Death, taxes — and the inevitable chaos
It is now time to consider the political, economic and societal impact of Covid, and how it may affect us all, even if a strong vaccination programme gets under way globally — and if it gets Covid under control.
Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
— “Because I could not stop for Death”, Emily Dickinson
…In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.
— Benjamin Franklin, in a letter to Jean-Baptiste Le Roy
What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short.
From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not;
those who mourn, as if they did not;
those who are happy, as if they were not;
those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep;
those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them.
For this world in its present form is passing away.
— I Corinthians 7: 29-31
Here at around the first anniversary of the first known cases of Covid 19 in America, we are now — quite suddenly — living with the possibility of the imminence of death for anyone, almost at random, anywhere — in a way nobody would have predicted for the 21st century.
We have largely assumed technological and medical progress was inevitable. Major age-old scourges like polio and smallpox had been eradicated globally years ago, for example; and the means to banish many other endemic, chronic, and communicable diseases exist, just as long as governments can cooperate and allocate the funds to make it happen. Similarly, the means to end most famines and sustained food shortages exist; just as long as the planet’s governments figure out the mechanisms to do so.
In short, there has been an expectation that economics, governments, science and medicine can achieve mastery over most disasters (except for unanticipated natural ones) that have plagued humans since, well, forever. Mass death of humans now largely seems the product of deliberate human action through wars, civil insurrection, ethnic slaughter and genocide, and forced food shortages — along with human-made ecological and climate disasters.
This is new. Less than 200 years ago, it was common for people in the Victorian age to round up their families for a picnic and take them to a local cemetery so family members could commune with those lost to disease and injuries while still young, or with older family members who died from diseases now often easily addressed by medical professionals. Those same cemeteries would have gravesites for all those children who had died young. (Even now, every Japanese temple has a small garden with memorials erected in memory of deceased children, whether from disease, premature unsustainable birth, or termination of pregnancy. These memorial gardens become among the most poignant places one can visit at a religious facility.) Death and disease were seen as inevitable and unforgiving everywhere.
Within our own families, if we are of a certain age, it is likely we would have heard of children, born a couple of generations ago, who never had the chance to make it to adulthood, dying from a childhood disease or from cholera, typhoid, the flu, the Spanish flu, or some other common respiratory infection, absent antibiotics and other therapeutic agents. (In some of my own family’s formal photographs from the early 20th century, one can see one of my late father’s older brothers who had never had the chance to reach adulthood, after falling victim to one of these diseases, as did their father.)
In our own time, the nearest we were coming to the idea of the great plague, at least until last year, was HIV/Aids. This disease seemingly came from out of nowhere and attacked unrelated groups of victims: gay men, commercial airline cabin personnel and Haitians. As it began to enter the broader societies of North America, Europe, Britain, and elsewhere, and especially as successful treatment regimens initially remained distant, its victims often were treated as shunned outcasts.
In South Africa, even successful drug treatments were rejected by many — including the government’s leaders — generating an unnecessary death toll that numbered hundreds of thousands. Many of us came to know individuals — friends and family members both — who had become its victims. But in the minds of too many, it remained a disease whose infections arose out of human behavioural choices, or just plain ignorance. It took researchers years before the disease’s etiology was understood, let alone until effective treatments were developed, although prevention still remains a behavioural issue for some.
But what HIV/Aids did not do was to give entire societies a pervasive fear that it was uncontrollable, with an array of symptoms that often could not be understood, and that it was a disease that could strike anyone, anywhere, any time. Unlike HIV/Aids, this newest plague, Covid 19, burst on to the world almost all at once, after its reported outbreak in Wuhan, China. Within months, infection rates and fatalities were growing quickly, turning nations like Italy into hotspots.
Within a year, globally, there have now been tens of millions of cases, more than two million fatalities, and, in the US, now more than 400,000 deaths, as it grows without let-up, as in many nations, casualties and infections continue to increase. (US Covid casualties have now reached close to the number of American deaths from World War 2; and that total is about ten times South Africa’s total. The latter’s population, of course, is about one-sixth America’s.)
This rapid rise in infections and deaths, and the institution of increasing public health counter-measures (and their inevitable baleful impacts on economic circumstances) has inevitably struck fear into the hearts and minds of billions of people around the world, and created real economic hardship for many millions.
Those fears, inevitably, have fed a deep need by many to believe in magical or quack cures, especially when these have been punted by irresponsible and ignorant government leaders and their lackeys and hangers-on. Alternatively, yet others have chosen to disbelieve in the very existence of the disease, or to insist it is some kind of conspiratorial plot by doctors, drug companies, foundation executives, and other evil people in order to make money from the fears, or to engage in actions designed to control people and steal their freedoms.
But this disease is not yet giving way. We are all being struck repeated body blows as loved ones, friends, widely admired public figures and entertainers, and even total strangers continue to die because of it. The pain is even worse because these losses are reported widely in the media and then their stories and circumstances are further distributed via social media. The victims receive medical help, or they don’t in time, but the result often seems the same as it becomes a deeply painful outcome each time.
Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin is often attributed with the very realpolitik notion, “A single death is a tragedy, but the death of millions is a statistic”. But the truth is that none of these Covid deaths has become a statistic because each and every one has family and friend connections to others. And most often they have been unable even to say their final goodbyes, given the isolation and quarantines imposed.
In such circumstances, the responses on the part of many people in our time may begin to have an uncomfortable resemblance to the way populations have often reacted to the plagues that have afflicted people throughout history. In response to such fears during an epidemic, and egged on by their leaders, mobs would carry out pogroms against local Jewish populations or other minorities or they engaged in desperate efforts such as days of frenetic communal dancing to hold off the spread of the disease.
If this disease is not stopped in its tracks or rolled back, it does not need an actual fortune teller to predict one of two possible outcomes: either a major upwelling of religious fervour in the face of an unstoppable disease; or, alternatively, anti-social, nihilistic behaviour on the part of many in the face of what appears to be long-prophesied “end times”. Or perhaps even both simultaneously.
In that second alternative, we could look for stochastic outbreaks of unrest, populism or even terror in the face of the demonstrated inability of governments to halt the disease and right their national economies. (Not sure about this? Consider what just happened in America’s capital city by a dangerous mob on 6 January.)
Some governments can, and probably will, fall if they are unable to cope with the challenges of such circumstances.
Is it now time to at least consider the kernel of prophecy contained in University of California, Los Angeles geography professor Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, when he reflected upon societal failures historically.
Diamond wrote, “In fact, one of the main lessons to be learned from the collapses of the Maya, Anasazi, Easter Islanders, and those other past societies… is that a society’s steep decline may begin only a decade or two after the society reaches its peak numbers, wealth, and power… The reason is simple: maximum population, wealth, resource consumption, and waste production mean maximum environmental impact, approaching the limit where impact outstrips resources.”
To this, frighteningly, we must add the political and economic instabilities that arise from the failure to cope with pandemics. DM
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