I am writing this piece at the end of March 2020 for publication in the June/July 2020 issue of Free Inquiry, which means a two-month pipeline between completion/filing and publication. Normally, that is a short time, even if it spans events that are highly consequential in one domain of life, such as the outcome of a presidential election. But suddenly, two months is a very long time.
The world has changed comprehensively since only one month ago. Many thousands of people have died in socially and technologically advanced countries such as Italy and Spain, and now the United States, from coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). Western governments have introduced extreme and draconian—but necessary—limits on personal freedoms to slow the spread of the virus, and immense sums of public money are being spent in an effort to blunt the economic impact. I have scarcely stepped beyond the boundaries of my own home for three weeks now, and although I have not been worried for myself, I’m old enough and have enough small health issues that a bit of personal worry is finally starting to enter my thinking. I seriously do not want to be hit with a dose of COVID-19 or see it reach any of my loved ones or friends.
When a highly infectious disease with a significant fatality rate spreads through a new population for the first time, diagnoses—and deaths—grow exponentially. Although that’s understood by educated people, the implications are difficult to grasp. It implies that the situation might be so much worse by the time this piece is published that any observations made now will already be shockingly out of date. Alternatively, the measures being taken to resist the spread of the virus could have flattened the growth curve during that time, but I am not optimistic from what we’ve seen so far. Most likely, enormous new efforts will be needed to mobilize resources. In the weeks between my writing this and your reading it, the capacities of health systems will be tested severely, some systems will fail, and we’ll see more deaths by orders of magnitude. I sincerely hope it’s not that bad, but it’s where we are heading.
As I’ve wondered what to write about for Free Inquiry on this occasion, I’ve tried to think of topics where I have something to say that will still be applicable in the world of June and July. In the circumstances, I’m finding that’s not psychologically possible. Right now, my mind can’t process other topics. On the other hand, you readers, two months in the future, know more than I possibly can about the pandemic and our success or otherwise in taming it. Writing from your past, I can say little that could be helpful. I wish one of you could send back a message to me.
Speaking to you from the past, I’ve learned some things so far. The governments of democratic countries were initially too slow to understand and react to the enormity of the situation, and that might cost their populations dearly. There is plenty of room for recriminations, yet overall, I’m surprised at how quickly policy was made, communicated, and implemented once something of the urgency was understood. The political institutions of liberal democracies are designed to apply brakes to government power. They’re meant to protect us from high-handed actions by our political masters, and we are at a disadvantage, compared to authoritarian regimes, on those rare occasions when harsh, momentous, and rapid action is genuinely needed. Although it’s no consolation to people who are critically ill or have lost loved ones, Western governments acted through March with a rapidity that I could not have imagined from my years, during an earlier stage of my life, of working in or with government bureaucracies. The pace of policymaking and implementation has been imperfect, but democratic governments have proved capable of acting in the face of an emergency.
It was predictable (and predicted by many people) that a pandemic of this kind was coming sooner or later, and it could have been even worse if the effects of the disease had themselves been worse. However horrendous this episode in history turns out to be, we should assume that waves of even nastier infectious diseases lie in our future, which means we’ll need to take action more quickly next time, and we must hold more resources available even at the cost of restructuring priorities in public spending.
Another thing that I’ve learned is that most people can grasp a situation sufficiently to cooperate and make sacrifices in the face of a supreme emergency. Most of us quickly developed an understanding of concepts such as social distancing and are doing our best to comply with what are, by the standards of any other situation, extraordinary restrictions.
There’s been much criticism of panic buying in supermarkets—and this has, indeed, caused problems that we could have done without—and a significant proportion of the community still doesn’t “get” (or refuses to “get”) the basics. Most people, however, are absorbing and acting upon difficult concepts. Again, no matter how bad this becomes, we can expect worse disease outbreaks in the future, so the high level of public cooperation suggests that there might be some mental preparedness next time. If a worse disease than COVID-19 reaches similar proportions in the coming years or decades, we will all need to respond decisively. At least this crisis gives us a trial run.
I’m facing the next two months, and beyond, with deep concern. I hope that this column will be published in circumstances less bleak than those in which it has been written, but that’s not realistic. The human toll will grow higher, probably much higher, but I hope that, as of the start of June, we will all have done our best and it’s starting to pay off.