How will Western historians in 2050 remember 2020? In scenario 1, “The Great Panic, a lost generation”, I sketch my best guess. Scenario 2, “A job well done” is the one I imagine many current Western governments hope is told. Scenario 3, “The dark path of the Great Panic”, is one of my main fear scenarios.
One should of course not take any of these too seriously, but they do help put some perspective on matters because constructing a future history of today forces one to detach from current concerns and nominate long-term forces that might come to the fore.
H1: The Great Panic, a lost generation.
In 2020 a new coronavirus appeared that health authorities and the media whipped into a huge panic that went viral around the world. Forced by their populations to pretend to be in control, governments instigated lots of highly damaging restrictions on the movements of their own citizens. Whilst this did very little to the spread of the virus or the eventual death toll from it, it opened enormous opportunities to governments to extend their powers, sidestep parliaments, and rob their populations.
The ideology of the Great Panic was an echo of the Fremdkörper ideology of national socialism of the 1930s: an ideology in which the country was seen as an organism that could only function if the ‘elements alien to it’ were excised. This ideology reached great popularity in 2020 when it was directed towards the new coronavirus, but, as in the 1930s, the ideology morphed when the coronavirus ceased to be a threat to include all infectious diseases and large groups of citizens. Zero-covid became zero-other-things. Increasingly draconian and destructive policies were rolled out in the 2020s by governments eager to hold on to the power they had amassed.
After the period of initial shock in 2020, an unholy alliance between opportunist local commercial interests, the global ambitions and immediate interest of Big Tech, the virtue industry, and governments emerged that thrived on continued restrictions. The surveillance state they instigated survived the end of the actual pandemic which had run its course by early 2021. New viral threats were identified to justify massive random testing regimes, with the inspectors who could use those test to order lockdowns of whole regions becoming feared figures of derision. Immunity passports became compulsory for most international travel. Masks became compulsory everywhere outside.
The disruption and ideology inherent to the Great Panic formed the kernel of its own eventual demise. The disruption to the economy and social life lead to large-scale unrest and even civil war in poorer regions like India and North Africa. High levels of mental health disruption aggravated the collapse of the economy, which is now estimated to be 20% of world GDP loss in that period, masked in the early periods by increased government debt and money printing. The eventual inability to buy off social unrest as debt and quantitative easing ran into its limits lead to high inflation and loss of confidence in governments.
The Fremdkörper ideology eventually became the enemy of the emerging medico-industrial complex: just as populations saw the virus as an ‘element alien to it’, so too did they view new vaccines, particularly the new RNA-based vaccines. Increasingly, tests became seen as invasions of privacy and unwanted attempts at stigmatisation, with individuals increasingly reluctant to be identified with any infectious disease.
Eventually, massive popular disapproval lead to a reversal of the main ideology and restrictions in Western countries, followed by other countries. A restoration movement was dominant for a few years, including a greater role for nationalistic libertarian movements.
One long term effect was the large-scale destruction of the independent middle classes made up of shop keepers, service workers, small hotels etc.: their businesses were replaced by franchise systems tethering nearly all former independent small businesses to large corporations. This worsened inequality and lead to more feudal societies.
Another long-term effect was the disruption of the education and the ability to socialise normally for a generation of children. As a result, average wellbeing and prosperity took decades to recover.
The huge collateral death tolls and the illegality of the 2020 restrictions were not recognised in the courts in most countries until the 2040s but are now part of textbook teachings on ethics and law. When a few large countries decided in special commissions that they had been the victim of international emotional contagion, regionalisation of social media became institutionalised.
In the poorer part of the world the Great Panic lead to a lost generation whose education and economic prospects got disrupted, leading to a widespread primitivisation of their economies. The situation got aggravated by civil wars and by reductions of the aid budgets of the richer countries, leading to a large political pivot towards China in that period.
Economic historians estimate the death toll of the Great Panic to be around 70 million unnecessary deaths, making it the world’s second biggest self-inflicted catastrophe, only behind the second world war. Still, from a longer-term point of view the crisis was seen as a blip that exposed the susceptibility of existing democratic and scientific systems to contagious mass emotions. Some of the innovations and restrictions of that era are still with us, like immunity passports: though many countries eventually decided they were unconstitutional and illiberal, enough countries remained adamant about not letting in anyone without them that they became a standard feature in the tourism and business sectors.
H2: a job well done
In 2020 a new virus emerged of unheard potency hitherto. Though at the time not everyone was convinced of its danger, it was in hindsight definitively proven to be directly responsible for long-term problems like dementia, depression, anxiety, insolvency, terrorism, violence, unemployment, and loneliness.
Governments sometimes were late to heed the science but eventually all recognised that a working economy and social system needed to first focus on the eradication of this new virus. Whilst scientists were working hard at a variety of solutions, governments kept their populations safe by means of restricting their movements. A vocal minority of covid-terrorists resisted these restrictions but eventually a combination of marginalising their voices in the social media and physical containment ensured they did not prevail.
This period is now recognised as a triumph of human ingenuity, where the world went from a new disease to 95% safe vaccinations within 6 months. Nobel prizes went to the inventors, knighthoods to the industrialists who produced the vaccines at marginal cost, and lucrative government contracts to the transportation companies who disseminated the vaccines. Grateful populations voted for the governments that had more decisively protected them by large majorities, with covid-deniers like the US president Trump roundly thumped at the ballot box.
