How will COVID infect History?
Do the times make the man or does the man make the times?
These are the two main ways of looking at history; as the inevitable outcome of certain Trends and Forces acting on populations or as the biographies of a series of Great Men who change the course of events (by the way, when we say “Men” we are referring to human beings in general).
For example, you could easily argue that the Protestant Reformation, which in many ways paved the path towards our current democracy and capitalism, was driven by the Trend of growing inequality, as European elites, including the most corrupt version of the Catholic Church, which had previously been untouchable, became obscenely rich on the back of peasant’s work. But after the Force of the Black Plague ravaged the Old Continent, peasants began to realise that this scourge had punished everyone equally, bringing into question the “heavenly ordained” class differences. On top of that, the Plague had left fewer peasants to work the lands, and since wealth was based directly on manpower they finally had leverage to make demands from their masters.
But from the other perspective, you could also say that it was a combination of Great Man Martin Luther translating the Latin Bible for the first time into the common language so that everybody could actually read and interpret the word of God by themselves rather than blindly abiding by the word of the Church, and thus realising that the Holy Book said nothing at all about having to buy indulgences to get into Heaven or priests molesting children, plus Great Man Johannes Gutenberg inventing a printing press that made it possible to quickly produce more copies of that Bible than Church officials were able to confiscate and burn.
Although this is an oversimplification, each theory makes perfect sense when it presents its evidence. And since we’re dealing with past events, we can’t know what would have happened if we changed any of the factors, so neither theory can be definitively proven right or wrong.
And now, having said all that as way of introduction, let’s look at the effects that the current pandemic could have through the lens of each theory.
TRENDS AND FORCES
If we look at the world in late 2019 we can easily see some Trends and Forces at work that have been accelerated by the pandemic:
The virus and subsequent financial crisis will hit poorer countries much harder. With weaker healthcare systems and economies, they will take much longer to recover and so the current level of inequality, already quite worrying, will increase further. In addition, if/when there is a cure or vaccine, it will be available for richer countries first and only trickle down to poor countries once they have got the infection completely under control at home.
Poverty always drives migrations, but now people will be seeking to escape misery plus a disease that, as we said, will hit poorer countries much harder. To be clear, the problem is not the arrival of immigrants, but rather the situation that develops when economic conditions deteriorate and tensions arise.
Pushback against globalization
Inequality and climate change and Justin Bieber were the start of a Trend against rampant globalisation which has also been accelerated by the pandemic, as it has highlighted the negative effects of a hyper-connected and industrialised world and at the same time shown us the positive effects of rolling it back.
Polarization leading to a New Cold War
Globalisation had already caused mainly the US, but most advanced countries to some extent, to realise the danger of being over reliant on China. Steps were already being taken towards a gradual decoupling but once again the pandemic will accelerate this process and the result will be a polarization of the entire world as every country will eventually be forced to pick a side.
More authoritarian states
The international tensions of a New Cold War will make all governments tighten their control on the population. Totalitarian states thrive under conditions of uncertainty and the pandemic has also exposed the hypocrisies of many democratic governments and politicians (like Dominic Cummings ignoring lockdown rules in the UK and US senators dumping stock after receiving private briefings). In this environment repression, censorship and propaganda will increase as governments portray their actions as necessary to protect the social order. We have already heard numerous politicians describing the situation as a “war” to justify implementing extreme measures.
One of those extreme measures will be an increased monitoring of citizens. Individual privacy was already under siege before, but now the pandemic will accelerate this Trend, as science backs the need for real-time data from each individual in the name of collective security. Technologies like facial recognition and tracing will become even more pervasive than they already are and thereafter expand rapidly into every other aspect of life.
Now let’s consider the other theory of history, as driven by the actions of Great Men, and see what impact the pandemic could have there.
Who are the Great Men in the world right now? That’s very tough to say with any degree of certainty since, by definition, those Great Men become great after their actions, but we can start with a list of the world’s most powerful people as compiled by Forbes in 2019 (see below).
If we look at their ages, more than half of the total (and 70% of the top ten!) are at high risk for COVID. OK, technically the risk group is 65 and older, but since the list is from last year and the pandemic is not going away for a while, we’ll count 64 years of age. As a side note, it’s crazy how many of the people on this list are past the retirement age, e.g. too old for any normal job.
Also, bear in mind that we are only considering age, but perhaps some of them are at high risk for other factors.
In addition, look at how many of them are totalitarian rulers and think of the WrestleMania that usually kicks off whenever such men die unexpectedly. And try not to think too much about the Xs on the far right column…
Due to space constraints, the columns “Cheats at cards”, “Doesn’t need a mask for Halloween” and “Wouldn’t let him date my sister” were not included, since every row except for 25 were marked with an X.
COMBINATION OF BOTH PERSPECTIVES
And what if you combined both theories and a powerful man died just as the world was gearing up for an important event?
We’ve seen how rising tensions between the US and China, accelerated by the pandemic, are almost inevitably bound to lead to a New Cold War. Now add in with the fact that both numbers 1 and 2 of the Chinese government, Xi Jinping (66) and Li Keqiang (64), are in the high risk group for COVID, as are almost all the main players in the upcoming US presidential election on November 3 rd, and you can see the huge effect that a tiny virus could have on the entire world’s dynamics throughout the 2020s.
Focusing just on the US side of things, at the moment if Trump (74) dies, Vice President Mike Pence (60) will become POTUS. This is a guy who doesn’t believe in science so he would probably assume that the Lord intended him to become President so he could pray away the pandemic. If Democratic candidate Joe Biden (77) dies, he doesn’t yet have a running mate, as he is supposed to announce it at or before the Democratic Convention in July (will they have it via Zoom?! A Zoomvention?), so it would be interesting to see who would become the candidate. It would be pure poetry if it were Bernie Sanders (79 by election date) whose campaign was based on universal healthcare or Andrew Yang (45) who campaigned for Universal Basic Income. Or to loop the loop, Sanders as candidate with Yang a running mate. I think that tandem would give Trump more of a run for his money than the Joker, I mean Dracula, I mean Biden.
I couldn’t confirm it anywhere, but I assume that if Trump died very close to the election, his running mate, Pence, would become the Republican candidate and I guess in Biden’s case it would be whomever he chooses as running mate.
In terms of the actual election, the President does not have the power to delay the November date, as it would take a change in federal law, which would in turn would require legislation enacted by Congress, signed by the President and subject to challenge in the Courts. So let’s just say it would be an absolute mess.
By comparison, the EU doesn’t seem so exposed to the dangers of COVID on the Great Men front, as it is an insane patchwork of powers, checks and balances, but on the other hand it is far more vulnerable in terms of Trends and Forces. Already during the 2008 crisis, the European Union came very close to breaking apart, a Grexit was only just avoided as were the bankruptcies of Spain and Italy (i.e. the camel’s back couldn’t have taken one single straw more). Things have not improved much since then, in fact you could easily argue that they’ve become worse, with several openly Eurosceptic leaders or coalition governments (as in Hungary, Poland, Netherlands, Italy and Austria) threatening to jump ship. For an EU still reeling from the Brexit fiasco, the looming financial crisis combined with the stresses of a new wave of mass migration may prove too much handle this time round.
Finding the Yin
This post has been all about the shitstorm that the pandemic will shower us with. But in dark times like these we must remember that everything in life is a balance of good and bad, Yin and Yang, and this pandemic is no exception. In the next post we’re going to look at another dark period in history to see how two unlikely Great Men managed to save the world by harnessing the very same Force that was threatening to destroy it. For real.
Originally published at http://pandemicponderings.wordpress.com on May 25, 2020.