Historians like to tell us that the 19th century came to an end with the First World War. 1914 or 18, you take your pick but either way it’s not 1900. Similarly, the 18th century ended at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. In which case, when did the 20th century end? If it wasn’t as we turned the calendar page on the year 2000 – Y2K in the jargon of the day – when was it?
Answer: It was the coming of coronavirus (C19). We’re witnessing it now. This time last year I would have said that it was Brexit but in truth that was just a national event. For better or worse. For richer for poorer. For reasons good and bad, it was ultimately just the UK divorcing itself from the EU. There were – still are – repercussions rippling out across Europe and beyond, but it hasn’t changed the way people live in Blighty, still less the psychology of ordinary folks in France or Romania.
Not so C19. Sure, no bullets have been fired or treaties signed but there has been a declaration of war, so to speak and there have been dead. So far, in this period of lockdown the UK alone has seen one third of the total civilian deaths in the whole of the 5 years of WW2. Most worrying of all each and every one of us has been learning to treat others – both family and strangers – as a potential deadly enemy. It’s not `Careless words cost lives’ but a careless meeting could kill. We live in fear.
When it’s all over will we go back to wherever we were before? No. We won’t. Because we’ve been changed. We know something about the fragility of our seemingly invincible lives. We also know much more about using IT for staying in touch as we know about improved air quality and how if we communicate better, we can defeat global threats. Who knows? Perhaps one day we will defeat global warming in the same way. Meanwhile, this, it seems to me, is the moment the historians will look back on in years to come and say that was the moment things changed. There was 1815. Then there was 1918. Mark my word, 2020 is going to matter in much the same way and for much the same reasons. Now all we have to do is survive.