The world is in crisis and, for many people, it feels unprecedented. For those of my age who are too young to really remember the Cold War or to have experienced or observed apartheid in all its brutality, this is possibly the first real international crisis that they are living through.
To be sure, our planet has gone through many periods of intense uncertainty. Just looking at the past one hundred years, the global community experienced another pandemic in the shape of the Spanish Flu. This was followed by the Great Depression, the horrors of the Second World War, the Soviet jackboot leaving its print across Eastern Europe, and the emergence of dictatorships and kleptocracies in many parts of the world.
One can also look at the Spanish Flu as an example of the cyclical nature not only of illnesses but also of history. But the Spanish Flu is obviously not the only major pandemic that humanity has battled. Over centuries, the world had to contend with smallpox before it was wiped out, an astounding feat of human ingenuity. We are also winning the battle against other, more modern plagues such as HIV/AIDS, with a vaccine against HIV likely to become feasible in the near future.
And there is also the Black Death, which looms large in European history – it wiped out up to 60% of the population of Europe and probably changed the course of world history. And let’s not forget that the Black Death was 700 years ago – this may seem almost prehistoric but in historical terms it happened a blink of an eye ago. Consider too that the Black Death is closer in time to today than it is to the birth of Christ.
Humanity’s success in combating these diseases is cold comfort to those who have lost loved ones to viral and other illnesses and those whose quality of life is poorer because they fell ill. But the message is that humans often win the war against viruses and illnesses. To modify a famous phrase, the arc of history bends towards progress.
This is relevant economically, too. The world is entering what will be the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression and may even surpass it in terms of economic regression. Some in the United States are predicting an unemployment rate of 30%, exceeding the Great Depression’s record of nearly a quarter. Of course, South Africans will look at those numbers and despair – even when the economy was growing rapidly in the first decade of this century our unemployment rate topped 20% and is today closer to 30%. Who knows what will happen to our unemployment rate in the national and global economic fallout of this illness-caused crisis?
But, here again, the arc of history bends towards progress, this time economic.
On average, humanity is more prosperous than it has ever been. Of course, some pampered people in the West argue that our global economic model is flawed, with its focus on growth. Now it is easy for somebody who has grown up in the middle class of one of the Western democracies to sniff at economic growth and progress, but economic growth is the only way the son of a tea seller at a railway station in Delhi or the daughter of a security guard in Johannesburg can escape poverty. To be sure, there is much that can be criticized about modern capitalism, but it is the reason that such a large proportion of the global population live in comfort which would have been unimaginable even to monarchs of just a few centuries ago. And this proportion of people living in comfort is growing, rivalled only by the number of people who leave poverty every day.
The march of progress is inevitable even though it may not always feel that way. And the nature of progress is that sometimes there is backsliding.
As economist Mike Schussler pointed out, the Spanish Flu killed about 3% of South Africa’s population and, in 1920, the country’s economy declined by nearly 20%.
But South Africa emerged from that, and we will do so again, as will the world.
It is clear that there will be much loss of life from this virus (over 40 000 deaths at the time of writing) and great economic hardship is on its way, and every effort must be made to mitigate this. It is also likely that the rise of populist nationalism, which has been coming increasingly to the fore over the past decade, will continue to rise.
But if we look at the world of 100 years ago, a far smaller proportion of the population lived in democracies than today, colonialism still had its grip on much of the world, and poverty and illiteracy were far more commonplace then they are in 2020. There is no doubt that the world is a better place today than a century ago. And we are far better placed to combat a virus like Covid-19 than we were to combat the Spanish Flu. A hypothetical observer from the year 2120, looking back on today’s events, is likely to be living in a safer, healthier and much more prosperous world. It is likely that our hypothetical future historian will ponder on the 2020 global crisis and note that the world emerged from it stronger and more capable of facing other challenges, as has been the pattern throughout human history.
Things are scary now, there is no doubt about that. But if we take the long view, what is happening today is another bump on the road towards a more peaceful, prosperous future for all of us on Earth. The world has faced crises before and survived them – it will survive this one too and emerge stronger.