The Trump administration, meanwhile, is using the situation to limit even legal immigration. Borders will become thicker and we will not be able to afford to travel as much; we might not even want to. We can partly reverse the globalization of the economy, but if it goes too far we will see more photographs like the recent ones showing agricultural produce rotting in African fields because the producers cannot get it to the markets in the rest of the world. And will consumers in developed countries want to go back to a world where fruits and vegetables came only in the local growing season? Or where consumer goods become much more expensive because they are produced by local, well-paid labour? That may in fact not be a bad thing: An increase in jobs available at home, and the better pay that should come with that, can create a fairer, more equal society. The point is that there will be hard choices to be made.
We have shown in the past that we can learn from catastrophes. Two world wars taught us the importance of diplomacy and international institutions. The near misses in the Cold War encouraged both sides to negotiate arms deals. Leaders, thinkers and citizens alike learned from the Great Depression. That is why the Allied powers set up the Bretton Woods institutions of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organization – to ensure that the world’s economy would not again go into a severe downward spiral. Europe’s postwar leaders embarked on creating the European Union in order to forge a prosperous integrated Europe, to try to overcome the poisonous national rivalries that had come so close to destroying it. Many governments took heed of the advice of economists such as John Maynard Keynes, who believed that deficit spending could overcome depressions; governments in many countries created welfare systems to bridge the gaps in society.
Now, we are experiencing our own great disruption. It is not world war nor a Great Depression, although it could well become one. Will we in time ignore the present’s lessons and warnings? Or will we reinforce, rebuild and reform our societies, from the local to the global, so that we are better prepared? It could go either way and much will depend on the sort of leaders we get in the next years. But it will also depend on our willingness to hold them to account.
While we will have to keep washing our hands, let’s only do so in a literal sense. If we are to build a better future, we, leaders and publics both, must not be like Pontius Pilate and abdicate all responsibility.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.
Build your personal news feed
- Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
- Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.