Eminent historian, Margaret MacMillan (University of Toronto, Warden of St. Antony's College, Oxford) shares some important insights on what we have learned about pandemics since the Covid -19 outbreak.
Whatever happens, 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.
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.
...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.
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.
...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.
...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?
...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 to live with uncertainty. ...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. ...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. 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.Ms. MacMillan makes several important points. One is that neoliberalism is no answer to what our society will need in the future.
...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.
There is "no going back," at least not without leaving us even more unprepared for the next pandemic or the next upheaval. We have been betrayed by neoliberalism's insistence on globalism - free market capitalism - that has served only the most advantaged at the cost of society at large.
We have a problem. Trudeau is an avowed globalist, a enthusiastic disciple of free market capitalism. For all his good qualities, and he has several, he's no deep thinker and Bill "Job Churn" Morneau at his side it is impossible to conceive this government breaking the shackles of globalism.
When Canadian doctors and nurses were left without PPE - masks and gowns - Mr. Trudeau's response was that Canada would establish its own manufacturing facility - in China. In China! If you need to maintain stockpiles of strategic supplies and resources, that needs to be kept in-house. All of that stuff - the ventilators and respirators, the masks and gowns, the testing and tracking gear can't be left to another country that still holds two of our citizens as political prisoners.
We need better leadership. It's up to Mr. Trudeau to meet that call.