The long-term benefits of having gone through this challenge were the complete registration of the entire world’s traveling population and a fail-safe viral recognition-technology that follows nearly everyone wherever they are in the developed world, warning them via wrist-bands against the illegality of any imminent meetings that would put them at risk of infection. Quarantine camps all around the Western world now operate to intern those for whom positive tests have revealed them to have subverted the International Pathogen Safety Protocol. A new international agency oversees these camps and a large force of pathogen-marshals makes sure adaptive local protocols are adhered to, with the rule-making-bodies fed by state-of-the-art simulation models.
Though there was much criticism at the time by out-of-touch scientists of how the attention to the new virus lead to tens of millions of deaths via neglected other diseases, new studies since then proved the so-called collateral damage to be the results of the virus itself. After extensive investigation it turned out that the propensity in that period to become a dictatorship was higher in countries with the lowest vaccination rates, proving it was ongoing covid-risk that lead to the new dictatorships. Similarly, the initially claimed higher death tolls of hunger and tuberculosis where eventually proved to be because farmers with covid were less productive and hence produced less food, whilst tuberculosis was found to be more dangerous for those who also had covid. Nobel prizes went to the discoverers of these important insights as they definitively showed the importance of focusing on the coronavirus. It has been estimated hundreds of millions of lives have been saved by its eradication.
In decades following, the rational scientific approach to the coronavirus pandemic came to be seen universally as a triumph of the Enlightenment.
H3: The Dark Path of the Great Panic
The Great Panic of early 2020 cemented the Fremdkörper ideology around the world and lead to the demise of the international system of migration and travel that had ballooned in the decades before. The impoverishment and deteriorating health of the populations that followed was aggravated by a collapse in the birth rate in Western countries, the large-scale destruction of the independent middle-classes, and the instigation of the surveillance state. These consequences combined to create existential panic in the populations of the West.
When Western societies woke up to the enormity of the destruction, internationalism was blamed and ultra-nationalist groups fought on the streets with the internationalist activists of black-lives-matter, extinction-rebellion, and others.
The conflict between internationalism and nationalism that had been simmering for decades grew and grew. The early running was done by the internationalists: armed with anti-nationalist ideologies, the media clout of Big Tech, and the coercive power of the state in many Western countries, they initially managed to successfully push the nationalistic protest movements to the margins of their societies.
However, within a remarkably short time, the increased economic desperation of large sections of the population and the ability of nationalists to have large numbers of sympathisers on the ground turned the tables on the internationalists whose means of communication were increasingly sabotaged, with city-wide internet blackouts increasingly common in many countries. Crucial in the conflict was the inability of the internationalist to gather because of the travel bans and international migration stops.
Partnered to the nationalists, a virulent nativist movement arose that was obsessed with the low birth rate and regarded anything that was not pro-family an existential threat to their culture and population. Forced by popular opinion, state bureaucracies switched sides and started to censor ‘foreign divisive and anti-family content’ on social media. Lists of national values and habits were set up, taught as compulsory subjects in schools and universities. Without a ‘national certificate’ one could not have jobs or access social services in many countries.
The ultra-nationalist movement counted many high-profile homosexuals, ethnic minorities, and religious minorities. The victorious ultra-national movements they belonged to turned the Fremdkörper ideology away from viruses and towards what it termed ‘woke internationalism’ and anything associated with ‘anti-family values’. Re-education camps were set up for the ‘enemy within’, camps in which eventually millions perished. Among the first initial groups sent to the camps were critical race theorists, intersectionality academics, and various groups that came to be seen as inherently anti-family.
List of sympathisers with ‘anti-family’ groups and ‘enemies of the nation’ were harvested from stored copies of Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, WeChat, Instagram, and other social media sites. Special tribunals were set up for young offenders to see whom they had been lead astray by. High profile trials of crimes against humanity were instigated for the leaders of those scientific and media institutions held most responsible for the Great Panic.
The ultra-nationalist movements then turned on ‘radical’ Muslims and on foreign enemies, in particular China. Chinese minorities throughout the West, even if they had lived there more than 150 years, were forced to swear allegiance to ‘national values‘ and denounce the Chinese Communist Party. Large groups of reluctant newer waves of Chinese migrants were deported to China. There were many voices to put them in re-education camps but after several nuclear standoffs with China such plans were abandoned. The identified Muslim minorities who did not swear allegiance and who failed regular checks were not so lucky.
Nowhere did the nativist ultra-nationalist movement get more fanatical than in the US. The Democrats only managed to regain the presidency after the fourth Trump term, with the second one ending in Trump senior giving the reigns to his Vice President, Trump junior. To win the White House, the Democrats promised a total war on China, a green wall with Canada, a ban on the speaking of any language not on an approved-language list, a ban on any executive job being done by someone with less than 2 confirmed children, and a strategic alliance with Russia.
In Africa and some parts of Asia, the disaster of the Great Panic lead to widespread civil wars, a population explosion as education systems crumbled, and a mass-exodus in terms of migrants. The ultra-nationalist movements in the West immediately responded to these migration streams militarily, forcing the migration streams towards neutral countries or poorly border-patrolled countries like Turkey, Iran, the Caucuses, and elsewhere. Eventually, a semblance of order was restored as Western countries and China competed for influence via neo-colonialist projects.
The main longer-term consequence of the Great Panic was thus the victory of ultra-nationalist and nativist movements in the West. It also accelerated the construction of regional internets and the polarisation of world politics into various camps, with the West and China on opposing sides with nearly completely detached economic and political spheres.
Historians disagree on whether the excess death toll of 500 million that eventuated in the 2020-2040 period should be entirely or only fractionally attributed to the Great Panic.
As said before, the first suggested history sounds about right to me at this moment. The second one is basically the history I imagine the medics within the pro-lockdown brigade tell themselves. The third one is the dark road I fear we might be on.
Do add your own scenario in the comment section.