The broad canvas of history bears the texture of periodic disruptions of a global scale, the basis of which human society responds by seeking for transformation towards fitness for relevance. This constant do-overs have been the conduit of historical currents, spanning political, religious, social, and economic aspects. Even the efforts to make sense of the present through the lenses of history is not a new phenomenon. Analyzing Napoleon’s comeback and Bourbon’s expulsion, Friedrich Hegel observed that History had to repeat itself to be taken seriously. For Hegel, the repeat of history confirms that the first occurrence was not merely a matter of chance and contingency, rather real and ratified existence. Karl Marx viewed the repeat of history with cynicism, and therefore added to Hegel’s conclusion, that when history repeats itself, it first comes as a tragedy, and then returns as a farce (or mockery).
Both Hegel and Marx should be given due consideration, if we are to make sense of at least two dramatic events which have occurred so far in the past two decades of this century. These events are the 2008 economic crisis, and the current (Covid-19) pandemic. What is interesting, and perhaps more cynical than what Marx would have anticipated is that both events reveal more than second coming of history. They reflect at the very least, a third coming, and that is if we limit our interest to the past two centuries only. Below I examine a number of parallels of historical re-occurrence of both events broadly within the past 200 years.
The return of global recession and a global pandemic
The occurrence of a global economic recession and a global pandemic at close succession is not unique to the first two decades of 2021. One hundred years ago (1918 to 1922), a world-wide pandemic strikingly similar to Covid-19 occurred. A decade after (1929), world-wide global economic crisis followed. In the last century, the pandemic occurred first, and then the Great Depression followed a decade later. In the current century, these two phenomena have also occurred in close proximity, except in reverse chronology. That is, the world-wide economic recession took place first (2008), and then the pandemic followed (2019). This is of course a mockery in Marxian sense. But even more cynical, if we follow the same Marxian conclusion, a global pandemic and economic catastrophe is not confined to the 20th and 21st century. In the 19th century, economic depression (what economic historians refers to as the first Great Depression) took place in 1819, followed by the second global cholera outbreak a decade later (1829-1837). During the same century, the first cholera outbreak had spread between 1817 and 1824, although it did not so much spread outside of Asia, and therefore not considered global in ant real use of the term ‘global’. The second outbreak was more global and deadly.
The epidemiological return of the Spanish flu
Epidemiologically, if we limit our analysis to the 20th and 21st century, striking parallels on the Spanish flu and the Covid-19 pandemic emerge. Like Covid-19, the Spanish flu was transmitted through airborne respiratory secretions. Due to lack of immunity among the global population, in just three years the Spanish flu had caused estimated death of 25 million people (with some sources placing the casualties at 40–50 million). Due to improved scientific technology and reasonable progress in governments bureaucracies since 1918, the Covid-19 pandemic has so far caused just under 4 million deaths in a year and half.
In the same way governments responded to the Spanish flu outbreak between 1918-1922, during the Covid -19 pandemic (2019 to 2021) governments have responded through quarantines, limiting the use of public transportation, imposed series of lockdowns, and enforced the use of face masks. The Spanish flu mutated to more deadly strains over the course of its spread and overall, the pandemic occurred in three major waves; the exact same modus operandi of Covid-19, at least so far.
The return of conspiracy theories
The spread of global pandemics (more than economic recessions) has been characterized by pseudo-scientific (conspiracy) theories. Covid-19 for example has been associated with 5G technology, and there are serious concerns especially in developing countries that the pandemic is a western biological weapon aimed at achieving de-population in these (developing) countries. Also, several leading politicians and scientists seem to hold the view that the Corona virus escaped from Chinese laboratories. Thus during the recent G7 meeting (June 2021), the US president Joe Biden and the French president Emmanuel Macron have committed to press forward with investigations on the so-called lab leak theory. This is not a new response.
