History Working Paper 2020-1
ABSTRACT: It has become a commonplace among beleaguered leaders seeking to rally popular support that the COVID-19 pandemic is a “war,” albeit against an “invisible enemy.” For a number of obvious reasons, a pandemic is very different from a war, of course. We think of a pandemic as a natural disaster, whereas a war as man-made. In a pandemic it is a pathogen that kills people, whereas in a war people kill people. Nevertheless, the two kinds of disaster have much in common—and not just the stark fact of excess mortality. Each belongs to that class of rare, large-scale disaster variously characterized as a black swan, a gray rhino or a dragon king. This paper focuses on one particular point of resemblance, namely the way both the war and the pandemic came as a surprise to most people, despite numerous warnings of the likelihood of such a disaster, and then proceeds to consider the epochal economic, social, political and geopolitical consequences of the war and what they might teach us about the possible consequences of the pandemic.