In 1650 the theologian Thomas Fuller wrote, “It is always darkest just before the day dawneth”.
The world has been beset with pessimism after a dreadful year during which the COVID-19 pandemic has rampaged. Tragically, it has caused over two and a half million deaths globally. Government lockdowns in response have shattered economies.
Many are now doubting whether normal life as we knew it before the lockdown can ever resume.
Everywhere, social distancing, hand sanitising and the wearing of face masks have become the order of the day. Lockdown is accepted as a way of life. Ministers tell us, as matter of course, whom we can hug, whom we are allowed to admit into our homes and whether or not we can hold a memorial vigil in a local park.
Businesses have been shuttered. Many have ceased trading. Government handouts (especially furlough payments) have eased the rise in unemployment but, outside the public sector, many face job uncertainty. It is widely reported that suicide and mental health problems have been spiralling, especially amongst the young.
And, of course, western governments – seeing their tax income falling away and their social obligations multiply as a consequence of their own lockdown policies – have been forced to borrow on a vast scale.
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So why be cheerful?
The answer is to consider what has happened in the past and to learn from this.
One thing is for certain: recessions never last. This is my fifth recession. The previous four all appeared grim at the time with no end in sight.
Ah, naysayers will proclaim, this one is so different, on such a huge scale. But mankind has endured disaster after disaster and yet still managed, nonetheless, not only to survive but also to thrive and to make progress.
In 1347, the Black Death claimed the lives of between 75 and 200 million people globally. The global population was then rather smaller than it is today (around 500 million people) – so in Europe it killed the equivalent of about half the population.
From a disease standpoint, it does not get any worse. There was no modern medicine. The medical faculty in Paris, the experts of that era, believed a conjunction of three planets had caused a “pestilence in the air”. There were no ideas about how to treat it effectively. People then could have concluded that life was just too difficult and given up, maybe reverting to a sort of caveman-type existence.
But even the Black Death had some positive consequences for society, including introducing pub culture to the UK – something rudely (but hopefully temporarily) interrupted by Matt Hancock and his SAGE advisors.
As historian Professor Mark Bailey has observed, the survivors “drank more and better quality ale; ate more and better quality bread; and consumed more meat and dairy produce.”
Within a century, the Renaissance kicked off the ‘modern era’, accelerated by the invention of the printing press. Two centuries after that, the Industrial Revolution again changed the world forever.
Let us fast forward now to the 20th century – more particularly, to the Spanish flu of 1918. This was no Black Death as it took the lives of a mere 50 million (world population: 1.5 billion). But its effects were savage, with those in their 20s and 30s suffering mortality on a vast scale. Coming so soon after the First World War, it could have heralded a period of hopelessness and decline. But it did not. The Spanish flu simply vanished after two years and it ushered in a period now known as the “Roaring 20s”.
Even the Second World War, perhaps the darkest chapter in the history of mankind, failed to dent progress.
In fact, the Second World War heralded much discovery and invention, which supercharged economies and led to their rapid recovery. Penicillin, the biggest life-saving drug of all time, was developed at Oxford University. The work of Alan Turing and others at Bletchley Park established the basis of the modern computer. The jet-powered airplane – a terrifying new armament in wartime – in peacetime made international travel a more practical and affordable possibility. By the 1960s, only 15 years after the end of the war, all large civilian aircraft were jet-powered.
And, just as in the First World War, the crucial contribution by women to the war effort ensured yet another step forward towards gender equality.
You might say that this was all a long time ago and that this time is different.
But remember the dot com crash of 2000? I do because I took a job in a dot com business the week before the crash occurred, much to the bemusement of many of my friends. “Experts” told us then that the internet was simply a passing fad. Parallels were drawn with Tulip Mania and the South Sea Bubble. But by 2020, 4.7 billion people were using the internet (2000: 360 million) – some fad.
And what about the 2008 financial crash? That seemed dire. As Lehman Brothers failed and banks around the world had to be propped up by governments, it looked to many like the end of capitalism. Actually, the financial crisis heralded a decade of growth – quite slow, but growth nonetheless.
So what about COVID-19? Amongst the doom and the gloom has anything good happened? Well yes, actually. The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine was developed and approved extraordinarily quickly and its cheapness and ease of use is giving it a global franchise.
The Pfizer-BioNtech and Moderna COVID vaccines could rank potentially amongst the greatest scientific discoveries of our time, unlocking an entirely new generation of vaccines against a variety of diseases.
We know that much of the digital sector has in fact thrived for the past year. Zoom, Netflix and Amazon have been the most conspicuous beneficiaries; but there are hundreds of thousands of small digital businesses (in areas such as educational technology) that have seen accelerated growth as a consequence of the events of the last 12 months.
And the governments of the West will never again be taken by surprise as they were by this pandemic. Whilst their preparation on this occasion was beyond deplorable, the pandemic has served as an effective, and needed, wake-up call. The analysis of what went wrong will inform effective preparation for the handling of any potentially deadly viruses in the future.
Governments have destroyed public confidence by promoting (rightly or wrongly) their severe policies of restriction. The message of fear has been loud, clear and highly effective.
But confidence can be built up as quickly as it has been demolished. Rather like the unfortunate prisoners emerging blinking into the sunlight in Beethoven’s Fidelio, human beings will, as the pandemic fades, do what they have always done: eat, drink and be merry – and get on with their lives.