Between 1918 and 1922, a dominant theory suggested that Spanish flu was intentionally manufactured as a biological weapon as part of nationalistic strategies to win the first World War. In this light, the British and the Americans were suspicious of the Germans, whom they accused of using an aspirin manufactured by Bayer (a German pharmaceutical company) to spread the virus. And during the second cholera outbreak in 1829, in Britain at least, doctors were accused of fabricating the cholera epidemic to take patients to hospital, the intention being to kill them for purposes of harvesting their body parts. Also in Britain, it was believed that the pandemic was divine intervention. In Russia, mobs attacked anyone wearing a white overcoat based on the belief that the cholera outbreak was government conspiracy to cull the poor. In France doctors associated cholera with poverty of certain communities or poor environment. The United States believed that the disease was brought to their shores by recent immigrants, specifically the Irish.
The return of casino capitalism
Finally on economic crises, all originating from the United States, the economic depression of 1819, the Great Depression of 1929 and the 2008 economic recession (occurring at almost 100 years intervals) are linked to seismic failure of financial institutions- what Canterbery (2011) called Casino capitalism. This kind of capitalism according to Canterbery promotes monetary circuit where value and profit are not ‘produced’, they are rather a result of speculation. This ideology (of sorts) gives unbridled power to financial institutions, and in their scramble for profit maximization, generate the crises of a global scale, within irregular intervals but nevertheless, periodically.
The return of post pandemic boom?
How then do these historical mockeries help in understanding the economic nature of the decades which will follow the Covid-19 pandemic? First, global pandemics should be expected to recur in the future, on the basis of a range of reasons including climate change and global interconnectivity.
But what should we expect more specifically and immediately?, An article featured in The Economist (April 29th) hypothesised that the world economy is likely to experience a major economic revival, based on past post-pandemic economic trends. The article pointed out that the end of the second cholera outbreak (1837) was a major contributing factor to industrial revolution in France. What do we make of this hypothesis? Review of academic literature suggest that during pandemics, capital is not destroyed (such as during wars for example), it is rather managed differently from ordinary times.
The spread of pandemics tend to induce labour scarcity, and shift to precautionary savings. Governments tends towards drastic reduction of interest rates therefore managing inflation more efficiently. They also provide stimuli packages, injecting more capital to the economy. These macro-economic interventions are bundled with technological interventions related to the pandemic, along with increased global trade of vaccines and medical equipment. The arguments put forward in support of these economic (re)actions are the same reasons put forward during pandemic crises in the past. It is also important to consider that when economic recessions occur at close proximity (such as within a decade) to each other, the global economy benefits from rapid macro-economic responses twice (or more depending on the magnitude of the crises) in a short span of time. This has been the case with the 2008 recession and the current (Covid-19) pandemic. It is therefore reasonable to expect a post-pandemic boom, for the reasons cited above. The World bank post-pandemic economic forecast seems consistent to this analysis. The bank expects the global economy to register 6.4% increase in GDP in 2021. The bank estimates the US economy to grow at 5.9% growth, while the eurozone is expected to reach 5%, the United Kingdom 5.3%, Japan 2.4%, China 9% and India 9.8%.
Notwithstanding, following historical trends, uneven economic recovery should be expected. Developing countries which have participated in pandemic induced trade are likely to post significant growth. China and Malaysia’s recovery for example in part relies on e-commerce, while India’s recovery is linked to manufacture and export of its own vaccine. Low income economies that have relied more on development /health aid (than trade) during the pandemic are likely to lag behind, widening the already existing inequality gaps between these countries and higher income economies. Also, while middle and high income economies provided massive government stimuli to their economies,, low income economies were trapped in cycles of economic lockdowns without meaningful economic recovery interventions. This piecemeal response is likely to drag these economies while those which provided stimuli packages are likely to recover faster.
In sum, the Covid-19 pandemic provides an opportunity for economic boom, as it does for increased inter-national inequalities. The coming post-pandemic cycle of uneven growth and global inequality forms part of the mockery of history.
Jason Musyoka (Ph.D) is a senior researcher at the university of Pretoria. He is also the CEO of The Frontline Group. He writes in his personal capacity.