Awaiting the Peak of the First Wave

The other day an interview with an Israeli historian appeared in the Asahi newspaper. He predicted second and third waves of the coronavirus, each successively deadlier as the virus mutates, and meditated on possible responses from governments around the world. The main point of the article was a comparison of the merits of democratic and authoritarian regimes in response to the outbreak, with thoughts on which type of system might prevail with the advent of the second and third wave.

He pointed out that the first wave of the Spanish Flu was relatively mild, but that as long as it was in circulation somewhere in the world it had a chance to mutate and produce the strain that went down in history for a fatality rate as high as 20%. It’s not difficult to imagine the same with COVID-19.

Interestingly, this comparatively mild strain, of which the global peak has not even arrived, has already slowed many industrialised societies to a crawl. It’s difficult (for me) to imagine what might happen with an illness as deadly as Ebola or the Bubonic Plague. A mutated coronavirus with the potential to kill a billion people would spell the end of civilisation.

Aside from issues of the virulence of any particular virus, the erosion of social freedoms in response is telling. After the Black Death freedom increased, partly because the demand for peasant labour suddenly exceeded the supply. It’s not impossible to imagine larger states breaking into smaller ones, which could mean gains in some forms of liberty. It’s at least as plausible that power systems seeking to increase their hold on their subjects become more authoritarian. Random and arbitrary testing for symptoms. Drones used to prevent people from meeting in groups. All education driven online in order to isolate individuals and make them more dependent on the state. We’ve already seen this in the US and Europe, and as of this week it’s been instituted in Japan as well. And if the administration finds it convenient to hold every class online, what would be the motivation to return to the earlier system? Once drones can be used to deliver food, what’s to prevent certain governments from making it a crime to even leave one’s residence?

Things may not come to that. We can only watch how the world behaves after the peak, after the summer, and see whether the cooler weather brings a second wave.