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OP-ED: Out with the old, but then what?

  • Published at 01:27 am January 1st, 2021
covid -19 sanitiser masks
Photo: BIGSTOCK

When the pandemic is over, will there be another ‘roaring twenties’?

Exactly 100 years ago, another devastating global pandemic -- it was caused by the H1N1 influenza virus, commonly called “the Spanish flu” -- came to an end after four deadly waves in different parts of the world killed 25 million people (higher estimates range up to 100 million). By that point, 5% of the population of the sub-continent had perished.

The world’s emergence from that disaster triggered an explosion of pent-up economic, social, and cultural energies that we now call “the roaring twenties.” 

Mass production fuelled unprecedented consumerism, and what we now consider the foundation blocks of modern life came into widespread use: Private cars, home telephones and electronics, exciting films and television. 

Will something like that sustained surge occur again in the “twenty twenties” as our much more interconnected -- and densely populated -- world starts to take Covid-19 vaccines, and the killer flu of our own times fades into history? Should we aim to replicate? 

The great author Amitav Ghosh says no. Earlier this week on Twitter, he posted: “When the pandemic’s over there could be another ‘Roaring Twenties,’ as there was after the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. That might be fun for some, but I suspect it would be terrible for the climate.”

Ghosh’s comments were made in the context of a new book by Nicholas Christakis. In Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live, the Yale epidemiologist says: “During epidemics people become more abstentious, they save money, they get risk averse [but] all of those trends will be reversed. People will relentlessly seek out social interactions, sexual licentiousness, liberal spending, and a reverse of religiosity.” Risk-taking will come back with a bang.

What happened after the “roaring twenties”? First, they were abruptly ended by the 1929 Wall Street crash. 

Their inherent excesses -- and accompanying stock market bubbles -- led directly to the Great Depression, the ultimate example of how badly the global economy can tank. International trade went down by two-thirds, and stayed there for years. Inequality spiked to the highest levels in history. 

This brings us to red flag number one for 2021: We are again in an era of bubble-fuelled extreme wealth-disparities, and inequality has returned to the historic levels of 100 years ago. 

Thus, while almost everyone has struggled mightily through our pandemic predicament, the very rich became stratospherically wealthier. This means that whatever comes next, it will be in an astonishingly unequal world.

We can already see grotesque polarities when it comes to vaccine development and distribution. Every country needs them equally, but when India and South Africa petitioned the World Trade Organization to waive intellectual property rights, they were blocked by the US, UK, and EU. 

Meanwhile, an incredible 96% of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine supply -- and the full 100% of Moderna’s version -- has been stockpiled by rich countries.

According to the People’s Vaccine Alliance, only 1% of the population of the world’s 67 poorest countries can expect to be treated against Covid-19 in 2021. 

This is because 14% of the global population owns over 50% of the supply. 

Meanwhile, several major countries -- including some in South Asia -- are in danger of being largely shut out of the vaccine games, and could have to wait until 2024 until their populations are effectively dealt with. 

“Vaccine delivery will be a nightmare, but we all know that” says my friend Musharraf Farooqi, the brilliant Pakistani writer and translator (check out his wonderful online Urdu thesaurus: www.urduthesaurus.com). 

When I wrote to ask what he thought would happen to us in 2021, he responded: “What I am thinking is the following: It is very honourable to help humanity but we also have to ask ourselves what makes us human and why that particular aspect of our species makes us worth saving. We have to ask ourselves seriously, because just the fact that we love and feel pain, and are able to articulate it, does not mean much because other animals also do it. We just don’t know their language to know what they are saying.”

Farooqi said: “I feel that in times of crisis we should hold on more strongly to what we see as the great feat of the human species -- the creation of art. 

To create and preserve and enlighten each other in the present with our best creations. I did not write this year but began translations of some qissas that are beautiful, great stories from Braj Bhasha, Sanskrit, and Persian that were transferred into Urdu in the very early years of the 19th century.”

My friend concluded: “So yes to a search for the vaccine, and yes to feeding and clothing people, but also a big yes to what we alone among the animals can do.

Commemorate more art. Make more art. Inspire more art.”

Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.

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