A crisis is a moment of reflection in the life of a community. The response to a challenge is as important as the summons itself. In the case of Covid-19, the crisis is the most profound in living memory. Like a neutron bomb, it destroys people but not the physical infrastructure. It prowls unseen, and the threat of contagion pushes people apart. No less important, it undermines accustomed models of normality, the ‘common sense’ of an era, and breaks boundaries that had hitherto been sacrosanct, writes Richard Sakwa, Professor of Russian and European Politics at the University of Kent.
Before looking forward, it makes sense to look back. The Black Death in Europe in the mid-fourteenth century is estimated to have caused between 75 and 200 million deaths, and was the first great pandemic of what was becoming the modern era. It accelerated shifts in social structure and power relations, as labour became scarce and the bargaining power of workers increased. The most recent great pandemic was the Spanish flu of 2018-19, coming after the greatest war hitherto known to humanity. It showed human vulnerability in times of mobilisation and disruption.
Since then, population densities have greatly increased and interaction between man and nature has become ever more intense and invasive. The thin skein that separates humanity from animal pathogens appears to have become increasingly permeable. This outbreak of the coronavirus was first identified in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019, but what makes it worse is that there have been several serious warnings. This was not a ‘black swan’ event, an unpredictable occurrence with major consequences, but something that was long anticipated. It is what is called a ‘grey rhino’, a massive event that was both predictable and predicted. While HIV, Ebola and SARS in the end were contained, the H1N1 flu virus killed nearly 20,000 people.
These biological manifestations of global precarity were only just one manifestation of a global risk society. Nuclear power accidents such as Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima Daiichi, strategic and tactical nuclear confrontation, the onset of the era of hypersonic weapons, the militarisation of space and the Arctic, and above all, the climate catastrophe. These raise three types of questions: the dangers of runaway technological hubris; the shadow of war; and the anthropogenic impact on nature.