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Covid isn’t the end An elegy to vanished kingdoms shows this is not how civilisations collapse

After the pandemic, we all need some perspective (Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images)

After the pandemic, we all need some perspective (Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images)


August 11, 2021   5 mins

The world is always coming to an end, for someone. “Never morning wore to evening but some heart did break,” as Lord Tennyson elegantly put it. People die every day, from illnesses and accidents. Ambulances and fire engines are forever on their way to some life-shattering emergency; the police are eternally ringing someone’s doorbell to give bad news. The news websites’ pandemic death toll tickers have made it impossible to forget, but the fact is not new.

As in personal life, so too in business and civil society. Each year hundreds of thousands of businesses cease trading. In 2019, even before the pandemic, there were 336,000 business “deaths” — 11% of all British businesses. Factories and workshops close, while industries decline and sometimes vanish completely. Once-vibrant clubs and churches gradually dwindle.

Even at the level of states and governments, nothing lasts forever. Countries and languages and whole peoples disappear with tragic regularity. Over lockdown, I read Norman Davies’ Vanished Kingdoms, a series of elegies for various European states, or statelets, that are no more. Some are widely known, like the Soviet Union or the Byzantine Empire. Others are much less celebrated, even among history buffs. Davies includes a chapter dealing with the Visigothic state that existed in eastern France in the century after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. It lasted less than a century before being subsumed into the Kingdom of the Franks. But perhaps his most obscure case study is the Republic of Rusyn, a short-lived attempt by Carpatho-Ukrainians to carve out an independent nation from the ruins of Czechoslovakia, as it was being dismembered by Nazi Germany, Hungary and Poland in March 1939.

As I read about these statelets struggling to survive, Covid-19 was causing human suffering and misery on a massive scale — not simply deaths, but strain on medical staff, family separations and ongoing disruption to normal life and health system operation. The Government and the health service were making serious and repeated mistakes. Vital organs of the state were hesitant and sclerotic, highly susceptible to groupthink. It was easy to think: this is how a nation collapses.

Indeed, there has been a widespread sense that we are in the midst of an epoch-defining event, that the world has changed irrevocably, that we must re-examine our assumptions about numerous aspects of modern life. The giant consulting firm McKinsey produced a report called “The future of work after Covid-19”, while its rival EY issued one focusing on the changes to globalised supply chains. The Economics Observatory asked “What is the future of commuting?” The Centre For Cities think tank investigated whether cities themselves have a future anymore.

But Vanished Kingdoms — I hesitate to use the dread phrase “putting in perspective”, because that sounds glib — made me reflect on what it takes, really, to destroy a way of life. Not to trivialise people’s grim experiences, but when you read about, say, the Russian invasion of East Prussia in the last year of the Second World War — invasion is almost too antiseptic a word; destruction would meet the case — it does inevitably offer a new baseline for the consideration of terrible events.

Obviously, its’s little or no comfort to someone who has lost a family member to Covid — or a job or a home — that it could be worse: they could be living in a chaotic post-Roman kingdom menaced by enemies on all sides. But when we come to reflect on the specific political-historical-civilisational questions raised by the pandemic — the future of work, of the health service, of global trade — it’s important to have some kind of benchmark. Particularly because, in the modern West, there is a prevailing sense that we have little to learn from history, because we are so advanced. My generation grew up during the 1990s “holiday from history”, when the power of liberal democracy was unchallenged and its future seemingly secure. No wonder Covid-19 feels like the end of the world.

But one very obvious lesson of history is that we are fortunate, even during a plague, to live in Europe in the early twenty-first century. We are lucky to have strong nation-states, able and willing to look after their people, and well-established norms of diplomacy and international co-operation. However badly her Majesty’s Government has failed in its responsibilities, the nation has not yet been annexed by neighbouring powers, as happened to the venerable Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the late eighteenth century, weakened by infighting and loss of trust in government.

