Everyone is comparing COVID-19 to 1918 and the Spanish Flu. But I think that the better historical analogy is a century earlier, in 1816.

Photo by Jared Murray on Unsplash

I went to see a theatrical rendition of “Frankenstein” with a friend last night – in part to escape the scary reality that we’re facing right now with a global pandemic looming. Unfortunately, the play just reminded me that we may be in for a long and tumultuous period that could change our world forever.

What’s the link between Frankenstein and COVID-19, you ask? The year 1816.

1816 was the last time we faced a seismic natural event – literally and figuratively – that changed the way we see the world. The largest volcanic eruption in recorded history occurred at Mount Tambora (in what is now Indonesia) in April 1815, and the resulting ash cloud hung like a pall over the Earth’s sky for months. Severe climate disruptions followed for the next 3 years, most memorably in a string of snowstorms in England in July 1816; collectively, these events caused widespread panic as well as massive economic dislocation and deadly food shortages.

Pundits at the time called it the “Year without Summer”. It was during those troubling times that Mary Shelley and her husband Percy repaired to Switzerland with their infamous friend Lord Byron in tow (as one does). One night, against this backdrop of global disquiet, the three writers set about to pen ghost stories. While it would be published a few years later, “Frankenstein” would be born that evening in summer 1816.

COVID-19 has the potential to create a world without summer this year, I fear. Paradoxically, the virus’s effects will likely recede for a bit during the warmer months, so we may enjoy a fragile respite in June, July, and August. But if we interpret “summer” more broadly, we are already seeing the virus’s chilling effects.

Concert tours are being canceled. The release of the new James Bond movie had been postponed to the fall. They just pulled the plug on SXSW this weekend. Sporting matches in Japan and Italy are being played in “ghost stadiums”, and there is a very real possibility that the Tokyo Olympics will be rescheduled if not called off.

A lot of the things we associate with summer are not going to happen this year.

Like 2 centuries ago, this event will extend beyond the next few months and impact more than just this summer. There will be further reverberations beyond the most acute phase of this crisis. I expect a double-dip effect to occur as the virus roars back in virulence in the cooler months. People forget that while it was called the 1918 Spanish Flu, most of the deaths occurred in 1919, in the second wave of infections that crested that fall. So barring a miracle, expect this terrible cloud to hang over over us until Christmas and perhaps beyond. Maybe Zoom will have rolled out a video-conferencing tool for Thanksgiving by then (my attempt at gallows humor).

But the analogy to 1816 is not just in the literal sense. That year marked the end of a certain kind of hubris about how much control we had over the environment in which we lived. Thousands of people died of starvation from poor harvests due to the cold weather, and the world collectively grasped that despite its modern accoutrements, we were all still subject to the laws of nature. This sobering realization changed people’s conceptions about life, if not also their behavior.

So too, I think, will this episode. The mercenary stock market had already pummeled companies whose services are at risk during a pandemic – airlines, entertainment companies, and cruise ships, to name but three – while promoting video conferencing services like Zoom or home workout systems like Peloton. But there could be long term consequences to these shifts. As people get used to virtual meetings and remote working, will it be so natural to go back to your daily (and inefficient) commute? Once people get out of the habit of going to the gym or the movies, might they lose that impulse entirely and permanently shift to at-home exercise and entertainment? How could our politics be altered when crises like this underscore the need for competence over demagoguery? Will the recent recession in a global mindset in favor of nationalist movements be reversed when citizens grasp that pandemics don’t respect borders? Business, culture, and politics will all be altered in the wake of this crisis, I suspect.

Just as people, companies, and governments were scarred and then forever changed by the 2008 financial crisis, this will also leave a mark. Because just as the prospect of another market meltdown hangs like a Damoclesian sword over our heads, future pandemics will loom large in our collective consciousness. 

There is a good possibility that the post-Coronavirus world will be noticeably different from the world we know now – even if it doesn’t turn out to be as bad as feared. Why? Pandemics will almost certainly become part of our “next normal”. This is because they combine two of the most potent forces impacting our planet today: globalization and climate change. 

COVID-19 is the first Molotov cocktail of Mother Nature mixed with Marshall McLuhan’s Global Village and it packs a punch. Unless it triggers a reversal of the centuries-long trend towards accelerating globalization and climate degradation, we’re likely to face the frightening possibility of frequent pandemics. Remember those “100-year-floods” that seem to occur every few years now? What was once very uncommon is now much less so. In science and finance, people call these high-impact, low-probability events “black swans”. We will have to come up with new monikers when they become much less rare – and there is ample reason to believe that more pandemics are inevitable, as this prescient 2016 Washington Post editorial made clear.

I hope that I’m wrong, but I believe that 2020 will be a year without summer. Setting aside the still untold human suffering that will unspool in the coming months, the trauma of this collective experience will almost certainly usher in fundamental changes in the way we live and work. It may even yield the next “Frankenstein” …