The twentieth century witnessed two great influenza pandemics after the devastating and unprecedented one of 1918, namely the “Asian Flu” (H2N2) of 1957, which killed about 1.1 million persons across the world, and the so-called Hong Kong Flu (H3N2) of 1968, where the global death toll was at least of the order of 1 million deaths, very largely in the population aged over 65. This latter flu then returned as a seasonal phenomenon in the immediately following years, albeit with a decreased effect and mortality.
What appears striking from at least a rapid perusal of the newspapers of those times is that the political dimension of the pandemics was understated or low-key. This is particularly the case if we compare it with Covid-19, which had apparently claimed around 600,000 victims by mid-July 2020, although the data in most countries is of highly questionable accuracy. It is currently obvious that the eventual toll from this year’s pandemic is set to exceed those of 1957 and 1968.
Moreover, it is already clear that its economic, cultural and political consequences are already of a somewhat different sort. This is to the point that it has led some, like the conservative British philosopher John Gray, to claim (in a much-quoted essay published in the New Statesman) that it is nothing less than a “turning point in history”. It is my intention in the paragraphs that follow to question this characterisation.
Relative state inaction
The reasons underlying such a claim are quite evident at one level. Both the pandemics of 1957 and 1968 were allowed for the most part to run their course, without massive state intervention. We can return to the reasons for that relative inaction below. It is also clear that the statistics which were kept on those infected, and the number of deaths, in the two pandemic years, remain extremely approximate.
It is unclear whether there were any rumors at the time suggesting that these pandemics were the deliberate or unforeseen consequences of biological warfare, but such rumors do not seem to have been widespread at any rate. Rather, the more common conceptions at a popular level seem to have preferred theories like that of an inevitable 11-year-cycle for virus pandemics. Neither states nor subject populations appear in the 1950s and 1960s to have had any expectation that a major regulatory intervention would take place.
An early exception to this absence of conspiracy theories occurs in 1992, when a New York Times story reporting on the so-called Russian flu of 1977 stated that many scientists believed that “an influenza virus from the 1950’s, stored in a laboratory freezer at a research facility in China, somehow got released into the environment in 1977”. It is striking to note that the very same story goes on to add nevertheless that “pandemic influenza has historically originated in China – even the misnamed Spanish flu of 1918 had Asian origins – primarily because the country has so many ducks”.
Why did the pandemics of 1957 and 1968 have what seems to us retrospectively as such a muted public reaction, in spite of their striking mortality? There are several possible reasons for this. The first, to which I will return below, is that the economic impact of those two pandemics was relatively limited, even though the GDP in the US did fall in 1958 (the “Eisenhower Recession” of relatively brief duration), with negative effects on the world economy.
In contrast, Raghuram Rajan, former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund has already suggested a few months ago that this year “western countries [will be] seeing a shift in GDP growth from about [positive] 2% to 3%, to negative 4% or 5%”, and the Chinese growth figures are currently even more pessimistic.
The second reason is that the idea of massive population losses was still considered quite “normal” in the aftermath of World War II. The years from 1958 to 1962 saw the enormous Great Leap Forward famine in China, the real dimensions of which the Chinese Communist Party managed to keep concealed for a long period, and whose death-toll may have ranged from 20 million to 30 million (though the statistics remain the subject of hot debate).
At the same time as the pandemic of 1968, the Nigerian-Biafran civil war may have killed as many as 2 million people through starvation. The 1971 conflict in East Pakistan (soon to become Bangladesh) is claimed by some to have led to 2 million to 3 million deaths. These were all man-made disasters that could have been averted in other circumstances but were not. The latter two did attract some attention, but only in limited circles.
The third reason is both the limited resources that governments had to intervene socially in the 1950s and 1960s, and consequently the limited expectations that existed on them. There is little doubt that state capacity for intervention has grown sizably in the intervening period, but in a very uneven way, and in some instances (such as the former Soviet Union) may even have declined.
A fourth reason is the changed role of the media, which reported the 1957 and 1968 pandemics only episodically, and often in an opaque and technical language. This is quite distinct from today’s situation, where we have a 24/7 cycle of news coverage, in addition to numerous sites providing a constant update of all sorts of statistics of greater or lesser reliability, plus an enormous role played by social media of various types in putting out “human interest” reports.