That said, it is worth noting that Davies, writing in 2011, does argue that the United Kingdom in its current form is not long for this world — mainly because of the loss of confidence in the shared beliefs and institutions that held its four nations together: Crown, Empire, and Protestant Christianity.

Covid, by itself, is not going to bring an end to the largely orderly and peaceable Europe of 2021, in the way that — for example — the World Wars were catastrophic for so many of the peoples of central and eastern Europe featured in Vanished Kingdoms. The disease remains a serious problem, but most continental nations have now reached high levels of double vaccination — and cut their death rates accordingly. Seven European nations were added to the British government green list over the weekend, meaning that travellers from them do not need to quarantine. The suggestion by UnHerd’s Ed West, at the very start of the pandemic, that the long-term consequences might not be very severe, now seems very prescient.

Possibly, of course, I am too optimistic. One of Davies’ subjects is the Byzantine Empire, which endured for more than a thousand years, but whose long-term fortunes were seriously affected by recurring outbreaks of plague from the sixth to the eighth centuries. Those plagues, of course, were much deadlier than Covid-19, and spread through populations without access to modern medicine; but perhaps the pessimists are right that we can expect more globalised outbreaks of serious disease. It is entirely possible that not all such diseases will be as treatable and relatively non-deadly as our current foe.

And optimism can be dangerous if it tips into arrogance. Vanished Kingdoms carries a dedication to i’r anghofiedig, a Welsh phrase which Davies translates loosely as “those whom historians tend to forget”. He explicitly frames the book as dealing with our collective tendency to absent-mindedness, our complacency in looking back on our ancestors.

It has been argued that some of the misjudgements made by the British public health establishment in the early weeks and months of the pandemic stemmed from a kind of instinctive resistance among highly educated, high-status people to solutions that were redolent of historical responses to disease outbreaks. Why did it take so long to impose any kind of meaningful border restrictions? Why did it take the best part of a year for masking and good ventilation, rather than mostly pointless hand-washing and surface cleaning, to be strongly prioritised in advice to the public and to hospitals, schools and shops?

The answer to these questions, perhaps, is that closing the borders and emphasising the importance of fresh, clean air sounded too simple to be true. It’s what people did in the age of the plague — when our allegedly simple-minded forebears still believed in dirty foreigners, miasma theory and bodily humours — so it must be rejected by sophisticated moderns. As the great Theodore Dalrymple has noted, intellectuals are incentivised to avoid obvious conclusions, because their status depends on the elucidation of non-obvious truths. And liberal modernity encourages us to throw out the baby with the bathwater: to reject the wisdom of past ages, as well as the unscientific mistakes and prejudices.

Davies would, I fancy, dislike such disdain, even if held unconsciously or instinctively. He is a humane writer, concerned not with ideology, but with truth and historical drama — and with helping us know what the past was really like. At a time when the public square is full of rancour and misinformation, inflamed by people’s understandable fears and concerns about the spread of disease and the undoubted, if unavoidable, downsides of our chosen anti-Covid strategies, his proposal is tempting. We must focus on the lessons of history, and so prioritise truth and fact — and proportion.


Niall Gooch is a public sector worker and occasional writer who lives in Kent.

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Alka Hughes-Hallett
AH
Alka Hughes-Hallett
2 years ago

Covid is NOT a plague by any stretch of imagination. Even if some hundred average healthy individuals die, it cannot be categorised as plague. In the context of 7b, it’s not even a ripple of a plague. That’s why there was no need for border control as initially the government was thinking sensibly. Then they fell to pressure and group think. Then it got worse with masks and hand washing.

Historically germs have taken some toll on life but somehow Covid was earmarked as remarkable & worthy of panic. It was just a bit different, not remarkable. Even if it would have taken more people than it purportedly has. Germs are more our friends than enemies. The war on Covid has encouraged us to to remove our friendlies by constant hand cleaning and masking. That is where the long term danger lies. This conditioning will surely have far worse consequences on population and its mindset than Covid.

