“The life we lead is a sleep; whatever we do, dreams. Only death breaks the sleep and wakes us from dreaming. I wish I could have woken before this.”
The Italian humanist, scholar and poet Francesco Petrarca, whose anglicised surname is Petrarch, wrote these words at the height of the Plague, which was also known as the Black Death, the Great Mortality and the Pestilence.
The worst recorded pandemic in human history resulted in the death of 75 to 200 million people in Europe, Asia and North Africa. The disease peaked in Europe from 1347 to 1351.
Petrarch’s son Giovanni survived an initial outbreak but died during a recurrence in 1361. With so many people dying, life seemed hyper surreal, an endless nightmare, a hellish existence in which no families were spared, including the very wealthy. The stench and horror of death pervaded every waking hour.
The plague dramatically upended stratified economies and societies. Because so many patrician families were decimated, those of a lower economic and social stratum found greater social mobility in commerce, society and the church. There was an extraordinary demographic shift because of the enormity of the death toll.
The COVID-19 pandemic pales in comparison, but is more global in nature. Because many people are not personally affected by the virus and because it is not as deadly, there is a certain remove by many, who lack a certain empathy or moral imagination and who are still not taking the outbreak seriously even as millions are experiencing its dire health, economic and social consequences.
At the outset of the current global pandemic, Dr Merceline Dahl Regis reminded others that the story of COVID-19 is still being written.
With a degree in public health from Johns Hopkins University, years of experience and a deep knowledge of pandemics, Dahl Regis realized there was still so much that was unknown about the virus. She also appreciated that how countries and citizens respond will determine the course and history of the pandemic.
We are still so early in the COVID-19 pandemic that experts are still investigating the origin of the virus, which some believe may have skipped from one species to another, where it became more pathogenic and transmissible before being contracted by humans.
Just as crises and great events reveal individual character, they also reveal the character of societies and nations. The still evolving COVID-19 pandemic is revealing the characters of countries, political leaders, the medical profession, journalists and others.
Even as we are likely living through one of the more compelling periods in the 21st Century, the greed of various corporate pharmaceutical giants is nauseating.
During the Great Recession, former US President Barack Obama and then-UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown joined forces to lead a multilateral response to the global economic crisis. Today, such leadership is dramatically lacking in the United States during an exceedingly worse health cum economic catastrophe.
In an April 18, 2020, interview with the New Yorker, Brown bemoaned the collapse of global cooperation:
“After 2010, we had a defensive nationalism, which was basically about tariffs, closing borders, building walls and immigration controls. More recently, we’ve had a more aggressive nationalism, which is an us-versus-them nationalism.
“It’s unilateral action. You could argue that America in a unipolar age acted more multilaterally, and in a multipolar age is acting unilaterally.”
If Joe Biden wins the US presidency, he will find a global commons less likely to accede to certain demands of America. Donald Trump has done excessive and in some cases irreparable damage to America’s global standing.
Even as a more isolationist United States under Trump has receded from promoting global solidarity on critical issues, the European Union has shown the necessity and wisdom of regional and international cooperation with a recent historic $860 billion recovery and reconstruction fund for the 27-member bloc in response to COVID-19.
Writing in Foreign Affairs in May, former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, now President of the Asia Society Policy Institute, offered his analysis of a potential post-COVID-19 world: “Yet despite the best efforts of ideological warriors in Beijing and Washington, the uncomfortable truth is that China and the United States are both likely to emerge from this crisis significantly diminished. Neither a new Pax Sinica nor a renewed Pax Americana will rise from the ruins.
“Rather, both powers will be weakened, at home and abroad. And the result will be a continued slow but steady drift toward international anarchy across everything from international security to trade to pandemic management.
“With nobody directing traffic, various forms of rampant nationalism are taking the place of order and cooperation. The chaotic nature of national and global responses to the pandemic thus stands as a warning of what could come on an even broader scale.”
Given this warning, progress on the global climate emergency may prove even more difficult. Still, we do not know the medium to long-term effects of the pandemic and the potential for cooperation.
The pandemic is also revealing and testing the Bahamian character, inclusive of ordinary citizens, political, business, religious and media leaders, our social fabric and health care infrastructure, our sense of the common good and other areas of civic life.
Here at home and abroad, many are rising to the occasion, offering service and good responsible citizenship. One example is Susan Larson, who has done a stellar job as head of the National Food Distribution Committee, which is feeding thousands weekly.
Sadly, there are also the Icarus-like characters and narcissists, incapable of lifting their narrow vision beyond their navel-gazing and peacock-like egotism, often swallowed by personal agendas and pathologies instead of the greater good.
As in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian, there is the gotcha journalism by some, who have little to no sense of historic moment and who history will treat dismissively because, instead of rising to this moment, they remain intellectually paralyzed in their benighted echo chambers.
In the US: “The pandemic has become a metaphor for Trump’s suffocating incompetence, mendacity, and self-absorption”, writes Richard North Patterson, an American political commentator and author.
Larry Summers has been at the heights of American political and economic power. Currently the Charles W. Eliot Professor and President Emeritus at Harvard University, he was Bill Clinton’s Treasury Secretary and the Director of the US National Economic Council under Obama.
Summers has provided deep thinking and insight on the current pandemic, including weekly commentary on Bloomberg Television. On his website, Summers writes:
“The COVID-19 crisis is the third major shock to the global system in the 21st century, following the 2001 terror attacks and the 2008 financial crisis. I suspect it is by far the most significant.
“Although the earlier events will figure in history textbooks, both 9/11 and the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy will fade over time from popular memory. By contrast, I believe, the coronavirus crisis will still be considered a seminal event generations from now.
“Students of the future will learn of its direct effects and of the questions it brings into sharp relief much as those of today learn about the 1914 assassination of the Archduke, the 1929 stock market crash, or the 1938 Munich Conference. These events were significant but their ultimate historical importance lies in what followed.”
Summers is dismayed, shocked by the response of his country to COVID-19. He has gone so far as to describe America as a “failed state” that cannot ensure American children are not drinking lead-poisoned water or that the country can respond adequately to a global pandemic.
This is a breathtaking assertion for someone like Summers, bewildered that a country with America’s extraordinary might and wealth is proving incapable of ensuring the basic health and security of its citizens.
He bemoans that basic tasks such as assuring equipment for health care workers, tests for citizens, medium to long-term planning and “elementary safety protocols” for White House officials are woefully absent. He cannot understand the mindless debate about wearing masks to protect fellow citizens.
Summers contrasts the performance of the United States to that of China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand, which at the time of his analysis in May had “death rates well under five percent of American levels”.
He noted that it would have been “inconceivable” even a year ago that the US would be airlifting basic health equipment from China.
“Coronavirus is helping to usher in a world where security depends more on exceeding a threshold of cooperation with allies and adversaries alike than on maintaining a balance of power.
“If the 21st century turns out to be an Asian century as the 20th was an American one, the pandemic may well be remembered as the turning point. We are living through not just dramatic events but what may be well be a hinge in history.”