It’s long been a staple image of science fiction: the people of the world finally unite under the shadow of an alien invasion or a global catastrophe, the entire international population attending to local broadcasts while the same historic news is relayed in their native English, Mandarin, Spanish, Russian, or Swahili. At the climax of 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still, for example, the extraterrestrial visitor Klaatu (Michael Rennie) warns his planetary audience that if their warlike ways are not abandoned, “this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder. … Join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration.” Properly chastened, the assembled billions are left with a momentous choice.
In recent years, the closest we have come to such a collective accord, or scare, on this Earth of ours may have been the COVID pandemic of 2020–22. As various governments and leaders have declared that the worst phase of the danger has now passed, we can begin to make a tentative appraisal of how the crisis will be seen by history. Of course, new evaluations of the Great Depression, the Black Death, and the Roman Empire are still emerging today, and any verdict on the pandemic may likewise defer to the inexorable passage of time. Nevertheless, a few early reflections can be offered now.
According to the World Health Organization, as of November 2022, over 600 million people have been infected by COVID-19 and over 6.5 million have died from it. This is a mortality rate well below that of the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic, which killed an estimated 50 million people, but the numbers are still significant in a later age where a lot of us had become complacent about modern medicine’s supposed conquest of serious contagious disease. The 1918 outbreak, moreover, came at the end of a cataclysmic war wherein many established beliefs, and millions of lives, had already been lost; the 2020 COVID disaster did not have a prologue of the same scale. Instead its enduring legacies may lie not in the final death toll—though that is bad enough—but in the measures implemented to limit the casualties, and in our responses to the measures themselves.
For many of us, the pandemic represented the greatest mobilization of state resources and power toward a single purpose that we have witnessed in our lifetimes. The nearest analogy may be the mass coordination of private and public activity during World War II. In the victorious Allied nations, at least, the massive economic, political, and military war effort was worth it: genocidal fascism was defeated, occupying armies were driven out of the countries they’d invaded, and the leadership structures of the aggressor regimes were completely destroyed and replaced. People who lived through the war, as soldiers or civilians, recall it as the defining experience of their lives, in which several years were dominated by news of advances and setbacks on the battlefield, loyal gestures of support on the home front, and the latest fateful decisions of politicians and experts. The children of 1944, who are the elderly of today, might have thought World War II was an ongoing thing rather than a unique event; talk-show host Dick Cavett, born in 1936, once reminisced, “I assumed that the war was a constant condition, and that I and everyone around me would eventually grow up and go off to fight on Iwo Jima.” A similar sense of the COVID pandemic may have been inculcated in kids born in 2016.
Yet other comparisons are telling. The Second World War lasted six years, during which countless grand and small policies were devised, and countless trillions of dollars were spent, to win it. Since 1945 and in subsequent decades, observers have contrasted the contemporary reports of the conflict’s progress with information since gleaned from hindsight that suggests some of the policies were ill-advised and many of the dollars were wasted. Celebrated turning points hailed by Allied propaganda, like the Battles of Midway or El Alamein (1942) or Stalingrad (1943), were still followed by years of suffering and death, and the enormous Anglo-American bombing campaign against Germany (1942–45) has been criticized as a misallocation of manpower and resources that had less effect on the Nazi war machine (and at a greater cost in civilian and aircrew lives) than its planners predicted. Numerous shortsighted diplomatic maneuvers, tactical blunders, and inadequate weapons could also be named, whatever patriotic leaders and a compliant press might have argued to justify them at the time. No one contends that the Allied military commanders—or the frontline fighting men—weren’t dedicated to the cause of victory, but what we know now indicates that even some of their most ambitious operations and heroic sacrifices may not have been worth the results.
So too over the last couple of years: the sealed borders, the stop-start shutdowns of businesses, schools, and offices, the enforcement of social distancing and masking regimes, and the sprawling vaccination programs and public expenditures, have all been cited as crucial to our eventual triumph over an unprecedented threat. But then, the same was said about the Canadian Army’s casualty-strewn raid on German-occupied Dieppe in 1942, the forced evacuations and internments of American and Canadian citizens of Japanese origin, the bloody Allied slog through the rugged defenses of Italy, the aerial apocalypses visited upon Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, and the postwar heel of Joseph Stalin’s USSR across eastern Europe. Subsequent scholarly study has raised serious doubts about their strategic value, their long-term geopolitical consequences, and their very morality. Even after a gratifying conclusion, we’ve critically reassessed the decisions of the politicians and the generals, we’ve weighed the war’s effects on our economy and our society, and we’ve wondered if we might have won sooner, better, or if we might have prevented the war to begin with. In coming years, we may be asking the same sorts of questions about this very different calamity, managed and mismanaged by a different set of authorities, which has shattered another generation and which will leave its own lasting scars on all of us.