However we are in a better place than many other nations. I agree.
‘But one very obvious lesson of history is that we are fortunate, even during a plague, to live in Europe in the early twenty-first century‘

In my mind the mistake was to play this drama to the media/mob’s satisfaction. In accepting mistakes( if this lab grown)and some related deaths, we can learn, grow and move forward. In clouding our thinking with denials, panic and judgemental reporting, there is no hope for learning lessons, truth and proportion.

Bob Bobbington
Bob Bobbington
2 years ago

I am increasingly of the view that the media is a malignant influence on politics. On every issue about which I have a reasonable level of knowledge or which I bother to research properly, the media narrative is invariably wildly inaccurate and hinders sensible debate and policy-making.

Matt M
MM
Matt M
2 years ago
Reply to  Bob Bobbington

For a few weeks in Jan and Feb 2020 Boris and Dom Cummings were on to something. Stop playing the journalists “narrative” games by refusing to put ministers up for interviews which they knew would be aggressive and bypass the media outlets with online “People’s PMQs”. They understood a) Lots of high profile journalists wanted revenge for Brexit and would never give them a fair hearing, and b) all outlets are more interested in creating drama than reporting news. Getting involved with that circus was counterproductive. Unfortunately Covid came along and sunk this plan.

Sue Whorton
SW
Sue Whorton
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt M

At the beginning of the briefing, Johnson tried to get the journalists to disseminate accurate information. They insisted on playing gotcha.

Alan Thorpe
AT
Alan Thorpe
2 years ago
Reply to  Bob Bobbington

It doesn’t say much for the quality of our MPs and that is the real problem not the media. Plus of course the electorate is easily influence by all forms of the media.

Galeti Tavas
VS
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  Bob Bobbington

The West as the world knew it is in a War for its very existence. The enemy of the amazingly enlightened, free, intellectual, productive, West are:

MSM, Social Media, The Education industry, the Entertainment industry, the Global Elites, all the Political parties on the Left, all the petty elected hard left bureaucrats, the Marxist CRT< BLM and their ilk, (even centrist left like UK Conservatives) – and they are winning.

David B
DB
David B
2 years ago
Reply to  Bob Bobbington

It’s worth looking up the Michael Crichton-coined Gell-Mann amnesia in relation to this phenomenon.

Galeti Tavas
VS
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

I never could discover the point of the article above, or what is was going on about, but it misses Entirely what the deal is:

This is not a plague, but a new thing, a ‘Plandemic’. Covid its self gave zero reason to lockdown, well. maybe 6 weeks to flatten the sombrero to make folk happier, but this was entirely a LOCKDOWN disaster, not a viral one.

The Puppet Biden just had his minions vote in 3.5$ Trillion, on top of 1.5$ Trillion (basically the normal entire year’s budget for USA, and that including huge deficit spending as usual) of insane spending which is pretty much all destructive to freedom, to poor people, middle class people, everyone but the extremely wealthy – it loads them up with swag beyond their greediest dreams of avarice. For the rest it devalues the Dollar, and by the stealth tax of inflation eats everyone’s savings.

Biden is out to destroy the West, much like the Bolsheviks did to Imperial Russia to usher in the age of terror and misery we called the USSR.

COVID was their Tool to do this! The locking up of the production, paying the now unproductive to sit at home consuming Chinese goods rather than making their own stuff – and paying every kind of insanity, keeping interest zero, ruining the national debt to 123% GDP, to 30 Trillion wile destroying the bond market and inflating equities to stratosphere levels – destroying the education, the pensions, the companies, allowing open borders to let illegals take all the jobs from the unskilled

This covid response has nothing to do with health – it is to destroy the West so it can become Communist/Lite, and Nu-Feudalism can become the New World Order (You will own nothing, you will be vaccinated and tattooed to prove it (every 6 months a booster) and you will get UBI of poverty, and you will like it. Or else, as C Schwab said)

andrew harman
AH
andrew harman
2 years ago

Nobody except the most deranged doomsday eschatological cultists ever saw this as civilisation threatening anyway.

