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William Watson: A world changed forever? Maybe, maybe not

When in 1972 either Richard Nixon or Henry Kissinger asked Chinese premier Zhou Enlai about the effects of the French Revolution, his response — “It is too early to tell” — became one of the most famous quotations of the 20th century. It probably will remain so even though, the U.S. translator swears, Zhou thought he was answering a question about the French student uprisings of 1968, just a few years earlier. About them it really was too early too tell. Still, nice story. And a lovely way to say events can cast long shadows.

The early 1970s were just shy of 200 years distant from the French Revolution. If a plausible argument could be made that two centuries wasn’t long enough to judge its effects, it does seem a little early to be deciding how the COVID-19 pandemic will “change our world forever,” as the slogan now goes. Blinkered North American that I am, I date the onset of the COVID emergency to March 11, when the National Basketball Association suspended its season because one of its players had tested positive. I write this 77 days later. That number of days after the liberation of the Bastille was Sept. 29, 1789. If 1972 may have been too early to tell what the effects of the French Revolution had been, Sept. 29, 1789 — which is where we are now in COVID-equivalent terms — would have been ludicrously early. Bonaparte was in the army but he had only just turned 20.

Yet, after bread-baking, home-schooling and Zoom-cocktailing are done for the day, people are turning to thoughts of the future. It’s only reasonable. The future is always unknown but the uncharted waters ahead seem unusually inhospitable. Surely as wrenching an episode as this will cast a long shadow for all of us.

No one will be surprised if it does. But let’s keep open the possibility that in the end not very much will change, especially if (fingers crossed, prayers sent) the pandemic abates relatively quickly. After mastering do-it-yourself epidemiology in March and April, many of us have turned to comparative social history. I haven’t by any means read all there is to read about the Spanish flu of 1918-19 — there are only so many accounts of gruesome death that is healthy to consume when a savage virus is on the loose. But what I have read suggests it did not lead to epochal societal change of the sort people are prophesying these days.

One historian concluded in this vein that the pandemic “had a permanent influence not on the collectivities but on the atoms of human society — individuals.” Because, unlike COVID-19, Spanish flu tended to attack healthy prime-age men and women, orphaning millions of children. Many survivors had lasting depression and other ailments. Babies born just after the pandemic tended to be smaller and weaker and do less well in life. Economic studies have tried to determine whether jurisdictions that responded differently had different subsequent growth. Hundreds of millions of people’s lives were changed by the Spanish flu. But was society?

Historians have a hard time saying the world changed in any fundamental way because of the Spanish flu

Historians can’t seem to find big society-shaking changes. In her 2017 book, Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World, Laura Spinney describes the pandemic compellingly but mainly struggles with how it did change the world. Fake news about the virus originating in black areas seems to have given momentum to South Africa’s race laws, while the British Raj’s inability to prevent tens of millions of deaths in India may have done the same to that country’s independence movement — even if independence didn’t come until a generation later.

In art and literature there was certainly a “lost generation” in the 1920s. But was it lost because of mass death in the First World War or mass death during the flu (which killed more people around the world, though not in Europe, than the war did)? Women got the vote in many places in the 1920s — but the suffragette movement had been underway for some time. Understanding of bacteria and viruses certainly speeded up. Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin. Many countries’ health systems became more inclusive — eventually: progressive Canada didn’t get universal medicare until 1968 and by then probably not because of the flu. On the cheerier side, in economic history what followed the pandemic was not a remaking of economies but the Roaring Twenties. In the U.S., social distancing in many cities was supplanted by speakeasy culture — social clinging? — in response to the prohibition of alcohol.

In general, historians have a hard time saying the world changed in any fundamental way because of the pandemic that killed as many as 100 million people. Best to keep that in mind whenever someone emphatically declares that this or that will change forever because of COVID-19.

The forecasts that appear in the Financial Post from the good folks at the Fraser Institute are plausible speculations about what may happen following the emergency. If asked our views on the subjects they deal with, many of us would say similar things. But as the forecasting proceeds, let’s keep in mind that in the end, depending on how it all goes, nothing very much may change.

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