As we enter the new year of 2021, kick our fake pine trees to the street curb, and begin the tradition of finding ornament hooks scattered in every tight corner of the house for the next six months, we begin to entertain the thought of what a slow transition to normalcy – that is, life before the Covid-19 pandemic – might resemble. Many across the country have reason to be hopeful – after all, we have several FDA-approved vaccines either in the process of being distributed, or soon-to-be distributed, and we have a new President-elect preparing to take the Oath the Office.
Ordinarily, I come out on this blog and I try to issue commentary on current political affairs to the best of my ability, with wit and obnoxious pop culture references thrown in for good measure. But this week, I wanted instead to try and finally parse out where our country may be going and what it may look like in the years ahead of us, because they say that “history repeats itself”. And if that is actually the case, then all the glib assertions I’ve seen across the internet for the last six months claiming that 2020 has given us the Spanish Flu, the Great Depression, the Civil Rights Movement and eff it, fire and brimstone raining from the sky (because why not) all rolled into one year would indicate massive ramifications for our country down the line.
So can history offer us any sort of comfort as we look to the new year?
First, some context.
In quite the uncanny fashion, the Spanish Flu, which ranged from 1918 to 1920, did not take the world by storm without its share of multiple waves, the closings of schools, places of worship, and other crowded areas such as theaters, practices of social distancing, and yes, even debates about the efficiency of face masks, all not unlike features seen across 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Also like Covid-19, the Spanish Flu led to a disproportionate rate of young adult deaths, alongside the deaths of infants and the elderly, two demographics normally at a higher risk for death from general influenza viruses. To this day, the exact death rate of the Spanish Flu pandemic remains in question, but it is estimated to be as low as 17 million, and as high as 100 million. A great majority of the deaths that befell those infected were caused by complications of bacterial pneumonia.
In spite of its name, the actual birthplace of the Spanish Flu is not even known definitively, although some posit its source as either from the United States, from China, from Britain, or from France. It is theorized that, in the United States anyway, the pandemic’s origins can be traced back to the unsanitary and unhygienic conditions military personnel were living in during World War I; crowded camps and hospitals, as well as instances of malnourishment, provided ample opportunities for the virus to be transmitted. And even after the pandemic’s end, many of those that recovered from infection still were found to suffer from residual and physiological effects.
Because of the safety measures implemented throughout the country to try and curb the spread of the virus, many businesses lost out on profit and revenue. Decades later, extensive review would indicate that areas in the United States that implemented safety measures such as quarantining and social distancing did not suffer extensive adverse effects on their economy, as opposed to areas in the country that either implemented the same measures later, or not at all.
Comparisons between the current economy, and the state of the economy after the Great Depression are less discernible in my opinion, but that still has not stopped many over the last nine months anticipating an inevitable unemployment rate that would rival the United States’ rate of 23% at the height of the fallout (At the time of this writing, the current unemployment rate is projected to be around 6.7% but the numbers of those filing for unemployment have still not stagnated).
The ramifications of the Great Depression, which began at the turn of the 1930’s, were still felt by some all the way up to the beginning of World War II in 1939. International trade, personal income, tax revenue, prices, and profits overall were hit the hardest. Many banks failed in the end, heavy industry temporarily ground to a halt, and rural areas that relied on farming primarily saw crop prices drastically fall, and they experienced droughts.
Efforts from the United States to stimulate the economy included the Hoover Administration’s Emergency Relief and Construction Act, and the Roosevelt Administration’s New Deal programs. However, once the government cut back on New Deal spending around 1938, the depression made a comeback, and the economy shrunk briefly again, thus seemingly indicating a correlation between fiscal stimulus and economic prosperity.
The long-term effects of the Great Depression included a shaken confidence in a capitalist system, as well as demonstrations that Keynesian economics was a fruitful solution to be considered in similar times of economic strife. Along the way, Prohibition was repealed as well, and President Roosevelt at the time would utilize the taxes collected as a result of alcohol sales to further fund the New Deal. The success of the New Deal was a signal to many Americans that the government could be relied on to dig them out of any future economic crisis, rather than solely depend on their neighbors.
So what can the Spanish Flu and the Great Depression hint at, if at all anything, with regards to what we could be potentially staring down throughout 2021?
I can’t look around at what’s occurring currently and what will occur, and then try to sugar-coat it all. Frankly, there’s plenty bad staring us all in the face.
