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Covid-19 is an epoch-making event, but will it drive us towards the precipice of history?


Eddy Maloka is Visiting Professor at the Wits School of Governance. He writes in his personal capacity.

Pandemics (and epidemics) are among the four epoch-making events in history – the other three being wars, revolutions and economic crashes like the 1929 Depression. Thus, the question on everyone’s lips is whether Covid-19 itself will be epoch-making?

For years to come, historians will debate not only the impact of Covid-19, but also its cause – whether it was caused by negligence on the part of decision-makers who had assumed, across the board, that humanity had triumphed over disease because of our advances in science. A disease doesn’t become pandemic on its own. This happens when humans, who are themselves vectors of the disease, fail to cope with it.

Human triumphalism over disease was not unfounded. Thanks to our microscopes, disease is no longer invisible to us; nor is it invincible in the face of our vaccine technology and effective medical treatment. In her article “How pandemics shape social evolution”, published in the October 2019 issue of the journal Nature, Laura Spinney refers to “a pervasive, dangerously complacent attitude in the late 1960s”, whereby “international public-health authorities were predicting that pathogenic organisms, including the parasite that causes malaria, would be eliminated by the end of the twentieth century”.

Christian McMillen observed in his “Pandemics: A Very Short Introduction” (2016): “The 1918 influenza pandemic was an event. Unlike malaria and tuberculosis — the perpetual pandemics — influenza comes and goes. In this way it is more like smallpox or plague. Of course those two diseases are no longer major global threats. Influenza is. When H5N1 appeared in humans in 1997, and the novel strain of H1N1 turned up in 2009, the world was reminded of the possibility of another 1918. It has not happened yet.”

We failed to learn from the past. Instead, we thought the present gave us absolute power over history and total control over the future.

He then explained the reason for complacency: “For many, flu is simply synonymous with a cold. Both the 1976 swine flu and 2009’s H1N1 pandemic amounted to much less than many public health officials predicted they would be. These things all can add up to a generally lackadaisical outlook when it comes to general concern about the possibility of a deadly pandemic. This is a mistake.”

This complacency was even promoted by experts like Anton Erkoreka when he predicted in his 2009 paper, “Origins of the Spanish Influenza pandemic (1918-1920) and its relation to the First World War” that “today, this combination of circumstances [associated with the 1918 Influenza] is not present and so it seems unlikely that new pandemics, such as those associated with the avian influenza or swine influenza, will emerge with the virulence which characterized the Spanish Influenza during the autumn of 1918”.

We failed to learn from the past. Instead, we thought the present gave us absolute power over history and total control over the future. Covid-19 is the second major global pandemic since the 1918 Influenza pandemic.  The Black Death, common among humans since the ancient period to the late 19th century, may have been the first known global pandemic. But this does not minimise the devastating impact of known diseases like smallpox and cholera, that were arguably largely an epidemic, not a pandemic. We are unfortunate that we are the ones carrying the burden of Covid-19, but we are nonetheless still privileged by history to be humanity’s messenger sent to the future to warn generations that will succeed us.

Our experience takes place during a completely different global context, compared to the 1918 pandemic which happened during WWI, at the height of Western colonialism all over the world. Then, there was no system of global governance as we know it today, except for diplomatic arrangements among colonial powers. The US was not the power it is today. Russia had just experienced the Bolshevik Revolution. China was in the throes of its own evolution and some three decades away from the 1949 Revolution that would transform the country. On our continent, there was no African Union, nor the nation-states of today. Closer to home, South Africa was just an eight-year-old infant, having been created in 1910; and the advent of the apartheid regime 30 years away.

Pandemics (and epidemics) are among the four epoch-making events in history – the other three being wars, revolutions and economic crashes like the 1929 Depression. Thus the question on everyone’s lips is whether Covid-19 itself will be epoch-making? While it’s still too early to tell what awaits humanity at the end of this long tunnel that has no glimmer of light yet in sight, it is increasingly becoming clear that we are likely to see some shift in the global dynamic that emerged out of the end of the Cold War. However, not everything that will eventually happen out of current trends will be entirely new, because history does not start from scratch; the future is always born out of a marriage between the past and the present.

