We Have Never Been Here Before
Today the modern world is flailing in the midst of a global catastrophe without precedent in human history. We have had pandemics before where millions died in the face of a lethal contagion. Such indeed was the case in the Spanish flu of 1918. And it was certainly the case in deluge of diseases Europeans unleashed on the Americas in the 1500’s that triggered civilization collapse across our hemisphere.
We have also seen great economic upheavals that devastated the lives of millions of individuals. Who can forget the global financial meltdown of 2008 that threw millions of people on the unemployment line, destroyed the retirement funds of millions more, and led to a prolonged global recession? And for those with longer memories or access to the history books, the Great Depression of the 1930’s had dire economic consequences for virtually every country in the world.
But never before in human history has a global pandemic triggered a global economic collapse. In this sense, this Covid-19 moment within which we are now living is sui generis, a situation we have never experienced before. And it has presented us with a question we have never had to answer before: how and when do we return to the lives we were living before the outbreak of Covid-19?
At this moment the answer to both questions is, we do not know. Can we return to the work place without measurable success in defeating the virus? Or should we keep our economies on pause until we have defeated the virus? And how long can we remain closeted in our homes to protect ourselves from the reach of the virus? In effect, we are flying a plane at 30,000 feet but we do not yet know how to land it safely.
In all of this one thing is very clear: we are at the dawn of a new age. Covid-19 is here and so are we. In the fullness of time we will probably find a treatment for the disease. In the fullness of time we will probably find a vaccine for this disease. But the lives it has taken will not be resurrected. And the economic upheaval it has unleashed will not be fixed quickly, or easily.
But we also know this. Out of the ashes of this fire, like a phoenix being born, a new normal will arise. We will have to learn new ways of doing old things. We will also have to re-learn old ways of doing new things. For the truth is quite simple: we can neither forever barricade ourselves in our homes out of fear of the disease nor can we simply leave ourselves defenseless against the virus.
A new balance must arise that is deeply cognizant of this inescapable fact: we live in a world of dangerous diseases against which we must be forever vigilant. Covid-19 is not the only such disease. Nor is it necessarily the most lethal. But it is a powerful reminder that our sense of safety can be destroyed in the blink of an eye.
We also live in a world where new economic tools have to be deployed in ways we had not considered before this present crisis. Increased tele-banking, tele-medicine, and of course online education for primary and secondary school students have become part of the broader response to the challenge of managing our lives in the time of the pandemic. Thus, Covid-19 has imposed a range of economic and social adjustments on us that will long outlast the disease.
We cannot write the history of a disease while we are still in the midst of its fury. But this much we know: we will come out in a different place from where we went in.