History teaches us that pandemics do end; but in their wake huge social change can follow.
The Antonine Plague in the second century, thought now to be smallpox , caused the expansion of the Roman Empire to falter; and the Justinian Plague in the sixth century halted the attempt, successful up to that point, to re-establish that empire in the west. The Black Death in the fourteenth century accelerated the dissolution of feudalism and the transition to a wage economy. Recurrences of plague in the seventeenth century heralded the dawn of merchant capitalism and colonial exploitation and then the eventual emergence of the real thing as the Industrial Revolution took off. The assessment by bourgeois economists is that the Influenza Pandemic of 1918 had few social or economic consequences, at least in the developed economies of the day – see link below for a typical assessment – but in its wake the world did, nevertheless, experience the start of the first attempt anywhere to build a socialist economy. Coincidence?
Whether the Covid-19 pandemic will have comparable social consequences remains to be seen. Our rulers are prone to reassure us that, like World War 1, it will be ‘over by Christmas’ – or at least under control thanks to our supposedly “world class test and trace system”. As this system is run Serco and based on call centres, its only conceivable ‘world class’ aspect is its ability to extract revenue from government. But even if the pandemic were to be brought under control by 2021, a prolonged recession appears inevitable and the tools this government is prepared to employ to end it are inadequate: printing money and using it prop up the corporate sector in the hope that they will make the capital investment needed to resuscitate the economy. There is no historical evidence that such a policy will work. What is actually needed is public ownership and massive government investment; but to embark down that road is to risk opening the door to socialism. Lose control of the government after making this investment, however temporary, and it might no longer be possible to shut and bolt the door again. The danger is that our government or its successor will prefer anything to that including war and fascism. Unfortunately, unlike printing money and propping up the corporate sector, these are well tried strategies that have been demonstrated to work – for capital but not, of course, for workers.