The world is in the throes of the most serious health crisis in a century. In the blink of an eye, societies have seen the most basic norms overridden, the ‘normal’ put on hold. Public and private, friend and foe, necessity and luxury: we’ve each been forced to reassess the simplest of values that shape our everyday lives. It has quickly become standard practice to seek to understand what’s happening through the language of war; we’re in a battle against an invisible adversary and must pull together, follow the advice of the informed, the experts, and do our best to aid those on the front lines. This metaphor illustrates the historic seriousness of the challenge we face; as the disease spreads indiscriminately across the planet, so much of what dominated conversation just a few weeks ago seems inadequate to explain what we’re going through. Obsolete, even. Nowadays, how convincing is the claim that this is a ‘Chinese Virus’, a problem that can be pigeon-holed like Ebola as of foreign, alien concern and doing? No matter our perspective on politics, we individually or collectively seem to acknowledge that there is no going back – and that this crisis will change every one of us.
Just over three months ago, the British electorate chose Boris Johnson’s Conservatives – the self-professed party of moderate, incremental change, the ‘natural party of government’ – over Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, whose stated objective was the need to transform society and launch a revolution. Fast-forward to March 2020 and an MP of Johnson’s party confesses to having implemented the much-maligned 2019 Labour manifesto. This claim, made also by Corbyn, is perhaps misleading. The coronavirus is unlikely to have forced an ideological conversion on career-long free-marketeers; but taken in conjunction with the U.S. Congress’ passage of a record $2.2 trillion relief bill, these dramatic shifts in rhetoric and policy indicate how fundamentally the nature of political debate has changed in so short a time. Not all of this can be irreversible. In a crisis, we demand different things from our politicians and our views on them are shaped accordingly, often significantly. The room for manoeuvre usually available to politicians – particularly in our era of alternative facts and fake news – for talking their way out of a problem may be significantly decreased by an adversary such as a virus. You can’t deny, indefinitely in any case, a brutal pandemic ravaging communities (even if yours is an authoritarian state such as China). However, provide what is perceived as suitable leadership in a time of national crisis and the rewards may be great. Much evidence suggests that wartime leaders are favourites in re-election battles – just think of George W. Bush in 2004 dpost-9/11. Or Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who won a near-inconceivable four terms amidst the Great Depression and Second World War.
However, it does not always pan out that way. Winston Churchill, veritable symbol of the British ‘we will fight them on the beaches’ Blitz spirit during the Second World War, was ousted from office by the British public in a landslide in July 1945, just months after the guns fell silent in Europe. His successor was Clement Attlee, Labour leader: an understated, reserved man who lacked much of the overt charisma that Churchill had wielded so effectively during the toughest days of the war. Elections are complicated things, of course, but most historians agree that Attlee’s victory would have been inconceivable without the experience of war and the threat of national collapse that were tied to it. Faced with the fall of France and the distinct possibility of a German invasion, Churchill in 1940 formed a wartime unity government – a coalition – and his arch-opponent in conventional politics, Attlee, joined it. He stepped up and displayed sufficient humility to put aside suddenly petty disagreements to work in the common, national interest. The policies and rhetoric of Churchill’s wartime government were very different from those of the Conservative party in peacetime. We have all seen those public information posters with captions like ‘Dig for Victory’ and ‘We Can Do It’. But alongside this can-do spirit directed at individuals was an unprecedented increase in state intervention in almost every sphere of social and private life. Industries were nationalised and production regulated as the war effort required. The 1942 Beveridge Report called for a system of social insurance, covering every citizen regardless of income. A new way of looking at society and the role of government was established – that of the welfare state. Organisations such as the Home Guard and Air Raid Wardens (immortalised by Dad’s Army) were established to rally communities behind the national purpose. Come 1945, Attlee and his party were seasoned, trusted political players. The metrics by which they had been judged before the war – as radicals, anti-British, fiscally irresponsible – no longer held significant weight. Churchill is now thought of as the wartime politician. For most people, the war is all that can be associated with him. His chequered pre-war career is little-known, unimportant, undesirable, unnecessary. In many ways, he defined a crisis and was in turn shaped by it.
History doesn’t repeat itself. Although, as Mark Twain famously wrote, it certainly rhymes. 1945 was a defining moment in 20th-century history, by almost any metric, and many of the choices made in the space of a pretty short time thereafter continue to impact the world we were born into and still navigate today. Historians refer to a ‘post-war consensus’, a set of core principles that underpinned politics – particularly in Britain – for decades after 1945. Serious political opponents would attack each other on other issues, or on the interpretation of these fundamentals, but never seriously question their validity and necessity (at least not publicly). We, in 2020, have our own consensus – a global consensus, a European consensus and a Maltese consensus. It’s certainly never static, and whilst it may not be observed as a whole, we can recognise elements of it. Think of ‘public and private, friend and foe, necessity and luxury’, those values I mentioned at the outset. How will the coronavirus change them? And who will we let define how that change is brought about? And what will be rendered ‘common sense’ once the first wave of the virus is deemed to have taken its course?
These are questions that we don’t have answers to yet. We’re not out of this crisis, of course, and a lot does indeed depend on our individual choices in the short-term. Just a few years ago, journalists across the world were heralding the ‘death of truth’ and the ‘fall of the expert’. Trump, the Brexit cause, Jair Bolsonaro and other notable components of the vaguely-defined ‘populist wave’ that began to hit us in 2016, so a prominent narrative goes, claimed their success at the expense of truth, reason and expertise. Even well-respected scientists, let alone academics in such preposterous fields as the social sciences and humanities, were dismissed as agents of the ‘deep-state’ and vested establishment interests. Feelings triumphed over facts and the people reclaimed power from all those know-it-alls. But the coronavirus pandemic has upended this theory. Experts are back, and in a big way. We need not look further than Superintendent of Public Health Charmaine Gauci for evidence of this. We owe those on the frontlines of this crisis our sincerest respect and cooperation. Science and technology will be the determinants in the fight against the virus, and vaccine trials are already underway. Perhaps we’ll soon be able to model with accuracy the future trajectories of infectious diseases and develop preventative measures accordingly.
However, as historian Yuval Noah Harari so eloquently put it, how should societies – most importantly, governments and public bodies – make use of these new capabilities in the post-coronavirus world? If surveillance technologies are more effective than civic education campaigns in altering human behaviour to combat a future pandemic, would we welcome their use unconditionally? How much information would we be willing to disclose in the name of the public good? When should we apply the handbrake and choose principles such as privacy over others such as public safety or economic stability? These are questions that should be asked at any time of national or indeed international crisis, without in any way trivialising the seriousness of the challenge faced. As Harari sees it, the coronavirus pandemic could conceivably lead to a yearning for authoritarian, paternalistic regimes that citizens feel they can trust to lead them through the challenges to come. Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán is amongst several national leaders already making the argument for greater government powers to coordinate an effective response. Once they are granted that authority, what checks and balances can be maintained to ensure that it is not abused of? On the other hand, the case can be made that crises bring out the best of society, a sense of communal solidarity expressed through informal organisations or impromptu acts of generosity. Can this spirit be operationalised for the post-crisis world to follow?
Things are moving very quickly at present. Pulling together for the common public good is essential. But we cannot allow ourselves to believe that it will all be back to normal, sooner or later. Nor should we tell ourselves that anything about our reaction to the crisis is ‘natural’. The lessons of this moment in history are yet to be decided. But by looking at the past, we can guess at some of the themes that will dominate discussion in the months and years to come.
How should we decide what matters, and what price are we willing to pay?
Written by: Jacob Grech