20 March 2020

The history of crisis – and what it tells us about coronavirus

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Some crises overwhelm everything: they make each controversy that went before them seem very small indeed, and they draw a line in the calendar between ‘Before’ and ‘After’. We could well be living through one of these fundamental historical breakpoints right now. So much in the future will be at least coloured by this spring and early summer: health care, housing, welfare systems, travel and tourism, economic policy. You name it, things are moving.

Governments everywhere have had to scramble in the dust as history blasts past them. Few administrations have emerged with a vast amount of credit. The Chinese Communist Party lost precious, vital days trying to shut down a story it treated like a bug to crush. The reaction of the Trump administration has been something between a very bleak farce and a tragedy: the President’s attempt to play down the outbreak for so long has definitely cost lives.

Here in the UK, Whitehall and Westminster have only really woken up to what is before them in the last two weeks. Boris Johnson’s government, looking fairly popular and pretty secure even as late as Budget Day last week, has been made to look flat-footed at best and blundering at worst – though the very latest polling shows they still enjoy widespread public confidence, at least for now. Though we can safely ignore the hyper-connected ramblings of the Very Online Left, raging that the Tories want to kill off Britain’s elderly – these hashtag bullies seem less and less relevant to anything as each hour passes – the Government certainly has not covered itself in glory.

When they should have shut down large social gatherings, they inexplicably let the Cheltenham Festival take place. When they could have been frank with people and said that they didn’t have enough tests to go around, they gave the impression that they were ‘ending’ testing except for the very sick. When they should have been ready with help for renters rather than just buy-to-letters and owner-occupiers, they first allowed a day’s gap to open up between announcing aid packages and then tried to suggest that renters would have to agree a repayment plan with their landlords.

Johnson should get some credit for fronting up right at the start of the acute phase of this crisis, telling people clearly and plainly that many will die. That was frank and useful (if painful), and there’s never been any point playing any of this down. But why delay on anything else at all? Why did the Government not move more quickly on testing medics? Why did the shock production drive on ventilators – the pinch point in the crisis – come so late?

Part of the answer must lie in the UK’s weak state structures. Never robust at the best of times, and never as deeply integrated with civic society as post-war Germany or as full of authority as the French state, Britain might have moved in an arthritic manner at any time. But two interrelated elements will make this disaster even worse than it might otherwise have been.

The first is austerity. The National Health Service has had years of funding increases that are not even enough to meet cost inflation in the health care sector. Social care has been weakened beyond its ability to cope even in good years. Many local government services, such as meals on wheels, have disappeared. All of that will now come back to haunt a governing mentality that prioritised financial deficit over social deficiency. Ministers will come to realise that the survival of the economy itself can require not just lenders of last resort, but reserves of state strength and capacity that be called upon in a crisis.

Which brings us to the second critical factor here: the incapacity of the state at the centre. Ten years of public spending cuts have not only pared down the welfare state’s ability to cope: they have stripped Whitehall upper and middle management of huge amounts of experience and talent. Central government’s intellectual energy has also been sapped by years of bitter contestation over Europe and Brexit, which made the UK political system appear totally gridlocked for months last year. British politics felt pretty mined out even before this latest (and by far most daunting) challenge.

Very few states are like China, warned by SARS in 2002-2003 that they had to be ready to test everyone, everywhere, and then isolate those who tested positive away from not just their work, but their families as well. Very few countries can copy the city-states of Singapore and Hong Kong, which have clamped down in their different ways using all the powers that their small size and strong governments allow. The nations of Western Europe might simply not have been ready, certainly not rapidly ready, to accept the curtailment of daily life in the way they are going to have to accept in the coming months.

Yet there is still room to doubt that everything will be transformed forever. Lots of commentators have said that, lots of times. The historian’s answer at these junctures is: wait and see. The Spanish flu’s death toll in Britain looks rather like some of the worst-case scenarios we could get to if governments go in for only light and voluntary mitigation. It does not seem to have completely transformed British capitalism in the way that the First and Second World Wars did. Excess mortality due to the 1957 ‘Asian flu’ is estimated at 30,000 in England and Wales, with nearly 7,000 people dying from influenza itself. That crisis faded from popular memory and practice too.

Economies also bounce back from these incidents. American GDP came back fairly strongly even after the terrible and tragic losses of 1918-19. The ‘animal spirits’ which Keynes once evoked are dragging the markets down now: they will bounce upwards like a coiled spring on news of efficacious new drugs or a vaccine. If the present disaster takes millions out of the labour market for months or even years, if it causes debt to pile up without governments writing it off, then it could drag down the economy for decades to come: but if people move back into work across the winter of 2020-21, and governments fight incipient depression with as much vigour as doctors are currently battling the disease, the damage might not be too great. The bottom line is: nobody knows.

The real lasting scars will be on individuals’ lives, their sense of safety, security and fixity threatened by fear and sometimes personal grief – but even here, to paraphrase A.J.P. Taylor, this could easily be a turning point around which history failed to turn. It is not hard to imagine people flying all around Europe again once they’ve had the disease themselves, or once they’re armoured with the vaccine. Everyday life was crushed in the Europe of 1945: it was thriving by the early fifties. The wise commentator knows what they are expert in: but most of all, they know how ignorant they remain.

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Glen O'Hara is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford Brookes University.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX