Over a year since the coronavirus pandemic has transformed the world, and with increasing news of public reopening in various locales, it’s possible to speculate on how history will judge the disaster, and what we made of it. More than the War on Drugs or the War on Terror, perhaps even more than the Cold War, the governmental and social responses to the crisis represent the greatest mobilization of popular will and state power since the Second World War – and the parallels are instructive.
World War II lasted six years, and it cost tens of millions of lives and trillions of dollars to defeat genocidal fascism. While the destruction of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were certainly a net benefit to humanity, ever since 1945 historians have been debating whether the conflict might have been more effectively waged, or put off altogether. Celebrated turning points hailed by contemporary 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 (1942-1945) has been criticized as a vast misallocation of manpower and resources that had less effect on the Nazi war machine (at a greater cost in civilian and aircrew lives) than its planners predicted. Numerous shortsighted diplomatic policies, battlefield 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 genuinely dedicated to the cause of victory, but hindsight suggests that even some of their most ambitious operations and their most heroic sacrifices may not have been worth the results.
Will we look back on the global pandemic of 2020-2021 the same way? The sealed borders, the stop-start lockdowns of businesses, schools, and workplaces, the enforcement of social distancing and mask regimes, the massive vaccination programs, the huge public expenditures, the constant messages to “do your part” and “trust the science,” and the sweeping moral and political upheavals, 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 internments of American and Canadian citizens of Japanese origin, the bloody Allied slog through the rugged defences of Italy, the aerial levelings of Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the postwar heel of Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union across eastern Europe. Maybe they all contributed, in some way, to the war effort; maybe no one had any better ideas; maybe they were inevitable. Yet scholarly study in subsequent decades has raised serious doubts about their strategic value and their geopolitical legacy. We won in the end, yes: that’s the important thing. Afterwards, though, we’ve critically reassessed the decisions of the politicians and the generals, we’ve weighed the war’s long-term impact on our economy and our society, and we’ve rightly wondered if we might have won sooner, better, or if we might have prevented the war to begin with. In time we may be asking the same sorts of questions about this very different catastrophe, 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. At least, we should.