A second broad outcome of the COVID pandemic is reflected in our politics—not just in specific debates between specific leaders over how best to deal with the virus, but in general ideas of what rebellion and acquiescence represent. For a long time, society’s default sympathies tended towards the former impulse: towards icons of resistance like Rosa Parks and Nelson Mandela, literary characters like Winston Smith, Captain Yossarian, or Randle P. McMurphy, and memorable figures across popular culture, from Elvis Presley, James Dean, and Marlon Brando to Hawkeye Pierce, the Prisoner, and Thelma and Louise. Today, however, the prevailing messages have been weirdly and abruptly reversed, with reflexive vilification of the stubborn dissenter who won’t go along with the program and glib approval of the dutiful conformist who does whatever he’s told. Since 2020, millions of us have been caught up in the cheery let’s-do-our-part willingness to submit to the demands of a monolithic officialdom, up to and including mandatory vaccinations and the sharing of personal health data. But weren’t we all the same people disturbed by the post-9/11 rise of the national security apparatus and the “phantoms of lost liberty” dismissed by US Attorney General John Ashcroft? Wasn’t there an earlier time when we worried about invasions of privacy, suppressed opposition, submissive media, and open-ended government powers invoked in the name of battling a mysterious emergency? Where are Winston Smith and the Prisoner now?
This inconsistency in the popular reactions to comparable programs—big, costly bureaucratic structures built in answer to single extraordinary issues, into which we all get dragged one way or another—has aggravated the social fragmentation that previously splintered around even ordinary questions of taxes or spending cuts. Both the War on Terror and the daily routines of COVID protocols have become templates for other mass displays of solidarity: hanging flags, modifying online avatars, wearing appropriately colored shirts on special days, and so on. At the same time, these displays can be just as adamantly rejected by outsiders: peace protesters, anti-vaxxers, truck blockaders, and anyone suspicious of what they perceive to be merely convenient “narratives” that justify stepped-up government intrusion or private obedience. The result is a deepening polarization between conspiracism and scientism, between paranoia and trust, between the celebrity of public-health officers to some and the same officers’ infamy to others. For every Important Cause we’re expected to be aware of and sign up for, a mushrooming backlash of conscientious objectors (some more conscientious than others) has arisen to counter it. Whether premised on systemic racism, rape culture, climate change, Islamic fundamentalism, disinformation, voter fraud, or viral variants, the politics of alarm have led to a constant atmosphere of both fear-mongering, and fear-mongering about fear-mongering. The pandemic has just been the latest of many topics that divide citizens into either believers or deniers.
Of course, these are all abstract considerations. COVID-19 was a real problem that afflicted and killed many people. Defenders have argued that the directives we’ve been ordered to follow turned what might have become a huge die-off into a much lesser one; they may have been inconvenient, but they were a necessary price to pay for maintaining a semblance of the society—the economies, the networks, the educational, health, and public administration systems—to which we’re all accustomed. In late 2019 and early 2020, there were murmurs of civilization collapsing into a Mad Max- or Terminator-like anarchy as the virus spread around the world. By those dystopian standards, at least, we’ve actually emerged from the pandemic in pretty good shape. It turns out that we are collectively less dependent on the benevolence of a few distant overlords who control everything, and who can let everything break down if they choose, and more dependent on the interconnectedness among ordinary families, neighbors, workers, employers, students, and, yes, doctors, nurses, and politicians, who all have an equal stake in one another’s wellbeing. COVID-19, perhaps, did not cause civilization to collapse, it caused civilization to kick in.
And yet. It will be some time, if ever, before there is a broad consensus on the continuing impact of the way we sought to contain the pandemic. For all the satisfaction taken in how comprehensively the shots were dispensed and the rules observed, there is little comfort to be had from reflecting on what supposedly didn’t happen. Maybe humanity defeated a potentially devastating plague with relatively modest losses, or maybe the greater devastation has come from the victory itself. Will we look back on the shared challenge met, or on the individual deprivations suffered? How have obligatory vaccine passports, telework, virtual schools, and a farrago of often conflicting restrictions and guidelines bettered our lives? Who’s in charge, and what next might they ask of us, for what outside crisis, now that we’ve already proved so amenable? What, exactly, are the acceptable tradeoffs between freedom and security, and how will we negotiate them in the future? Will there be a pandemic nostalgia, the way there is for depressions and wars?
The time lost to lockdown; the quarantining of the elderly away from their children and grandchildren; the involuntary isolation of homebound parents and partners together; the removal of staff and students from worksites and classrooms; the resigned shows of phones or papers at any official request; the eerily emptied streets; the moving off sidewalks to avoid oncoming strangers; the one-way directional arrows guiding us down the grocery store aisles; the sudden importance of toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and screens; the universal covering of faces by adults, teens, and toddlers, all seeing nothing but each other’s frightened eyes warily peering out over the masks that may or may not have been preventing more illness and death—whatever history is written down, those will be many people’s deepest memories of facing obliteration during this burned-out cinder of an era, of the days, weeks, months, and years when the Earth stood still.