The year when everything changed

The year when everything changed

Why the pandemic will be remembered as a turning-point

Warren harding built a campaign for the presidential election in 1920 around his new word “normalcy”. It was an appeal to Americans’ supposed urge to forget the horrors of the first world war and the Spanish flu and turn back to the certainties of the Golden Age. And yet, instead of embracing Harding’s normalcy, the Roaring Twenties became a ferment of forward-looking, risk-taking social, industrial and artistic novelty.

War had something to do with the Jazz Age’s lack of inhibition. So did the flu pandemic, which killed six times as many Americans and left survivors with an appetite to live the 1920s at speed. That spirit will also animate the 2020s. The sheer scale of the suffering from covid-19, the injustices and dangers the pandemic has revealed, and the promise of innovation mean that it will be remembered as the year when everything changed.

The pandemic has been a once-in-a-century event (see Graphic detail). sarscov-2 has been found in over 70m people and possibly infected another 500m or more who were never diagnosed. It has caused 1.6m recorded deaths; many hundreds of thousands have gone unrecorded. Millions of survivors are living with the exhaustion and infirmities of “long covid”. World economic output is at least 7% lower than it would otherwise have been, the biggest slump since the second world war. Out of the ashes of all that suffering will emerge the sense that life is not to be hoarded, but lived.