We are living in a moment of incredible change. On Sunday evening, South African president Cyril Ramaphosa announced strong action to prevent the spreading of Covid-19, the coronavirus that is spreading rapidly across the globe. Our borders are closing, Stellenbosch University announced that all classes will move online, and from today I am self-isolating (surely the word of 2020!) at home — for at least the foreseeable future.
Much has been written about its causes and ways to mitigate its proliferation by people much smarter than me. I really enjoyed this piece by Christoforos Anagnostopoulos, Honorary Senior Lecturer at Imperial College London (and wrongly attributed to Discovery CEO Adrian Gore). For the most recent information on the global spread, visit the Covid-19 website of the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University. #EskomSePush app in South Africa now also displays news about Corona.
I am, though, more interested in its consequences. We do not know how far and wide the disease will spread, how prolonged or severe it will be, nor how soon an effective treatment will arrive (Australian doctors announced a potential cure this morning), so predictions are, at best, nothing more than mere guesstimates. What we do know is that global markets have tumbled. Just in the last few weeks the Johannesburg Stock Exchange has fallen from above 55 000 points to below 40 000. The tourism industry has come to a complete stop. Regions like the Western Cape, and many small, developing economies, will suffer as a result. Production will be affected as factories close and trade comes to a standstill. Jobs, especially for the most vulnerable who cannot work from home, will be affected. A severe, although short-lived, recession seems very likely.
On the other hand, some sectors might prosper. As people shift work from the office to the home, online communication tools will become hot commodities. Home deliveries and online retail will continue its upward trend. In a world with fewer social interactions, social media, online gaming and online networks, like Netflix, will become more popular.
As economic historian, I tend to approach these questions with a long-term lens. It is not easy, especially when the news cycle is reduced to minutes. But history does give us some pointers about the likely consequences. My own work related to disease has predominantly focused on the Spanish flu of 1918. For the last three years, I have employed a team of transcribers to record the deaths in small Western Cape towns between 1915 and 1920. I will soon write a summary of these very preliminary results. The Spanish flu, of course, was not the same as Covid-19. Although a nasty strain of flu virus swept around the world in 1918, it was bacterial pneumonia that came on the heels of the mostly mild cases of flu that killed the majority of the estimated 40 million people who died. Far more children were affected by the Spanish flu, for example, than is the case for Covid-19. Information spreads much faster today than information did in 1918: often the Spanish flu would arrive faster than news about it. And there is a global community of scientists working hard at effective prevention and cure.
What I do know is that historians have only limited records of people’s experiences of the 1918 disease. Often these are from official sources or from what we can gather from newspapers. (Howard Phillips has written an excellent book about this: In a Time of Plague: Memories of the ‘Spanish’ Flu Epidemic of 1918 in South Africa, Cape Town: Van Riebeeck Society, 2018.) So here is a suggestion: Begin a daily journal. I have instructed my second-year class – now that they have to stay at home – to write about what they do, what do not do, what they see, what they read, what they think. But perhaps more of us should do this, at least for the next four weeks, or however long the disease lasts. I hope to collate my students’ experiences, using text analysis, into something that might tell us about the lived experience of the pandemic. Who knows, their daily diaries, aggregated, may become an invaluable resource for future historians!
Be safe, be wise, be fit and be an introvert.