When we first heard about the appearance of a deadly virus in a province of China, it is amazing now to think how little attention we paid to it. At that time, almost exactly at the start of 2020, few of us had any awareness of the name of that province; now we all know of Wuhan and the name that was given to the virus: COVID-19, a.k.a. ‘The Coronavirus’. And even as the news gathered of the numbers of people becoming affected and the accompanying mortality rates, it is incredible how slow we were to adjust to the fact that it would be coming to us – financial markets continued to rise, international trips continued to be planned and life carried in a relatively oblivious manner. Only six weeks later, in mid-February, when the virus had migrated beyond China, did people start to think that the virus would disrupt lives; but it was not until a month later that it became clear to all that it would, in fact, change our lives.
Though almost all of us may have been in some sort of short term denial, it was the shift in status of our long term assumptions, via which we had run our lives, that would cause us the biggest problems and, in the end, fundamentally change our lives forever. Since the end of World War 2, we had chosen to believe that the playing field between the goalposts of birth and death were, and would increasingly be, under our control. Though the political order was by no means a global or even a regional one, there was a practical belief that our economic interdependency delivered a stasis that was broadly cooperative and that regional conflicts were exceptional abominations and not the rule. This notion was backed up by technology that suggested that information was now a global resource and that this resource was providing a transactional environment that literally delivered the world to our doorsteps. The prevailing notion was that technology could, and would, perform many of the tasks that humans currently undertook; both in the workplace and in their homes. This was so much so that some were even proposing that The Algorithm had become our new God.
Thus, as The Virus began to impact directly on our lives, ‘certainty’ became its first victim. Until then – though nobody was foolish enough to believe that into their lives no rain would fall – there was a working credo that ‘normalcy’ offered a reasonable expectancy of years calculable in actuarial terms. With the virus claiming the lives of the elderly and the frail, these measurements went out the window. However, it was not so much the realisation that life expectancy was no longer 79.6 years for males and 83.2 years for females, the real shifting of the ground under our feet was the unanswered questions as to what else in our lives was uncertain. An uncertainty, which though it did not reach panic proportions, that was evidenced initially by supermarket shelves emptying; often for items that owed their absence to anxieties buried deep within the human psyche, such as toilet paper. The international order was also revealing itself not to be a bankable reality as the arteries of global trade and travel began to fracture. National governments also showed themselves to be unreliable, undependable and varyingly incompetent as they responded to the threats within their borders.
As national borders hardened, it was not only governments that were casting their glazes inwardly – it was also ourselves. And yet, despite all this, the majority of us retained our sense of community. We cooperated with the authorities in terms of their diktats for the safety of others and society as a whole. In those most difficult times, the better side of human nature managed to be more to in evidence than its opposite. At both the community and the interpersonal level, acts of generosity and kindness were abundant; heralding in one of the fundamental longer-term changes that The Virus had on us – life is more community-based as our horizons have become more local.
As a whole, we survived The Coronavirus. Every one of us though, as the British Prime Minister put it, ‘lost loved ones before their time’. Did individuals and humanity learn anything from this experience? The jury’s still out on that one. As I write this, after the first Coronavirus has abated, the world is certainly less economically and politically interdependent. At the macro level, the population decline did bring with it some lessening of the pressure on national and global resources. Though our economies have shrunk enormously, and we may be less wealthy per capita, the virus did produce a decline of consumerism based on the feeding frenzy for much of the stuff that was worthless paraphernalia. We are beginning to realise that happiness is more lasting when it is derived from the more fundamental, often free, elements of life. However, though the environmental pressures may be somewhat less the counterweight has been the damage done to international cooperation.
The true bottom line to The Virus of 2020 has been the realisation that the 70 or so years that followed The Second World War were atypical – a brief moment of time where humanity allowed itself to believe that it had overcome the fundamental uncertainties of the human condition. Humans being humans – like The Twelve Tribes who forgot their God as Moses was receiving The Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai – will not be constant in their adoption of the lessons that are on offer. As I look forward to 2021, I am no longer a young man and my hope is that our younger generations build a more realistically scalable world, based on better values and greater humility. I am also minded that The Human-Animal may not be the most adaptable creature on this planet – it may be The Virus that will yet claim that prize.