Many of the effects of the four epoch-making events are still with us and provide us a comparative view through which we can forecast the likely impact and legacy of Covid-19. These events can remap history in six ways.

First, is the remapping of the world in terms of geographic borders, including the creation of new states and the example of empires that collapsed due to WWI. Even though in the past the impact of a disease outbreak could lead to mass migration as people flee infected areas, this is unlikely to happen in the case of Covid-19. If anything, the measures being undertaken by countries at the moment will reinforce the Westphalian state behind the curtain of its solid borders.

Second, an historic event can remap world politics, engender a global power shift, resulting in the development of an international jurisprudence and the advent of organisations like the United Nations, created after WWII. Today’s global governance regime of public health evolved during the 20th century, crystallising around the World Health Organisation (WHO, formed in the late 1940s) and accompanying international jurisprudence, particularly the International Health Regulations (IHR). The 1990s were an important turning point on the back of the imperatives of globalisation, under the mantra that “germs know no borders”.

Covid-19 will be remembered for how it led some nations to weaponise nationalism through their onslaught on international organisations and the international rule of war achieved since the end of WWII, weakening multilateralism. The UN seems to be caught between defending the international rule of law and multilateralism or fading away into irrelevance, and eventually even suffering the fate of the League of Nations created after WWI. The agenda for the reform of the UN has even stalled. Thanks to its recently held World Health Assembly, the WHO is likely to undergo a facelift – its IHR are set to be reopened for further debate post Covid-19.

Third, is the remapping of ideas, a development that can take the form of the advent of new inventions or a “scientific revolution”. Our current experience should push us to develop a better understanding of the already known flu virus behind Covid-19, and we are likely to discover a new vaccine. Our ideas around public health will be refined, we will shed our complacency towards diseases, and we might introduce new elements to the field of epidemiology.

Fourth, an epoch-making event can remap societies. Even though affected countries can undergo a demographic shift (due to the high mortality rate experienced during the event), this is unlikely to be the case with Covid-19, notwithstanding the many lives that are being lost at the moment. One legacy of this pandemic will be in deepening inequality and poverty, and tampering with economic ownership patterns within countries in favour of the haves. We can’t rule out that class and political contestations over this pandemic could lead to the emergence of new interest groups, or the transformation of existing ones.

Fifth, Covid-19 could remap the state and create a new direction or a new way of conducting politics, as happened in post-WWII Europe when social-democratic regimes became a dominant force. Today’s state-led interventions in society to change human behaviour and enforce compliance with disease prevention measures could also impact the open and democratic nature of our nations.

Finally, this pandemic is already remapping human behaviour. We are now wearing face masks and interacting with each other through physical distancing. Our popular culture will not be exempted. It will not be long before we hear of a child named Covid-19, or dance to a song or watch a movie inspired by this terrible experience. Big Data will have more reason to spread its invasive tentacles deeper into our privacy with the goal of knowing us better, to predict our behaviour, this time in the name of public health, and the Big Brother will have its eyes everywhere, monitoring and screening us for early warning, shrinking the amount of public space outside his detective, CCTV eyes.

One lesson to draw from history is that the highly anticipated global transition, if it will happen, won’t be immediate, but will most likely be gradual, triggered and accelerated by certain events – maybe an accident, or a human error of judgment. If it eventually happens, it will be for the first time, at least in the last 500 years, that global power will shift from a Western to a non-Western nation.

It’s still too early though to tell if the ongoing geopolitical squabbles and threats over the “rules of origin” of Covid-19 will drive the world to the edge, towards the precipice of history.

But think back to the events that caused Europe to gift history the two world wars. DM


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