Analysis & Opinions - Financial Times

COVID-19 Looks Like a Hinge in History

| May 14, 2020

The pandemic will be remembered alongside 1914 Archduke assassination and 1938 Munich Conference.

The Covid-19 crisis is the third major shock to the global system in the 21st century, following the 2001 terror attacks and the 2008 financial crisis. I suspect it is by far the most significant.

Although the earlier events will figure in history textbooks, both 9/11 and the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy will fade over time from popular memory.

By contrast, I believe, the coronavirus crisis will still be considered a seminal event generations from now. Students of the future will learn of its direct effects and of the questions it brings into sharp relief much as those of today learn about the 1914 assassination of the Archduke, the 1929 stock market crash, or the 1938 Munich Conference. These events were significant but their ultimate historical importance lies in what followed.

This crisis is a massive global event in terms of its impact. Take an American perspective. Almost certainly more Americans will die of Covid-19 than have died in all the military conflicts of the past 70 years. Some respectable projections suggest that more may die than in all the wars of the 20th century. This spring’s job losses have come at a far faster rate than at any point in history and many forecasters believe that unemployment will be above its post-Depression high for two years. As I write this from a small town I have not left in two months, I suspect that no event since the civil war has so dramatically changed the lives of so many families.

A month ago it would have been reasonable to suppose that the deaths, the economic losses and the social disruption would be transitory. This looks much less plausible today. The US has given its best shot (though certainly not the best possible shot) at locking down for two months now and it has not brought daily fatalities below 1,000 a day. Much of the country is now letting up isolation policies. Similar things are happening in much of Europe and new outbreaks have been reported in success-story countries including Singapore, South Korea and Germany. It now looks very plausible that there will not be an enduring improvement on the current situation in the west.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Summers, Lawrence.“COVID-19 Looks Like a Hinge in History.” Financial Times, May 14, 2020.

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