The grand illusion: Local solutions for global problems

The grand illusion: Local solutions for global problems

In the summer of 430 BCE, a ship from Egypt arrived in Piraeus with an uninvited guest on board: “the plague.” The symptoms of this yet-to-be-identified disease – hypotheses range from typhoid fever to viral hemorrhagic fever – are described by the historian Thucydides, who was infected and survived. They included extreme headache, redness and inflammation of the eyes, bloody throats and tongues, repellent breath, sneezing, hoarseness and cough, pain in the stomach causing vomiting, reddish and livid bodies covered with pimples and welts, high fever, and thirst. The fever killed most patients within seven to nine days, others died later from weakness. Some patients are reported to have lost their sight, or even genitals, fingers and toes. It is estimated that the disease killed more than 50,000 people. The doctors who attempted to treat it were its first casualties; the most prominent victim was none other than Pericles, the creator of the homonymous Golden Age of Athens.

Thucydides described not only the symptoms of the plague but also the impact that it had on society and the psychology of the populace: desperation and lack of resistance among the patients, who “were dying like sheep”; extreme confidence among those who survived, becoming immune and thinking that they would never die of any other sickness; neglect of religious rites; disrespectful disposal of corpses; and great licentiousness, as people started living for the day. “Neither the fear of the gods nor laws of men awed any man – neither the former, because they concluded that it did not make any difference whether one worshipped or not, as they saw that all perished alike, nor the latter, because no man expected to live long enough to be tried and receive punishment for his crimes.”

Human societies have experienced many pandemics like the one we are experiencing today: There was the Antonine Plague (165-180 CE) that was spread through the Roman Empire by soldiers returning from campaigns in the Near East; the Plague of Justinian (541-542 CE) that decimated the population of Constantinople and ports of the Mediterranean; the Plague of Emmaus (or Amwas) that killed some of Muhammad’s companions (639 CE); the Black Death of 1348-50; and the Spanish Influenza of 1918. On the other hand, responses to epidemics have never been the same, the globalized world of 2020 bears little resemblance to the last great pandemic a century ago.

“Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set off a Tornado in Texas?” was the title suggested to the mathematician and pioneer of chaos theory Edward Lorenz for his talk at the 139th meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1972. Half a century later, the question might be: “Can a bat soup in Wuhan kill 16,000 people in Italy?” Of course the cause of the coronavirus has yet to be determined, but its rapid spread reminds us how closely connected everything has become. The immediate responses were as diverse as one would expect. While Western cities registered a lack of toilet paper, Russia registered a lack of condoms. While the US president was attempting to get exclusive access to medication and medical supplies, China was delivering ventilators to New York, examination kits to Palestine, doctors and medical supplies to Italy, and protective masks to Greece. While American students were throwing coronavirus parties during spring break and pious Iranians licking and kissing shrines, Invisible Hands, a group of young volunteers, were delivering food to the elderly in New York. A hundred years from now, graduate students in history will have great opportunities to write PhD theses on how the pandemic changed the world – provided that valuable sources (tweets, YouTube videos, blogs etc) will have survived the test of time.

Historians are poor prophets. Past experiences stimulate thought, but they do not predict the future. Although predictions are hazardous in a world that changes faster than any other in recorded history, two observations can be made: The first concerns the shortcomings of federalism in a time of crisis, the second the role of scientists. Most states or state-like formations with federal structures, or those with strong regional autonomy, have failed to react quickly and efficiently to the pandemic. Countries such as the Federal Republic of Germany and the United States, but also small states with federal structures, such as Belgium, were (and in part still are, while these lines are being written) implementing a patchwork of measures to fight the pandemic. The fact that the governor of New York threatened to sue the neighboring state of Rhode Island over its policy to stop cars with New York license plates, that Arkansas has not implemented, as other states, the policy to close all non-essential businesses, that only 37 US states have adopted the Medicaid extension, that, as of March 21, only six of the 16 German federal states (Bavaria, Saarland, Rhineland-Palatinate, Hamburg, Lower Saxony, and Hesse) had implemented a partial lockdown, and that, on March 10, the region of Brussels banned all indoor events with over 1,000 people, while the city of Antwerp, 53 kilometers north, refused to do the same, are just a few examples of the shocking lack of coordination and local shortsightedness. And many more can be added from the US, Italy and Spain. They reflect the naive view that one community can isolate itself from the rest of the country, the continent, or the world, and follow a separate path in battling a problem that is not local.

One of the most visible – but hardly surprising – failures of a state-like entity to take coordinated action is that of the European Union. Admittedly, it is not a federal state, but it has shared borders within which “European citizens” can move freely; it has a Parliament; the members of the eurozone share the same currency and, for them, strict fiscal rules apply. Most of what made the European Union look like more than just an economic union has been suspended: Border controls have been reintroduced within the area of the Schengen agreement; the EU budget rules concerning debt are on ice; the European Parliament is conspicuously absent. EU critics are quick to blame the Brussels bureaucracy for any shortcomings of the EU. But let us be clear about this: The current situation was caused by the refusal of most member-states to cooperate, along with the rise of national myopia. Will states with federal structures draw any lessons from this? Being a European citizen myself, and committed to the idea of a functioning European Union, I hope that the countries of the EU will; but hopes should be based on evidence, and I fail to see any.

The second observation concerns the sudden prominence of experts in public media. Whether this is the Robert Koch Institute in Germany or Johns Hopkins University in the United States, Dr Fauci in Washington or Professor Tsiodras in Athens, the German Council of Economic Experts or the International Monetary Fund, there is an insatiable thirst for reliable information, especially considering the amount of pseudoscientific reports that flood social media. Whether one follows the advice of an expert or a shortsighted politician makes the difference between life and death. In the case of climate change this difference will be seen in decades, in the case of the coronavirus in days. The pandemic has given scientists and public intellectuals – health scientists, economists, sociologists, psychologists, historians, philosophers, lawyers – a forum of which they could only dream, and the possibility to claim for their fields the public influence that they deserve. It remains to be seen if they will continue occupying this forum when the crisis is over.

It also remains to be seen if the world will learn from this pandemic the most important lesson that concerns the future of the globalized world: There are no local solutions for global problems, whether we are dealing with a temporary pandemic, the endemic problem of world poverty and food shortages, or the continually growing long-term challenges of climate change. Respecting and strengthening intergovernmental organizations, such the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization, UNESCO, and the other United Nations agencies, instead of undermining them, is a good place to start.

Angelos Chaniotis is professor of ancient history and Classics in the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study.

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