Probably every action or event has unintended consequences. The more significant the initial act, the more dramatic the consequences, for better or worse.
Significant historical events illustrate a few of these. Income tax, for example, was an outcome of the First World War, which was, like all wars of course, cataclysmic to individuals and countries.
The Depression resulted, again among many other things, in public acceptance of vast government interventions into the economy through programs like the New Deal in the United States, and similar initiatives in Canada and elsewhere.
The Second World War, one of the worst human catastrophes ever known, was accompanied by a universe of social and economic changes, including the effective nationalization of critical industries to support the war effort. That period of social upheaval – during which personnel of all races served side by side and women entered the workforce in large numbers to fill the places of men at war – contained the seeds of social revolutions to follow, including the civil rights movement and the transformation of the role of women in society. The war was also a direct antecedent to formal decolonization in the developing world.
In other words, some terrible events can result in transformative consequences. This is not to play the ethics game and ask, if we could reverse history and prevent this act, would we do so, knowing that some positive byproducts would likewise be erased. It is merely to draw attention to the consequential moment in which we find ourselves.
The terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, are perhaps the freshest parallel for most of the current generation. On that day, we understood that everything had changed but we could only imagine in what ways. Wars would soon begin that continue to this day and, closer to home, social schisms between groups, including the rise of Islamophobia, emerged.
Political debates shifted dramatically to erstwhile largely dormant issues like government surveillance, balancing collective security with individual rights, the use of enhanced interrogation – torture, that is – and the thing that affects most of us most obviously: massive changes in airport security processes.
Since then, we have seen the rise of social and economic inequality and the attendant antisemitism and xenophobia it has engendered. Such shocks to the system produce reverberating impacts, often felt by more vulnerable and marginalized groups, Jews included, and we know that the consequences of any one shock can compound the waves of others in ways expected and unexpected.
We have plenty to worry about right now, with the immediacy of the pandemic. But we should also make time to consider potential unintended outcomes from this experience.
We have seen already, as we mentioned here a very long week ago, a vast outpouring of social unity. On social media, Vancouverites are coming together in mutual support. At 7 p.m. each night, for example, many are joining together to cheer frontline healthcare workers in a small but meaningful act of solidarity and hope. Most people, with notable exceptions that are being rightly called out, are responding appropriately to the advice of experts.
But consider the small, perhaps less obvious ways this experience could impact us. When it’s all over, will we be more reticent to shake hands, to hug? Will we be more attuned to the reality that we are each a part of an inseparable collective humanity, regardless of human-created boundaries?
More substantively, might we see the early reports of decreased air pollution due to this situation continue for the weeks or months this endures and realize that substantive progress on climate change is possible if we recognize the difference between essential and non-essential carbon-consuming activities? Could the once-unimaginable international coordination we are witnessing rekindle our collective hope in unified action for any number of good causes? If we can come together against a threat to us all, could world peace be less remote a dream than we might think?
Conversely, we should be cognizant, as well, that the vast power of the state – our state, every state – to effectively shut down entire societies and economies represents a unique global event. It is done in this case, of course, for the right reasons. But could a less-than-benevolent leader, tasting this level of control, envision ways to use it for their own purposes and against the common good? Might one use coronavirus as justification to delay or cancel elections?
There are a great number of question marks in this week’s editorial. The point here is not to play Nostradamus but to remind ourselves to question. At Passover, in whatever virtual or altered form we celebrate this year, we will ask questions for which we know the answers, and have been pondering for millennia. As this unprecedented time of humankind proceeds, we should remember to continue asking. How will this experience change us? What good might come of it? How can we ameliorate the terrible things that seem to be nearing their peak? Who might be trying to exploit this situation for ill and who is modeling the best of human kindness?
For more information and updates from the B.C. Centre for Disease Control and Canada’s public health authorities, visit covid-19.bccdc.ca and canada.ca/en/public-health/services/diseases/2019-novel-coronavirus-infection/prevention-risks.html, respectively.