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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 24-10-2020 09:40

The times have certainly changed

The egalitarian ethos that is rapidly consolidating itself in many parts of the world has shaped the response to the challenge posed by Covid-19.

Does anyone still remember the Hong Kong flu which hit the world in 1968 and went on to kill somewhere between one million and four million people when there were less than half as many around as there are today? Apart from a few specialists, even those who lived through it seem to have forgotten about that particular pandemic. After all, by present-day standards, its impact was barely noticeable. Though, at the time, one read about unburied corpses piling up in the tunnels of Berlin’s underground train network and factory hands in some countries staying in bed for several days, nothing particularly alarming seemed to be happening.

Is Covid-19 proving to be far worse than its predecessor of just over 50 years ago? So far, it has reportedly caused the deaths of slightly more than one million mostly elderly men and women, many of whom were already in bad shape as they suffered from what the experts call “comorbidities.” In the coming months – what with winter blanketing the northern hemisphere and most people hunkering down indoors – the coronavirus could take just as many more lives, but unless the numbers increase dramatically there would be little difference between its death toll and that some attribute to the Hong Kong flu.

Though that pandemic did have a fleeting impact on the economy in some countries, by today’s standards the damage was astonishingly limited. Instead of going into lockdown by shutting down entire industries, forcing hundreds of millions of people to stay at home and, if those in power allowed them to venture outside, make them wear masks and keep their distance from one another, in 1968 the world opted for business as usual.

What is more, in contrast to what is being said today about the medium and long term consequences of Covid-19, it was generally agreed that it would be outlandish to suppose that the virus responsible for the Hong Kong flu pandemic could set off anything as unpleasant as a new great depression, give rise to dictatorships in until then democratic countries or alter the prevailing balance of power to the detriment of the United States and Europe. The widespread assumption that things would remain much the same was in itself enough to ensure that nothing much happened. Although back then there were plenty of pessimists who thought Western civilisation was going to the dogs, few expected the virus they called “H3N2” to speed it on its way.

So what has changed since then? Quite a lot. For a number of reasons, a larger proportion of the inhabitants of virtually every country is far more vulnerable than until very recently. Thanks to advances in medical science and the development of a wide variety of effective drugs, those suffering from “comorbidities” can expect to survive for five, ten or more years than they would have just a few decades ago. When the Hong Kong flu started its rampage, the average life span was considerably shorter than it is today, which meant there were far fewer elderly people with weak defences a nasty virus could pick off. Obesity had yet to become the norm in many wealthy countries, as it is in the United States and the United Kingdom, where the overweight are among the coronavirus’ favourite victims. 

The belief that doctors, supported as they are by a panoply of medical innovations, are, or ought to be, winning the battle against death, gives strength to the idea that the demise of any apparently healthy person must be somebody’s fault. As a result, government’s almost everywhere are getting accused of mishandling the Covid-19 pandemic; they are told that since nobody “deserves” to die, they are duty-bound to keep everyone alive.

Another difference is that, in Western countries at least, people have become far more sensitive than they were in former times. Before social media, smartphones with cameras which enable you to broadcast whatever you are experiencing to the rest of the world – or, in most places, even colour television – arrived on the scene, by and large most men and women “empathised” far less with their contemporaries elsewhere than they do today now that, as some politicians are fond of reminding us, every single death should be treated as a universal tragedy.

This no doubt is why modern war monuments, unlike those of the quite recent past, are more than likely to include the names of every single soldier and civilian who died. It is no longer enough to build a statue showing just one or two burly warriors to represent all the fallen. The age demands that everyone, no matter how humble, gets an appropriate mention.

Is this a good thing? Most seem to think it most definitely is, but there is a downside. One reason, perhaps the main one, why the US is giving up its role as the world’s gendarme is awareness that the political costs of putting the lives of even professional soldiers in harm’s way are getting higher by the day. Does this mean war is fast becoming obsolete? Large numbers of Westerners would like to think so, but there are many bellicose individuals out there who are happy to disagree.

The egalitarian ethos that is rapidly consolidating itself in many parts of the world has shaped the response to the challenge posed by Covid-19. When the pandemic first arrived in Argentina and seemed unlikely to spread very far, President Alberto Fernández could talk as though he truly believed that if sending the economy to the scrap heap helped save a single life, it would still be the proper thing to do. He was not the only politician who said such things but, as since then has been made grimly clear, governments everywhere would have to adopt a less saintly but more practical approach, if only because without adequate economic resources the coronavirus will continue to cut deadly swathes through society.

It is impossible to say how the world would have reacted to Covid-19 had it emerged from China half a century earlier, but it may be assumed that most governments would have shrugged it off as a minor nuisance and favoured a version of the strategy originally adopted this time round by Sweden, with people being politely requested to be more careful instead of ordering curfews as in France or having gun-toting cops or military personnel roaming the streets to ensure social distancing as in many places elsewhere. 

Would such a feeble response have worked better than the more rigorous one pioneered by the Chinese which much of the world decided to make its own? Perhaps it would have, but as the governments of most countries have adopted a similar strategy in “the war” they say they are waging against the coronavirus, nobody will ever know the answer to this rather important question.

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James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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