In London in the winter of 1942 Churchill opened his mouth and something memorable came out, it often did, he had a knack for this kind of thing. “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” He was on that occasion talking about an allied victory that began to turn the tide of the Second World War, and he was right, it was.
In the intervening seventy eight years that quote has been co-opted many times in many contexts, mostly hyperbolically as some lesser orator looked to grab a headline or two. It got a run out again last month and for once, the occasion fitted the words.
The UK became the first country to approve a Covid vaccine for public use, and they didn’t hang about putting it to work. 91 year old Margaret Keenan was the first to receive the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine on what became dubbed ´V´day but it was a shot in the arm for all of us everywhere. Hopefully and perhaps it is the end of the beginning of a turbulent twelve months that has turned our modern world upside down and perhaps changed it forever.
We belong to the luckiest generations to have ever drawn breath of course, we in the developed world have never been richer, more comfortable, more at peace, more healthy or expected to live as long. The pandemic came as a shock that perhaps we have taken that all for granted for too long. But we got lucky a second time, throughout all but the most recent of years of human history, you just had to live with plagues and pandemics. Cut yourself off, quarantine if you can but mostly they just had to run their course. That meant huge numbers of casualties and economic ruin for a generation. Accounts of the 17th century plague and the 1918 flu pandemics are worryingly similar. 102 years on we can fix things now. A little over a year since the first Covid cases and the clever old human race has come up with multiple vaccines. That means that within six months or so death tolls will drop to next to nothing, and we can all come out of hiding and get back to being busy little workers, earners and taxpayers. We can write off 2020 as a bad year, mourn those who didn’t make it through but ostensibly get back to normal and start paying back the overdraft we collectively ran up to see us through the worst of it.
Except let’s not quite get back to normal. It’s been easy to forget this last year while we have been focused on the pandemic that we have some other stuff to sort out too. Inequality, migration, climate change, and all the rest of it. The development of a Covid vaccine should act as a reminder what our species is capable of if we are motivated in the right way and concentrate on the stuff that is really important. Some of the smartest people in the most intelligent life so far discovered are employed dreaming up gadgets you don’t need until you see one and then can’t live without, medics and scientists employed to treat diseases that are a product of the modern luxurious lives we have invented for ourselves. Let’s put these brains to work doing something important. We are incredible and we can fix almost anything we decide to fix, so why not do it?
Vaccinations also serve as another timely reminder of what is important. It’s often overlooked these days but the eradication of smallpox from the world is probably one of the human race’s crowning achievements. It was fairly straightforward to treat the first world with their robust welfare states, public health systems and relatively modern housing, but to banish this killer from the world the challenge was to take the wealth of the rich world, and spend it in the slums, favelas and shanty towns of the third world on the very poorest people in the world. Only by doing this did we all collectively prosper.
The luckiest people ever to have lived got lucky again, let’s not push that luck too far. As a species it seems we can do what we like, let’s make sure we like what we do.
Phil D. Coffers
The Islander Economics Correspondent