Matt M
MM
Matt M
2 years ago
Reply to  andrew harman

True!

Galeti Tavas
VS
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  andrew harman

I know-it was like if the Titanic was sailing mid Atlantic and someone thought they saw an iceberg so they put the old and inferm into the lifeboats, scuttled the ship, and let everyone drown – just to be on the safe side.

Mark Goodhand
MG
Mark Goodhand
2 years ago

Why did it take the best part of a year for masking and good ventilation, rather than mostly pointless hand-washing and surface cleaning, to be strongly prioritised in advice to the public and to hospitals, schools and shops?

The answer to these questions, perhaps, is that closing the borders and emphasising the importance of fresh, clean air sounded too simple to be true.

Sorry, but that’s obvious nonsense.
How can “hand-washing and surface cleaning” be considered brilliantly novel, while “fresh, clean air” is “too simple to be true”?
They’re all simple, low-cost measures, and sensible.
What’s not sensible is propaganda out of all proportion to the threat we face, enforced mask-wearing, enforced business & school closures, and our slide towards a “papers please” society that shuns and shames those who are sceptical of radical new medical treatments that were sanctioned by emergency authorisation and are now pushed upon those who are at very low risk from the disease.

Nicholas Taylor
NT
Nicholas Taylor
2 years ago
Reply to  Mark Goodhand

Governments do what they perceive as possible for them to do, but it isn’t always what is needed. The problem is not that they lean towards these totalitarian ‘solutions’, but that they enact them unexamined, and do not honestly evaluate the results. As an exercise, compare the shape of the ‘wave’ centred on January with the current one (eg from WHO web site). A lot has changed since then, but not the way the disease progresses apparently.

Galeti Tavas
VS
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

The governments did this under instruction of their owners, the Global elites, to wreck the Western economy.

Nicholas Taylor
NT
Nicholas Taylor
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Not another throwaway conspiracy theory please! Let’s have a serious conversation.

Katharine Eyre
KE
Katharine Eyre
2 years ago

Another worthy mention in the pantheon of polities come and gone is the Western Ukrainian People’s Republic, which was a neighbour to the Lemko Republic. It existed from November 1918 to July 1919 as the collapse of the Habsburg Empire kicked up all kinds of new possibilities. A really fascinating bit of history. If you lived in a town like Drohobycz (in modern-day Ukraine) – it’s quite dizzying to think of the number of different polities and identities you have been a part of in the last 120 years.

Last edited 2 years ago by Katharine Eyre
Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
2 years ago

I read that book several years ago. For some reason the republic of Rusyn that lasted a single day in 1939 looms large in my memory.

Andrew Horsman
Andrew Horsman
2 years ago

Why did it take the best part of a year for masking to be prioritised in public health advice? Because that’s how long it took the global cabal to bully decent intelligent health professionals into going along with nonsensical measures that never featured in pandemic planning before 2020, and which are obviously designed to maintain elevated levels of fear and anxiety in the general public as part of their attempted coup.
Seriously, Mr Gooch, please do some basic research on this – maybe then you’ll think twice before adding to this grotesque narrative of fear and dependency.

Alan Thorpe
Alan Thorpe
2 years ago

I doubt that when China and Japan closed their borders to trade and isolated themselves from the rest of the world that they expected the resulting outcome. It didn’t destroy their civilisation, but it did nothing for it. Equally, today’s politicians only see positives coming for policies design to control CO2 which will not have the slightest effect on the climate, but it will have a major impact on costs and energy reliability. China, this time will be the successful civilisation and may well become the dominant world power. Times are changing.

Edward De Beukelaer
EB
Edward De Beukelaer
2 years ago

Interesting piece but the writer makes the common mistake saying that covid was the pandemic…. I propose that it is the response of the politicians/press/etc that was the pandemic, much more than the virus…