On the news that Britain is coming out of its lockdown, I remembered a May 2020 article from The Atlantic’s Yascha Mounk, speculating about the post-pandemic times:
Sooner or later, this bout of pestilence will come to an end. Humanity will survive this pandemic. In its aftermath, as after so many other disasters, we will learn to thrive anew. And although the world we then inhabit will be different, it won’t be unrecognizable.
The article pours water on the pessimistic predictions regarding the long-term effects of the (then-novel) pandemic, but it’s the headline that sets my imagination ablaze: “Prepare for the Roaring Twenties”. As humanity emerges from the pandemic, Mounk suggest, human nature ensures we’ll snap back into to a social lifestyle:
No one can say how long the acute phase of this pandemic will last. But what is virtually certain is that its impact on the extent of human sociability will prove to be temporary. Five or 10 years from now, there will be about as many mass gatherings as there were before the coronavirus. Because we’re human.
Mounk draws his confidence from the aftermath of World War I and the 1918-1920 influenza pandemic, which were devastating to humanity and nevertheless led to a few years of unbridled freedom, artistic expression, and progressive politics (before, of course, snapping back hard into authoritarianism).
As much as the pandemic has been tedious, it’s also been fascinating: I’ve been having a tangible sense of living through history, something I don’t remember experiencing before. With many activities totally suspended, I’ve been closely monitoring politics respond, much more than I ever would normally. Oftentimes it feels like watching a seismograph draw a squiggly line on a piece of paper, each successive decision charting history.
In that sense, it’s a fun thought experiment to imagine the (eventual) end of the pandemic as a collective breath of relief, a celebration, or a creative reckoning.1 I’m sure there will be some of them—in Israel, where much of the population has received the vaccine, there are reports of great parties and celebration, while AirBnB is readying its apartments for an onslaught of noisy parties, using creepy noise recognition technology to keep the festivities “responsible”.
To me, the headline of Mounk’s article is a testament to how we collectively romanticize the 1920s in light of the horror that preceded and followed it. Wanting to forget what we’ve been going through and without knowing if our own future is bright of gloomy, it’s all too tempting to believe we might as well get a repeat of the good times.
Much like Spain’s “great sexual explosion” following the death of Franco, as young people suddenly felt free from the oppressive Catholic norms of the state.↩︎