Remembering the lessons of Covid

| July 29, 2022

In recent days, as Covid-19 cases have continued to mount in Australia, it occurred to me how effectively my memory has wrapped itself around the early phases of the pandemic, leaving something with rounded edges instead of spikes. I think this is representative of something broader that has happened since lockdowns finally came to an end in Australia.

We’ve lost the profound sense of uncertainty and political rupture that was present in the early stages of the crisis. I think the surreal feeling that marked the first half of 2020 itself might be the source of more useful lessons than much of the glut of writing still in production on ‘what Covid means’.

The virus emerged in late 2019 in Wuhan, China. That city was locked down on 23 January 2020 after weeks of denial and mishandling of the outbreak. The World Health Organization declared a public health emergency of international concern a week later.

If you’re anything like me, the picture of how the pandemic unfolded after that is blurry. Despite ample reason for it, panic only started to set in among some observers with the outbreak in northern Italy, the first country perceived as ‘Western’ to suffer on a significant scale. News reports abounded of morgues and hospitals being overwhelmed in wealthy Lombardy. At around the same time, Iran emerged as another focal point and there was much head scratching about what could be reliably gleaned from that country.

Yet, from where I was watching in the UK, life went on as normal, and it was some time before there was even widespread fixation on Covid-19 as a news item. Schools were closed on 18 March in Britain, but the country still didn’t really grind to a halt. My partner and I played in football games, and we attended a raucous Saturday evening pub gathering immediately before the country was sent into lockdown for the first time on the 23rd.

It was at that point that reality really set in—though what that ‘reality’ was remained fuzzy. We repeated conversations about whether to stay or go (How bad will it actually get? Is the grim reportage out of Italy to be trusted or were they just unprepared? Where would we rather be locked down? What if our parents back home in Australia get sick?). Airlines were slowly shuttered and there was an expensive rush on flights, though one we were fortunate to have the means to join if we so chose.

My partner is a doctor, but she wasn’t practising at the time. At that point we discussed whether she felt an obligation to go back on to a ward (which she does in between research, but continually disabuses me of my military-inspired assumption that many doctors feel that the personal risk of infection and harm is something they’ve already consented to).

I also recall discussions with close Australian friends, one of whom is a lawyer (over Zoom, though they were just around the corner), about whether the Australian government could legally bar citizens from returning to their own country. (It turns out it sort of can, sort of can’t, and of course won’t say that it is doing so. You were warned, you had your chance, and so on.) We decided to stick it out in the UK: this will probably be over by the northern summer, right?

Vaccines were still a long way off and it seemed strange that scientists could be so confident that an effective one would emerge. A young, healthy British friend got sick very early on, in a way that young men don’t usually get sick. Then he had something that looked, with hindsight, distinctly like long Covid. I got Covid a little while later, in a lull between lockdowns. While it was already clear that the disease was bad mostly, though not only, for the elderly and vulnerable, it was hard not to be mildly anxious when it reached me personally, given the (shall we say) febrile atmosphere. The friends I infected are all fine and so am I.

If you’re anything like me, recalling all this detail is actually something of an effort. Granted, I am fortunate not to have lost relatives to the pandemic, or worked traumatic hours in overwhelmed hospitals, and doubtless many who’ve had it worse retain sharper memories. But my mind has glossed it over, not even into some representative sense of what that time was like, but instead into an anodyne generalisation. Much time spent in lockdown, loved ones all thankfully unaffected, all something I’d rather not repeat, move along now.

This habitual, watered-down recollection of that time doesn’t dwell on the profound sense of uncertainty that shot through the first months of the pandemic. Coupled with that uncertainty was the dawning knowledge that, for better or worse, a whole clutch of things were indeed possible that hadn’t seemed so before. An influenza-like pandemic was happening; it wasn’t some silly fixation of epidemiologists. Borders could be closed. People could be forcibly cloistered away at home and turned away from hospitals.

This is about far more than the personal recollection I’m using here to evoke something very recent but seemingly already long lost. Global and national leaders were all making sense of the world, and making decisions, in a climate that shared at least some of these feelings.

Even early on, many things were said about what the crisis might portend in the long term, politically, economically and socially. Regardless of those predictions, some utopian and some deeply pessimistic, the sense that far-reaching, profound change was both possible and likely receded quickly. It seems to me that we have been left with perhaps one dominant narrative—about the death, or perhaps just decline, of globalisation.

But the early Covid-19 experience is the most useful analogue we have for any number of other major disruptions we might face, geopolitical or otherwise. We might do well to dwell on this dimension a little more. We must reach back some years for events that are genuinely comparable on the same global scope, arguably to World War II (though Covid has of course fallen well short of that event in fatality terms).

This isn’t really about the wholly unexpected, the so-called black swan possibilities. Covid-19 was the realisation of a risk that was, superficially, well understood. There are two categories of risks that come to mind.

First is the gamut of existential risks, sometimes discussed in the same breath as ongoing pandemic risks. Cambridge’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk canvasses biotechnology risks, environmental change and artificial intelligence, among others. Andrew Leigh, now a junior minister in the new federal government, covers similar territory with the addition of nuclear war in his recent book What’s the worst that could happen?

The second (and not mutually exclusive) grouping is the range of geopolitical risks clearly present around the world. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has reminded many of what, a few decades ago, were ever-present fears of escalation. Much has been written on the increasing risk of military escalation present as China asserts its place in the world. We’ve all quite quickly forgotten the era of ‘fire and fury’ with North Korea, too, though an uptick in missile tests is now providing a reminder.

So, in sum, two thoughts. First, these risks are all far more real than we feel when reading about them. Covid has shown us the gap between reading and believing. Anyone who works in or adjacent to the crafting of strategic policy should be mindful of this delta, and how it shapes decision-making when the crisis actually arrives.

Second, if any of these risks are realised, we will probably confront them with a similar surreal feeling to that which many of us, and many of our leaders, experienced in early 2020. We should expect the same palpable and unsettling sense of uncertainty. The world of the political possible will also open up, for better or worse.

We speak casually about living in ‘uncertain times’ a great deal. For a very large chunk of the population, the Covid-19 pandemic has been the only truly uncertain time they have experienced. We would do well to mine that experience itself for lessons, rather than trying to read the tea leaves for what Covid means for the future.

This article was published by The Strategist.

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