In other words, in the earlier pandemics of the mid-century, government inaction carried a very small political price (and perhaps none at all). This would have not been the case in 2020, besides the fact that all indicators suggest that Covid-19 is by far the deadliest of the three, and could – in the absence of travel restrictions, social distancing, and other lockdown measures – have produced a death toll of the order of tens of millions (2.2 million in the US alone, according to the London Imperial College’s statistical model).
In turn, the fact of massive state intervention means that this is the most “political” of the viruses since 1950, although the politics has played out in a variety of ways. Several other political dimensions of Covid-19 need to be laid out, before coming to the specific implications in terms of political economy.
The first of these is in relation to international politics and inter-state competition. As we know, the government of the People’s Republic of China first attempted to downplay the effects of the virus in January 2020, denying that it was highly contagious, no doubt as a way of deflecting international criticism. Thereafter, it cunningly attempted to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, claiming that it had effected a unique and draconian lockdown in Wuhan (and Hubei province more generally), thus dramatically solving its own virus problem in a relatively short duration.
However, many external observers have doubted the veracity of the Chinese statistics, namely as having stabilised around 4,600 deaths from 83,000 cases by mid-April, as well as the trajectory according to which the virus had practically been extirpated by early to mid-March. The expulsion of several foreign news correspondents has only added further doubts, though it may legitimately be asked whether it would be possible (with internet and social media still at work, albeit censored) to engineer a really massive cover-up of deaths.
Massaging the statistics
But what is remarkable is that the People’s Republic of China has now marketed itself internationally as a model for how to deal with such pandemics. In a similar vein, it has become common to compare the performance of different governments, and grade them on the solutions they propose (the short-lived fascination with Sweden being an example of this). The chaotic and bizarrely uncoordinated policies in the US, for example, can be seen as a very poor advertisement for that country’s political system.
One can foresee an attempt to draw a simplistic political conclusion to the effect that democracy is a luxury in the face of such a pandemic, and that totalitarian governments are the best equipped to handle it. At any rate, they are possibly better equipped to put out official statistics to suit their narratives. Even so, both Putin’s Russia and the current Iranian government have effectively admitted to their incapacity to deal with the issue, with social media suggesting even higher numbers than the disastrous official statistics.
There is no doubt that all over the world, data and news are being manipulated by a variety of agencies, some of them governmental. This leads us inevitably to a second political dimension, which is in terms of the wide diffusion of conspiracy theories, especially in western countries, and with deep purchase largely on the far right and the far left of the political spectrum. These fall broadly into two categories.
The first set, supported for a time by such influential figures as the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, asserted that Covid-19 is no more contagious or deadly than the seasonal viruses that occur every year, and which claim many lives without being accorded any great attention. In this view, drawing inspiration from the theoretical writings of Carl Schmitt and Michel Foucault (though far cruder than the conceptions of either), Covid-19 is merely an occasion for erstwhile democratic states in western Europe and elsewhere to engage in a nefarious “bio-politics” of surveillance, the control of subjects’ bodies, and the durable shutdown of various loci of political and cultural resistance in society. In sum, Covid-19 is merely another weapon (albeit a very effective one) in the arsenal of Big Brother.
A different view, which enjoys great popularity in some parts of France and the US is that Covid-19 was in fact a laboratory creation, which has been weaponised. Here, one has the possibility of choosing one’s villain: the American government, the government of the PRC, George Soros, the pharmaceutical companies, and so on. If one believes the first of these theories, it is of course a strong motivation to ignore any “lockdown” instructions, simply as a form of civil disobedience. This may in part explain the great difficulty (though there are other contributory factors) that many governments are having in ensuring that social distancing or “stay-at-home” measures are followed. This has also exacerbated border tensions between populations which do not follow rules, and those that do.
This leads us to a third political dimension, which is the manner in which the spread of Covid-19 has in a relatively short period contributed to defensive nationalism, as well as its more extreme incarnation in the form of xenophobia. European solidarity has been an early potential victim to the pandemic. Those who were always opposed to global economic integration as a movement (on both the far left and far right) now consider themselves vindicated; for surely, Robinson Crusoe would have been spared Covid-19.
