PETER BRUCE: Pandemics: lessons from the past for those who are Left
We isolate, caregivers risk their lives, the rich hoard and the poor suffer. But the rich die too. And we argue like there’s no tomorrow
I have good news for those too-often ignored heroes of the intellectual Left, who on their own have to struggle each day to be heard, for their detailed plans for economic stimulus to get a little traction even in the face of a gaping hole in the fiscus and who have to explain why they still support a minimum wage even as unemployment in SA continues its inexorable rise.
The good news is that the coronavirus may yet save them, if not actually spare them, if you get my meaning. I can’t predict which of our commanders in chief will make it past Covid-19, but their ideas may live forever and surely that’s what counts. No?
One of my great gripes is that, as a pensioner, I cannot go back to university and get a BA with economic history as a major in SA. I’d love to do that (or the history of art) but while there are still a handful of economic historians in our midst in SA, I can’t find a university that teaches it as a course.
The historian Charles van Onselen’s excellent 2019 book, The Night Trains, finds a piece of our economic past and makes a gripping tale of it and, as he’s a professor and clever beyond my capabilities, I could not argue a point of history beyond perhaps a sentence with Van Onselen. But I’d love to be in a lecture room again with a wise man teaching me stuff I don’t know. At my age I find myself much more interested in where I come from than where I’m going.
Perhaps the Left could study more history, back though, long before Marx, before the enlightenment. It might comfort them, poor dears. I’ve just read the most amazing article in that most archetypal of capitalist enterprises, Bloomberg, the news agency, by one of the cleverest journalists you’ll ever read, John Authers. After 29 years at the Financial Times (where we overlapped), Authers was poached by Bloomberg when the former editor of The Economist, John Micklethwait, left to run Bloomberg News in 2014.
One of Micklethwait’s triumphs has been to turn Bloomberg Opinion into arguably the smartest concentration of clever opinion on the planet and, for me at least, Authers is his best hire yet. He writes a column six days a week and each one is better than anything else you’ve read on the subject until you read him again.
This past weekend he produced this absolute gem it made me weak at the knees. I immediately bought the book he is talking about, US historian Barbara Tuchman’s 1978 A Distant Mirror. In her foreword she says the genesis of the book (which reads like a thriller by the way) “was a desire to find out what were the effects on society of the most lethal disaster of recorded history — that is to say, of the Black Death of 1348-1350, which killed an estimated one third of the population living between India and Iceland”.
Not only does Authers find reason in this deep past for the Left to be cheerful, he also finds sources to suggest that while we may be “at war” with the coronavirus, the outcome will be different from actually having gone to war. The aftermath of war is often high interest rates to slow down an overheated economy, he writes. The aftermath of a pandemic is the opposite. Capital is flat on the ground. People actually save. Interest rates may naturally fall to encourage spending
His article also takes you to this wonderful piece in The New Yorker on what may have been the first pandemic, which “began in the city of Pelusium, near modern-day Port Said, in northeastern Egypt, in the year 541. According to the historian Procopius, who was alive at the time, the ‘pestilence’ spread both west, toward Alexandria, and east, toward Palestine. Then it kept on going. In his view, it seemed to move almost consciously, ‘as if fearing lest some corner of the earth might escape it’.
“The earliest symptom of the pestilence was fever. Often, Procopius observed, this was so mild that it did not ‘afford any suspicion of danger’. But, within a few days, victims developed the classic symptoms of bubonic plague — lumps, or buboes, in their groin and under their arms. The suffering at that point was terrible; some people went into a coma, others into violent delirium. Many vomited blood. Those who attended to the sick ‘were in a state of constant exhaustion,’ Procopius noted. ‘For this reason everybody pitied them no less than the sufferers.’ No-one could predict who was going to perish and who would pull through.
“In early 542, the plague struck Constantinople. At that time, the city was the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, which was led by the Emperor Justinian. The plague hit the powerless and the powerful alike. Justinian himself contracted it. Among the fortunate, he survived. His rule, however, never really recovered. The plague broke out again in Constantinople in 558, a third time in 573, and yet again in 586.
“The Justinianic plague, as it became known, didn’t burn itself out until 750. By that point, there was a new world order. A powerful new religion, Islam, had arisen, and its followers ruled territory that included a great deal of what had been Justinian’s empire, along with the Arabian Peninsula. Much of Western Europe, meanwhile, had come under the control of the Franks. Rome had been reduced to about 30,000 people, roughly the population of present-day Mamaroneck. Was the pestilence partly responsible? If so, history is written not only by men but also by microbes.”
Indeed, and it is mildly amusing, in a macabre way because none of this is actually funny, watching humans try to prepare themselves for these invisible terrors. Our behaviour is more or less what it has always been. We isolate, doctors and nurses risk their lives, the rich hoard and the poor suffer. But the rich die too.
And we argue like there’s no tomorrow. We argue about whether or not to wear a mask in public. How dumb is that? Any protection obviously helps. It helps both you and others. Wear a goddamned mask in public.
There’s also an argument going on about ventilators. On one hand you read about them as if they’re the fix for everything. But it also seems that if you’re infected by the coronavirus and it gets into your lungs and you get to the point where an ambulance is required to get you to hospital and onto a ventilator, you’re already in much more trouble than your doctor is going to tell you.
I found this sceptical piece in The Spectator and in this CNN clip New York governor Andrew Cuomo, who has been working tirelessly as the virus grips his city (and without much help from Mad Donald Trump), reckons once you’re on a ventilator you have only a 20% chance of getting off it alive. And we’re going to spend how much on these things?
But if not, then what do you do? You wait, along with the rest of us, to get infected and (still more likely than not) get over it without much trouble. Or they find a reliable treatment (a Swedish experiment with Trump’s wonder drug, chloroquine, seems not to have gone that well but in the UK a serious test of hydroxychloroquine is under way and is being led by Christopher Butler, born and raised in Grahamstown).
And lastly, if you’ve just skimmed through all of this, please stop here and give yourself a treat. The Financial Times managed to squeeze this out of arguably the best English language novelist alive today, India’s Arundhati Roy. Boy, does she lay into the Hindu nationalist slob running that place. An absolutely fabulous read.
Cyril Ramaphosa apart, the Brics leaders are surely not the kind of people one would want to associate with.