In 2020, with the world in lockdown, normal life was put in abeyance. With the skies clear of aircraft, oil consumption in freefall and town centres deserted by all other than flocks of deer, monkeys or ducks, it seemed momentarily as if the Covid-19 pandemic could bring some lasting changes – even benefits – to the world. It was described by some as the world’s best chance to slow the galloping climate chaos, to rebuild a sense of community and to address social injustices that had become glaring.
But this was a passing dream, just as Covid-19 itself was a passing nightmare. Though lockdown was ended in cautious fits and starts, and some behaviours – like remote working for office workers – appeared to have become more widely entrenched, the passing of the first wave of the pandemic saw a return to something approaching the old ways of life. Businesses and schools reopened and consumption, including international travel, took off once again. Governments inevitably focused on addressing the huge costs of the pandemic response, the recession and unemployment it caused, the services lost and the town centres decimated by the sudden shift to online shopping. The appetite for systemic change dissolved into a desire to ‘move on’. Only in the area of racial inequality, where the Black Lives Matter movement coincided with the end of lockdown, was the pandemic obviously linked to a longer-lasting political movement.
The second wave that hit the Northern Hemisphere in the last three months of 2020 saw a decline in compliance and a rise in tensions around the world as the public tired of restrictions, questioned the logic of their governments’ sometimes complex rules, and doubted the explanations and sometimes confusing statistics presented by the experts. But before the tensions boiled over, the news that a vaccine would be widely available early in 2021 held out a promise – seized upon by governments and public alike – that the coronavirus crisis would soon be a thing of the past. An orgy of consumerism was anticipated. In this amnesiac future, the prime legacy of 2020 would be sky-high taxes, and hidden pain in the hearts of millions of parents, spouses, siblings, children and friends.
It was ever thus. Throughout the ages, pandemics have arrived, been endured and eventually passed on, leaving survivors to grieve and to pick up the pieces of their lives. . Yet they never leave history unchanged. On the most obvious level, the Covid-19 pandemic was credited with the influencing the result of the US presidential election in November 2019, as voters tired of the incumbent’s chaotic response to the virus. Even a pandemic has winners, like Joe Biden, as well as losers, like Trump: it takes away the lives of some and wrecks the life chances of many more, but can create opportunities for others to prosper. For most, though, such crises bring disruption that needs urgently to be cleared away so that ‘normality’ can return.
On a Sunday in July for more than four hundred years, Venice has celebrated the passing of the plague in 1575 with a feast, fireworks and a bridge of barges. This sense of communal relief at the lifting of a terrible natural affliction is yet another connection with historical experience that the world is learning from the Covid-19 pandemic.
But as a historical rather than a purely epidemiological event, a pandemic is never completely ‘over’, and the questions it raises will re-emerge in coming years and decades. We all – scientists, governments, families – will have to find ways to learn the lessons from this one, partly because we can live better than we have done in the past, and partly because another pandemic will surely arrive when we least expect it.
As Albert Camus wrote in The Plague (1947), probably the best-known work of imaginative literature about epidemics: ‘As he listened to the cries of joy that arose above the town, Rieux recalled that this joy was always under threat. He knew that this happy crowd was unaware of something that one can read in books, which is that the plague bacillus never dies or vanishes entirely, that it can remain dormant for dozens of years in furniture or clothing, that it waits patiently in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs and old papers, and that perhaps the day will come when, for the instruction or misfortune of mankind, the plague will rouse its rats and send them to die in some well-contented city.’