Celebrating muscular nationalism
Echoes of this can be found even in John Gray’s more moderate essay cited above, which seems to celebrate the return of a more muscular nationalism as a possible outcome of the pandemic. Brexiteers will possibly argue that they were right after all, despite the fact that the National Health Service is heavily populated by immigrant doctors and nurses, including those who were at Boris Johnson’s hospital bedside when he was struck down by the virus.
Reports from India suggest the inevitable backlash against migrants in the metropolitan cities from the Indian North East, those who appear somewhat “Chinese” to their neighbors. In the US, Donald Trump has also repeatedly returned to xenophobic themes, though this is hardly a novelty with him. Despite what might appear to be an erratic and incoherent strategy, his popularity has yet to suffer major damage in the country, and there is still a distinct possibility of his reelection in November 2020 (though the money is currently on his opponent, Joe Biden).
Where the political implications of such defensive nationalism are likely to play out rather quickly is in regard to the European Union. The existing tensions between the south – Greece, Italy and Spain – and the north will certainly be exacerbated, and the relative German success in combating the virus can only strengthen stereotypes of “stronger” and “weaker” partners.
But where it may well tip the balance is with regard to Emmanuel Macron’s already fragile government, which has already suffered two body blows with the Gilets Jaunes movement and the extended strikes of 2019. Macron may appear currently to be a great survivor, but he suffers from an enormous legitimacy deficit in terms of “street credit”. His television appearances, wheedling and cajoling the French public to have a minimum of respect for the rule of law in the context of Covid-19, have regularly made for a rather pathetic spectacle.
It is possible nevertheless that Macron will stand for re-election in 2022, but what is worrying is that this may only open the door for substantial gains to be made by the Rassemblement National of Marine Le Pen, who may even come to power with the unwitting complicity of the far left and its Oedipal politics of presidential Vatermord. With a Europe led by right-wing nationalist parties in country after country, it is hard to imagine how the European Union will remain anything beyond a shell over the course of the 2020s.
But none of these makes the Covid-19 shock a real “turning point”; rather they suggest that the shock merely accelerates processes that were already present or in embryo (such as Macron’s potential shipwreck), instead of reversing a strongly defined trend that was heading elsewhere. The real remaining issue to be addressed is that of global political economy, where several large question marks remain, in terms of both exogenous and endogenous (policy) variables.
The major unknowns are three: the duration and number of waves of the pandemic; its capacity to maintain its strength in semi-tropical and tropical regions such as Brazil and India; the rapidity with which effective medication and/or vaccines can be found. What is clear at the level of policy is that strong measures of “lockdown” are effectively unsustainable for extended periods in many parts of the world (notably the global South) and will soon have their limits even in more prosperous regions.
Some painful decisions are on the horizon, to prevent what is still a recession from turning into a global depression comparable to that of 1929. Economists such as Nobel Prize-winners Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo are proposing a return to Keynesian solutions of deficit financing to rebuild demand, at least in economies like India. But many conservative governments will be reluctant to do this, instead preferring handouts to corporations in the hope of generating “trickle-down” solutions. Inevitably, there are going to be a variety of solutions across the globe, and very little coordination between different national policies.
My crystal ball is hardly clearer than that of others, but it seems obvious to me that the net effects of this shock are not going to be evenly distributed across the world over the next three to five years. It is possible that states with a stronger control over their workforce, and a peculiar hybrid form of state capitalism and crony capitalism like China, will be able to weather this storm better than the US, or the UK. In India or Indonesia, the real fear is in terms of the direct human cost of mortality, as it is in some parts of Brazil and Latin America, and could become in sub-Saharan Africa.
Nevertheless, when the dust has settled somewhat around the catastrophe that this pandemic represents, say in 2022, it is difficult to imagine a brave new world of autarkic nation-states. Rather, it will be a world of lesser and greater, interdependent yet competing powers, some very close to empires, in an acceleration of the tendencies already visible in 2010 or 2015. This is why the Crisis of 2020 may not be a “turning point” (at which the derivative changes sign), but a point of inflection at most.
The author is Professor of History at the University of California at Los Angeles.
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