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If History Is of Any Value: Revisiting March 2020, Part I

Luis Martinez-Fernandez on

One of my motivations for becoming a regular columnist and later going into syndication with Creators in 2020 was the realization that the COVID-19 pandemic would be a pivotal historical phenomenon with deep and long-lasting global ramifications. For the foreseeable future, I ascertained, there would be a lot to write about, and a historian's perspective might come in handy.

Among my earliest columns is one titled "Pivotal Moment? What History Tells Us About COVID-19's Future Impact." Published by the Globe Post on March 29, 2020, the World Health Organization had just officially declared COVID-19 a "pandemic." Its count of worldwide confirmed cases had reached 375,498, with 16,362 fatalities; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was reporting 15,268 cases and 201 deaths in the United States.

Twenty-seven months later, as I sit down to write this week's column, I look up today's stats. Worldwide: 539,893,858 cases, 6,324,112 deaths; United States: 86,787,443 cases, 1,011,013 deaths. And this is not over yet. Last week, the CDC announced that two new omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5 have become dominant among coronavirus cases in the United States; they are spreading faster, have more serious symptoms and are more able to fight antibodies produced through vaccination than earlier subvariants. There will be a lot more to write about and for a long time.

At the time I wrote my March 2020 column, the editors of Politico magazine, Foreign Policy, The Guardian and Devex surveyed experts (Foreign Policy referred to them as "leading global thinkers") about the likely impact of the pandemic that was still in its infancy. With academic appointments at elite U.S. universities and leadership positions in prestigious think tanks, those experts hailed from the social sciences: political scientists, sociologists, economists; even a psychologist was thrown in the mix.

None of them were historians, who understand that historical phenomena are complex and interconnected, nor cultural anthropologists, who could offer informed insights on cultural change. Not surprisingly, many of the forecasts were ahistorical; some were woefully off the mark, while others -- I'll write about those later -- were, plain and simple, naive and uninformed.

Many of the expert prognostications were in the fields of international relations and global economics. Stephen M. Walt, professor of international relations at Harvard University, predicted a post-COVID-19 world that is "less open, less prosperous, and less free." Democracy, which was already on the retreat, suffered further setbacks, in some instances immediately so, as was the case in Israel and Hungary. Established dictatorships in Russia, China, Cuba and elsewhere used the occasion to entrench themselves further and trample over the rights of their citizens. Less open? Less free? The short-term answer is yes, but the excesses of such governments (including former President Donald Trump's) and Russia's brutal invasion of Ukraine have generated democratic countercurrents in the United States, where Trump lost his reelection bid, and across the North Atlantic, with a strengthened NATO and European Union resolved to curb the expansion of authoritarian rule.

Walt and other surveyed experts also foresaw, prematurely so, an acceleration of China's ascendancy in the global scene. As the Harvard professor put it: "COVID-19 will also accelerate the shift in power and influence from West to East. South Korea and Singapore have responded best, and China has reacted well after its early mistakes. The response in Europe and America has been slow and haphazard by comparison, further tarnishing the aura of the Western 'brand.'" That "brand," from the vantage point of July 2022, has, on the contrary, regained strength: politically, diplomatically, scientifically and militarily.

 

Other consulted experts also foresaw a slowdown in the globalization process. Robin Niblett, director and chief executive of Chatham House, went as far as saying that "the coronavirus pandemic could be the straw that breaks the camel's back of economic globalization." Meanwhile, Kishore Mahbubani of the National University of Singapore's Asia Research Institute forecasted a "more China-centric globalization."

A natural consequence to globalization's slowdown, temporary as it may be, is the strengthening of political and economic nationalism and, according to some observers, the strengthening of nation-states. But Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass warned about yet another countercurrent: pandemic crisis-driven circumstances that would push more and more nations into failed state status.

To be continued.

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Luis Martinez-Fernandez is the author of "Revolutionary Cuba: A History" and "Key to the New World: A History of Early Colonial Cuba." Readers can reach him at LMF_Column@yahoo.com. To find out more about Luis Martinez-Fernandez and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www. creators.com.

Copyright 2022 Creators Syndicate Inc.
 

 

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