By Robert Malcolmson
Dealing with the current pandemic is often likened to fighting a war. This is both misleading and not reassuring. Many wars — the American war on poverty and war on drugs have not been won, and the Cold War seems to have returned in a different form. Analogies with the Second World War are designed mainly to help us manage our current worries.
The war of 1939 to 1945 killed lots of people but it did not kill jobs. In fact, this war was the main reason why unemployment virtually disappeared by 1942, the Great Depression vanished, and North American economies were flourishing in 1945. Be skeptical when you read about a past generation rising to the occasion in the 1940s, giving us a model for good behaviour in 2020.
Yes, in some places, including B.C., there has been much to applaud. The provincial authorities have functioned well — Dr. Bonnie Henry has become something of an icon of calm, authoritative competence — and most citizens have been co-operative. COVID-19 has here been, for now, effectively contained. But much of the downside of this containment has yet to be experienced, notably the contraction or even crashing of parts of the economy.
Tourism and travel and work connected with big public gatherings are bound to take a huge hit, with widespread job losses. Coping with these losses while maintaining some sense of shared solidarity and common welfare will not be easy, even with massive state support.
Perhaps the key uncertainty is when an effective treatment for this virus will be available. (Almost everyone agrees that a vaccine is way down the road.) If available later this year, a treatment will mean that getting sick will cause many fewer deaths and thus the need for physical distancing will be reduced. But if treatment takes longer to develop, much more economic and psychological damage will be done and society will face greater challenges in striving to hang together – which B.C. has done pretty well so far.
Perhaps the most depressing facts are on display in the United States, once thought of as a leader when the world faced some major crisis. This is not now true. The White House shows no leadership. And to the extent that there is a theoretical leadership, it is notably incompetent and divisive, and its policies, such as they are, are largely incoherent. This is not good news for any of us.
Nor is there any likelihood that circumstances in the United States will improve in the near future. This is an election year. It was already expected to be the ugliest on record. The Republican Party nationwide is now a minority and predominantly far-right party (which it wasn’t in the 1970s). The presidency will be decided in only seven or eight states, and all stops will be pulled to get Donald Trump re-elected. Voter suppression is likely to be widespread, or at least widely attempted. If Trump is defeated, he may well not accept defeat.
So while we’re all trying to keep well and manage a pandemic, the United States shows signs of unravelling (more than at anytime since the 1860s) and is unlikely to be of much help outside its own borders. Who knows what gains authoritarian China will make? The democratic nations with rational leaderships – Germany, New Zealand, Norway, Singapore, perhaps Canada, and no doubt others – will probably have some successes and continue to promote international cooperation, but they’ll do so against the might of great power nationalism.
Do these bleak facts and probabilities lead to despair? Here’s where we all face personal challenges. While realistic thinking is always wise, it never helps to be hopeless. Hopelessness plays into the hands of the forces of darkness. It’s best, after acknowledging the world as it is, to keep one’s cool, manage one’s anxiety, support each other — especially locally, where most of our lives are consumed — and be patient as we allow time for others (medical researchers, enlightened elected and unelected officials) to find ways to bring our societies back from the brink.
Robert Malcolmson is professor emeritus of history at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. He now lives in Nelson.