The Great Lurgy
I’d like to offer a perspective on the plague which has torn across the world, spreading havoc in its wake.
I think it will make the human race stronger. Short term (possibly for the lifetimes of my generation) it’s a major setback. If the economic hit is large, it hinders everything we’re trying to achieve – from environmental sustainability, to better global health care, to reduced poverty and hunger.
Ultimately, though, this experience will prepare us for bigger challenges to come. Pandemics are a thing. It was inevitable that there would be pandemics in our near-term future. It is probably safe to assume worse ones are on the way. Plenty of historic pandemics have been far more calamitous.
The Plague of Justinian (541–542 CE) killed 25% of people in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Black Death made you vomit blood and had a mortality rate of 60%. The second wave of Spanish Flu killed healthy young men and women within 24 hours of their showing symptoms. COVID-19 could have been much worse. Eyes are now open to that. Better a bloody nose for humanity now, steeling us for further, scarier pandemics on the way, and teaching us how to modify our systems and behaviour to deal with them more effectively.
And the experience will fortify us more generally. The future will see black swans more bewildering than the plague of 2020. Nuclear weapons used in anger. Environmental catastrophes. Perhaps exotic sci-fi stuff, like rogue artificial intelligence. And the unknown unknowns we have not even thought of. Stupefying challenges are coming down the track. Auspicious to be reminded of that now, via our world being temporarily turned upside-down. Prepare accordingly.
During my adulthood, one’s sense of normality was reconstituted by September 11th 2001, then again by the 2008 Financial Crisis. Both, at the time, looked like defining events for our generation. Now COVID-19 looks like the defining event. If we are lucky.
So in the short term: carnage. In the medium term: a leaner, meaner human race, with a slightly de-misted future, and a more realistic sense of the long, perplexing road before it, and its place in the cosmos.
We can give thanks this is happening in 2020, not 1980. It would have been harder then: no internet, less possible to home-work, no chance of rapidly DNA-sequencing the virus and its mutations, and a world more intensely beset by war, disease, famine and political capriciousness.
20 years hence we’ll be even better placed. More resources. Improved healthcare and medical technology. A healthier, better educated, population. And the example of 2020 to guide us.
Fundamentally, we’re a species of hyper-clever hominid doing something unprecedented: making up civilisation from scratch. There is no rulebook. As luck would have it, the laws of nature, the geographic realities of Planet Earth, and the psychology of humankind conspired to shape a state of affairs which is open-ended and spiralling up into ever greater dimensions of wonder. But while the story is gripping, the road is rocky. It does not involve smooth three percent growth rates off to infinity. Lots of things go wrong. This is one. This happens to be a challenge for our generation.
And that challenge will bind us together. Everyone across the world will be bonded by this common experience. We’ll remember it for the rest of our lives – how it shaped us, made us better, and made us collectively rise to the challenge.
I caught the blasted thing. After three weeks of near-isolation, and a week with a sore throat (acquired from my un-bothered 16-month-old), I came down with aching, flu-like symptoms, and a weird, hacking, incredibly annoying cough. Paracetamol kept the worst at bay until day five. Then I was on my knees.
Claire, my wife, is yet to be convinced I had anything worse than a regular case of man flu.