This short piece by Vaclav Smil asks why we do talk so much about the Spanish flu, as a benchmark for Covid19, whereas we do not compare it with influenza pandemics after WWII. Smil’s crucial argument is that, if we do not have good numbers for the Spanish flu, we do have very good numbers for more recent pandemics. He points out that:
these more virulent pandemics had such evanescent economic consequences. The United Nations’ World Economic and Social Surveys from the late 1950s contain no references to a pandemic or a virus. Nor did the pandemics leave any deep, traumatic traces in memories. Even if one very conservatively assumes that lasting memories start only at 10 years of age, then 350 million of the people who are alive today ought to remember the three previous pandemics, and a billion people ought to remember the last two.
But I have yet to come across anybody who has vivid memories of the pandemics of 1957 or 1968. Countries did not resort to any mass-scale economic lockdowns, enforce any long-lasting school closures, ban sports events, or cut flight schedules deeply.
Today’s pandemic has led to a deep (50 to 90 percent) reduction in flights, but during the earlier pandemics, aviation was marked by notable advances. On 17 October 1958, half a year after the end of the second pandemic wave in the West and about a year before the pandemic ended (in Chile, the last holdout), PanAm inaugurated its Boeing 707 jet service to Europe. And the Boeing 747, the first wide-body jetliner, entered scheduled service months before the last wave of the contemporary pandemic ended, in March 1970.
Why were things so different back then? Was it because we had no fear-reinforcing 24/7 cable news, no Twitter, and no incessant and instant case-and-death tickers on all our electronic screens? Or is it we ourselves who have changed, by valuing recurrent but infrequent risks differently?
I am afraid that 24/7 cable news, Twitter and incessant case-and-death tickers on all our electronic screens will not only twist memory, but they are also having a strong impact over political decision making.
Take the Italian case. After a very severe lockdown (schools were kept closed for six months), we had more or less a good summer, with progressive reopening and small numbers of contagions, grave hospitalizations, and deaths. With the fall, we have been hit by the much-awaited “second wave”. The government’s preparations have been lacking if not altogether paradoxical: school hours have not been changed, and the supply of public transport has not been varied (in spite of the fact private bus companies are being kept idle, whereas they could have been contracted to help cope with the rush hour traffic). Swab tests were strictly monopolized by hospitals and pharmacists; doctors and private healthcare structures have not been mobilized in order to increase test capacity. Now, the numbers of contagions are rising sharply and doubling once every seven days. They will be around 30,000 a day by the end of the month. Alas, deaths seem to double every week, too.
What has the government done? At first, it went for a dripping of closures, with new measures coming up once a week: a couple of weeks ago it made wearing facemasks mandatory, then we introduced curfews. Now gyms and swimming pools and ski resorts have been closed and restaurants won’t be free to serve dinner. The country is entering a lockdown, though softer than the first one.
“There are no libertarians in a pandemic;” but somehow that is a problem. One of the key insights of modern libertarianism is that a complex society is a tangle of knowledge problems, which central authorities are not very good at unraveling. This has been lost on decision-makers, who think they can win the “war against the virus” with top-down decisions, irrespective of continuous and abrupt change. They are always lagging a step behind.
A few days ago Federico Giugliano has written that somehow, in this second wave, Europe has quietly “turned Swedish”: “Governments are happy to impose more stringent measures on cities and regions with bad outbreaks (as Sweden itself is starting to do) but they’re extremely reluctant to crack down too heavily on social interactions, as they did in the spring.”
That was hardly sustainable, politically speaking, with, as Smil put it, “24/7 cable news, Twitter and incessant case-and-death tickers on all our electronic screens”. With cases quickly rising, we see stronger pressure for a new lockdown: the media are breeding anxiety and anxiety elicits a call for political resolve.
When it comes to Italy, the numbers are way above Italy’s test and tracing capacity. The lockdown is an implicit admission of the inability of doing anything else. In an article on Politico.eu, I asked “Why did the Italian government, after navigating one of the first and fiercest coronavirus outbreaks earlier this year, not learn from the experience?” My answer is: ideology. The government spent lots of energy and political capital in negotiating European aid and has planned great advancement in its building of an “entrepreneurial state”.
I do hope that these new measures will be able to flatten the curve and reduce stress on the national health care service. But if the government is capable only of using the hammer, how can we expect it to be able to “dance” with the virus?