60% of all business closures due to the lockdowns across the country as a response to Covid-19 were determined to be permanent back in September. Three-quarters of a million Americans filed for unemployment the week before Christmas. Individual states are scrambling to gather the money and resources necessary to stave off an eviction crisis that’s been looming over the country for months. And unfortunately, it just seems at the moment that the United States government is nibbling around the edges of an adequate fiscal stimulus, all seemingly in the name of being fiscally responsible. While $600 stimulus checks have been argued to be hardly an adequate amount to keep hordes of Americans from falling below the poverty line, the latest relief bill does extend a federal eviction moratorium, includes billions of dollars for rental aid, and does extend the unemployment benefits for 12 million Americans.
Furthermore, the incoming Biden Administration has not signaled in any way that they are looking at large-scale relief packages in terms of response (in fact Biden seems to have been inadvertently responsible for lowering the overall cost of the latest relief bill).
But on the other hand, I conclude that history can indicate a few promising turn of events as well throughout 2021, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t try to toss out my ten cents on them.
For starters, the world seems initially to be in a much better position to ultimately slow the spread of Covid-19 as opposed to the Spanish Flu because of the development of multiple vaccines being prepared for widespread distribution. What led the Spanish Flu to die out was the mere development of immunity in enough individuals across the planet who did not succumb to the virus.
The Covid-19 pandemic has also long since paved the way for a powerful populist rhetoric, one that can sustain bipartisan support, that aims to improve upon the conditions and livelihoods of working-class Americans to take shape. But it seemed largely unnoticed by the U.S. government until Independent Senator Bernie Sanders and Republican Senator Josh Hawley made the rounds last month advocating fiercely for larger stimulus checks to be sent out to working Americans, and harshly critiquing Congress’ tendency to favor bailing out large corporations and weapons industries over struggling individuals.
In spite of some pushback, the joint effort by Sanders and Hawley, followed by President Trump’s own apparent interest in larger checks, is emblematic of the fact that our government needs to be taking a closer look at helping out blue-collar workers just as much as they want to help out college-educated civilians. Currently, there’s been more rhetoric in Congress concerning the alleviation of federal student debt – a move that would only help roughly a third of all Americans if it came to fruition – than there has been at bailing out workers and homeowners, many of which are without college degrees.
Rigid support for populist ideology has always found a platform to make its case to the masses in the wake of economic downturn. As mentioned above, the Great Depression challenged in many ways the integrity of capitalism, and even as far back as the Civil War, subsequent discussions about monetary policy gave rise to such ideology, the Farmers’ movement, and eventually, the People’s Party.
My own support for the Movement for a People’s Party, slowly but surely gaining traction, has not especially been made secret, but it’s also worth it to point out that the movement’s ambition to become certified in all 50 states by the time of the 2024 election is not unprecedented when more and more individuals across the country continue to be filled with utter vexation that their government evidently is more prioritized with ensuring that the defense firms and airline industries receive their fair share of bailouts before day-to-day Americans do.
During the Spanish Flu pandemic, many reports and papers, and even President Wilson at the time, made efforts to downplay the severity of the crisis. Disinformation and conflicting accounts from both the U.S. government and public health officials during the Covid-19 pandemic have bred a similar atmosphere of distrust and uncertainty when it comes to how we should be conducting ourselves as a nation in this moment. However, as opposed to the landscape of 1918, we are privileged to be in an age of digital media and streaming that has given rise to a huge boom of independent media and podcasts, many of which feel obliged immediately to try and parse out current events as they are in real time, rather than tow the line and push a specific type of narrative for the sake of bottom line.
Audience counts for political commentators that have taken to YouTube or Spotify continue to grow, and overall, Americans’ views that mainstream media networks are influenced by large corporations have not been diminished even throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.
Finally, as we begin the 2020’s, it should be noted that as vaccines continue to be rolled out and as case counts of Covid-19 hopefully begin to decline throughout 2021, a similar phenomenon to the Roarin’ 20’s may also be underway. The Roarin’ 20’s came on the heels of the end of the Spanish Flu, and soon, there was industrial growth, and accelerated customer demand as more and more Americans became content with participating in being a factor of a broader community.
A pent-up urge to splurge on binge-shopping looks likely to be released from those who have stockpiled on savings, social interactions will once again be sought out with glee, and hey, if there’s even a chance orgies make a comeback, who’s going to object to that?
Make no mistake, there was a lot to recoil at with disgust and horror in 2020, and I wished as much as the next guy that Covid-19 would turn out to be just as much an over-exaggeration as the “murder hornets” (is Cleveland still taking suggestions for a new team name?).
But if we’re going to constantly bemoan the fact that 2020 gave us some of the worst aspects of history all rolled into one year, then it also makes sense that we look to 2021 with the hope that it will give us some of the most worthwhile aspects found at the tail-end of previous crises.
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