By Trevor Busch
As all of us come to terms with how a global viral pandemic has affected and impacted our lives, none of us can predict what the future now holds. That’s not meant as an intimation of doom and gloom; it’s simple reality. And while the outcomes of that reality are not at this point etched in stone, there will be consequences, and changes, to the world all of us seemed to inhabit only a short few weeks ago.
As I write this, literally tens of thousands of Albertans have been abruptly thrown out of work, had their hours reduced, or are being subjected to other workplace hardships due to the COVID-19 outbreak. And while the measures being put in place are certainly necessary to protect public health, the health of the economy is something else entirely. It is perhaps human nature to examine a crisis from the outside looking in until that crisis begins to affect you directly. The bubble mentality evaporates quickly when it is your bottom line that begins to shrink exponentially, not just the people around you.
And while this may all end up being a short, sharp blip on the golden staircase to endless prosperity — as our politicians might like to frame it from time to time — we’re also left to conclude that economically we’re in rock infested and profoundly uncharted waters. And if this situation continues for untold months rather than weeks, it may take more than billion-dollar government bailouts and aid packages to ensure people have enough to eat and are able to keep the lights on. The world that we all may wake up to on that day could look starkly different than the one that is locking up its doors today.
We also have to face the possibility that many of the businesses that might have swung open those doors yesterday might never open them again. Many businesses, and many industries, cannot endure a sustained period with little to no revenue without collapse. How long that collapse can be staved off is anyone’s guess, and might just prove to be the $64,000 question in 2020. Our global capitalist economy is like a piston engine. Remove the oil, and pretty soon you’ll have a seized piece of scrap metal. Starting that engine back up again will not be as easy as placing a key in the ignition and turning it over.
And that is the real nightmare scenario, beyond the death and disarray the virus is already spreading globally. It has been said that a crisis is also an opportunity, and we can only hope that the calculating minds behind the windows of the Kremlin, on Pyongyang’s snowy streets, or looking down on Tehran’s shops and bazaars, choose to recognize our shared humanity in a time of global crisis — that what we all have in common is more important than our differences — instead of taking it as an opportunity to unleash more misfortune on the world for petty nationalistic goals or the settling of old grudges.
Beyond that potential threat, if the economy does not recover to the degree that we have all become accustomed to, what exactly does that mean for all of us? If hundreds of thousands — even millions — of people who had jobs before end up joining the bread lines and visiting the soup kitchens, this would represent a social and political threat to the established order that has not been witnessed since 1929. History gives us innumerable examples of what a restive, unemployed, socially oppressed and downtrodden population can mean for a society that is quick to take reactionary action and slow to change. Violence is often the outcome, and more than a few revolutions have grown out of such cauldrons that engender a witch’s brew of negative social impacts. Desperate people take desperate actions, and are open to political radicalization on a scale that is unprecedented in more stable and less volatile times.
While that nightmare scenario might be terrifying, we must also know that humanity is capable of overcoming many great challenges and is infinitely adaptable to almost any circumstance. We are by no means consigned to a negative fate beyond our control. Right now, there are many parallels being drawn between the current situation and the events that led to the Great Depression in 1929. And to be fair, they shouldn’t be ignored. The Great Depression came on the heels of a stock market crash after enjoying a bull market that many believed would never end. That scenario should sound pretty familiar to anyone that has taken a glancing look at global markets over the past decade, and then examined today’s current events.
We survived the Great Depression, if somewhat worse for wear as a society. We survived WWII, and all the many conflicts that came before it, and the potential for a global nuclear holocaust that was presented to us during the Cold War. We’ve survived cholera and typhus epidemics, and the Black Death, even as it wiped out millions across Europe. We survived the Spanish flu pandemic almost exactly a century ago in 1919. And we’ll survive this.
But not everything will be the same. We learned from the Great Depression that things like employment insurance, government pension plans and social welfare were not socialist evils designed to destroy the fabric of our lives. It changed the way Canadians thought about the economy, and resulted in the expansion of state responsibility. And we learned, perhaps most crucially, that we are not private islands of individuality in our collective societies: the camaraderie, the sense of a shared experience through hardship and adversity, created generations that believed that pulling together was the way to answer the world’s great challenges, rather than pulling apart. If that is something we can recreate as an outcome from our own experiences in 2020 and the future that will come day by day, we will only in the end be better for it both as a society and as individuals.
And maybe we will learn other things, too. Maybe we will learn that the unofficial but accepted practice of working through an illness like a badge of honour will become much more unacceptable than it has been in the recent past. And maybe we’ll become just a little bit kinder to one another, no matter race, sex, or socio-economic status.
Or so I’d like to hope, anyway. U.S. president Richard Nixon wasn’t exactly known as the warm and fuzzy type. But something I saw recently, during his farewell address to White House staff on Aug. 10, 1974 shortly after his resignation, does seem apt: “Always give your best. Never get discouraged. Never be petty. Always remember others may hate you but those that hate you don’t win, unless you hate them. And then you destroy yourself.”