Covid-19 is a ‘hinge in history’ expert says

Our age: Will be remembered alongside 9/11, the start of WW1, and the1938 Munich Conference.

Are we living through a turning point? The Covid-19 crisis is the third major shock to the global system in the 21st Century, following the 2001 terror attacks and the 2008 financial crisis.

“A moment of unparalleled national humiliation,” said one former Republican strategist yesterday.

“A lot of them aren’t even pretending to be in charge,” said former US President Barack Obama this weekend.

They are talking about a world in which the most powerful nation on Earth, the country that for 75 years has been considered the unofficial leader and protector of the free world – the USA – fails to fulfil its role.

For many serious commentators, this failure is now becoming part of a wider historic turning point.

As the former World Bank chief economist, Lawrence Summers, puts it in an article in the Financial Times: “I believe the coronavirus crisis will still be considered a seminal event generations from now.”

“Students of the future will learn of its direct effects and of the questions it brings into sharp relief, much as those of today learn about the 1914 assassination of the Archduke, the 1929 stock market crash, or the 1938 Munich Conference. These events were significant but their ultimate historical importance lies in what followed.”

This crisis is a massive global event in terms of its impact, he writes.

“Almost certainly, more Americans will die of Covid-19 than have died in all the military conflicts of the past 70 years. Some respectable projections suggest that more may die than in all the wars of the 20th Century. I suspect that no event since the civil war has so dramatically changed the lives of so many families.”

How will our experience of life change? Of course, it is too early to say. But most of the serious forecasts in recent days agree on three points:

1. The use of technology to monitor populations and their health will stay with us, even when the threat of this disease is behind us.

2. The reliance on foreign countries for essential supplies, like medical equipment, will be seen as unnecessarily risky. International trade and cooperation will suffer.

3. China’s emergence as the pre-eminent global force will be accelerated.

So, is this really a turning point in history?

Fast forward

Yes. Never before have the lives of so many been so rapidly transformed. Core parts of modern life – from international travel, to the office commute, and social gatherings with hundreds of strangers – have been cast aside. The economic damage and the wide-ranging effects of these months will continue to be felt for many years.

No. Most of the ways in which it is expected to change the world were happening already. China was already well on course to becoming a superpower. More and more people were working and studying from home. Surveillance technology was already being adopted across the globe. Covid-19 will accelerate human history, not revolutionise it.

You Decide

  1. Do you think the pandemic has been the most important event of your life so far? If so, what comes second?
  2. Do you agree that the pandemic represents the end of a world in which the USA is the leading power?


  1. Create a powerful poster of Barack Obama saying: “A lot of them aren’t even pretending to be in charge.”
  2. Imagine you are writing a school text-book in 2030. Write half a page explaining the coronavirus pandemic and how it reshaped the world.

Some People Say...

“History is a succession of apocalypses and, so far, this one is milder than most.”

John Gray, English political philosopher

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The Bank of England has warned that the coronavirus could lead to the biggest economic crash in 300 years. Unemployment figures in the USA are at a record high. Social attitudes will already have been transformed. The coronavirus might not have changed the fabric of our world just yet – many of us are still indoors in a forever-weekend – but the big decisions politicians will soon have to make will shape the rest of the century.
What do we not know?
History is being written every single day, with new and often unbelievable developments. What’s more, the past shows that many eras have seen crises of immense scale but life has gone on, much as it did before.

Word Watch

Barack Obama
US president between 2008 and 2016, he represents the last in a long-line of internationally-minded presidents who used American power to lead the world.
Free world
Termed coined by former US President George Bush to describe his country. During the Cold War, the “Free World” was used to refer to the West, as opposed to the Soviet Bloc.
Civil war
A civil war in the US from 1861 to 1865, fought between the northern United States and the southern United States. The civil war began primarily as a result of the long-standing controversy over the enslavement of black people.


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