By Robert Malcolmson
When I retired from Queen’s University in 2004, I had taught for almost 20 years a first-year course on Modern World History.
From time to time I had spoken about crises in certain parts of the world, such as mid-14th-century Europe (plague – the Black Death). However, with the exception of the Second World War (and to a lesser extent the flu pandemic of 1918-19), never about a “world crisis.”
Perhaps the closest thing to one was the massive mortality that occurred in the Western Hemisphere starting at the end of the 15th century, when, over several generations, the native peoples and their societies were wiped out, entirely or substantially, as a result of the diseases brought to the New World by Europeans.
The present crisis, as everyone acknowledges, is without modern precedent. And nobody knows how it will unfold. Estimates of the eventual numbers of casualties vary widely. Will the deaths in the United States be “only” in the tens of thousands, or perhaps in the hundreds of thousands?
Will mortality in Canada continue to be proportionately less dire, around a third the death rate in the US? Or will things change for the worse? How will especially congested places fare, like refugee camps and Gaza? And is the worst likely to happen in much of Africa, where health systems are so fragile? Can we say anything about the longer term, and how the world is likely to look post-pandemic?
One virtual certainty is that the role of government will expand and remain more robust than it was pre-pandemic. The question is: Will these governments be responsive, though perhaps in some new ways, to the interests and priorities and well-being of their citizens? Or will they shift towards authoritarian regimes, driven mainly by powerful special interests and riddled with corruption? Will more forceful government be largely benign (Singapore) or more brutal (Hungary)? Privacy rights are almost sure to be diminished for most citizens.
Governments are bound to be the main actors in forging, months from now, some sort of new normality and relative stability. Economic and social recovery is likely to be better achieved in some countries than others. Present evidence hints at greater success for China than splintering Europe and the deeply divided and often ill-governed United States. But evidence can change.
What about the power of nationalism? This is a central variable. The angry and blinkered nationalism of recent years is looking pretty feeble. But will it recharge itself in some way, probably by identifying enemies within and without? Or will nationalism’s now manifest deficiencies lead to a strengthening of international rules and regulations and a shift to more cooperative ties among nation states?
These last questions are perhaps the most crucial. The phrase “global village” and variations on this theme have been around for decades, but they have had little to show politically. Will COVID-19, especially if it kills millions of people and leaves the global economy in tatters, force nation-states to allow more powers to the United Nations? Will the shared burdens of a lethal pandemic nudge us all – but particularly the great powers — towards sturdier mechanisms of global co-operation? Nationalism, as Charles de Gaulle once said, “is a form of egotism.” It will not be easy to dislodge it from its mighty pinnacle.
Historical experience is not encouraging. Perhaps, to be hopeful, our extraordinary current world history will yield fruitful lessons for nations and their leaders as we all struggle to put in place the sort of security that, for the most part, cannot be sustained by looking backward or by continuing to avert our eyes from the interconnected nature of today’s world.
Robert Malcolmson is professor emeritus of history at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. He now lives in Nelson.