For three years, we’ve been asking ourselves what life would look like after Covid. There has been handwringing about the future of tourism and international travel. The Arts and Entertainment Industry were worried that people would never go back to live shows and the cinema. But there are good reasons to be optimistic, if history is anything to go by. The last global pandemic was the Spanish Flu (H1N1), which began in 1918 and petered out by 1920. This was followed by a decade of excess known as the Roaring Twenties. And if the current state of the travel industry is anything to go by, the Twenty Twenties are starting to rumble just as loudly.
On a Saturday morning in mid-May, I landed in Athens. In pre-Covid years, the tourist season only really kicked off in mid-June. Late Spring in Greece is usually just the first influx of the Greek diaspora – mostly retirees that are planning to spend three months on their island homes. The restaurants don’t require reservations, and you can easily wander down Athens without being overridden by tour guides waving baton flags for gawking tour groups.
Not this year. There were four flights landing from the US at the same time as my arrival from Doha, as well as multiple flights from Europe. On Google Maps, the traditional tourist spots would flash orange during in the day, with warnings that read “As Busy As It Gets”.
The Greeks themselves appeared bemused, delighted, relieved, and panicked around the edges. No doubt because if this was May, what will it be like in August?
And as for flying through transit hubs like Doha – that was a fresh kind of chaos. A year ago, that airport was empty. This year, there was nowhere to sit, and the restaurants were taking table reservations.
The point being: now that Covid is coming to an end, travel is coming back with a bang.
Perhaps it’s just pent-up frustration from three years of travel restrictions. But it’s probably more than that, and history does give us some clues about what to expect next.
Spanish Flu v Covid-19
Reading accounts of the Spanish Flu pandemic does feel oddly like time travel. H1N1 flu symptoms included loss of smell, sore throats and fever. Serious cases, linked to cytokine storms, involved fluid building up in the lungs. Most deaths were linked with pneumonia.
Given that World War I was still underway at the start of the pandemic, many countries used military censorship laws to suppress the news of the disease. Once that was no longer possible, non-pharmaceutical interventions like hand-washing, social distancing, and the banning of mass gatherings were implemented. Conspiracy theories circulated about the origins of the virus, mostly involving the Germans being behind it (either through contaminating aspirin production, or by releasing poison gas from U-boats).
When San Francisco tried to impose mask-wearing, protests took place against the violation of civil liberties.
Islands like Australia imposed maritime quarantines and managed to avoid the first two waves. Once Australia lifted the quarantine, it got hit with a third wave of H1N1.
Vaccines were developed, albeit ineffective at the time.
The pandemic eventually ended because the virus had mutated into a less deadly version of itself.
A post-H1N1 post-World-War-I World
There is a clear overlap between the deadly second wave of the H1N1 pandemic and the end of World War I. The second H1N1 wave began in August 1918 and reached its peak death rate in October 1918. The Armistice of World War I was signed a few days later, on 11 November.
Perhaps these events are unrelated, but it’s certainly plausible to suggest that mass outbreaks of disease in the troops – on both sides – had left everyone much more amenable to concluding negotiations as quickly as possible.
The pandemic itself ended two years later.
After a devastating World War followed by a devastating pandemic, you might expect that the global economy would have collapsed.
But human nature is not so linear. Sometimes, our tendency is to bounce back from trauma in exuberant defiance.
And instead of a decade of depression, the 1920s were a decade of radical expression. And pockets of strong pushback against it.
What were the Roaring Twenties?
During this decade, the rate of economic and technological advancement was like nothing ever seen before. New forms of technology became widespread in their use: cars, telephones, electricity, radio, films. Consumer spending reached all-time highs, and the stock markets boomed. It would all end with the stock market crash of 1929, and the Great Depression that followed it. But for years, the world had general prosperity.
It was also a decade of social change. Fans of Downton Abbey will know that the 1920s were about the collapse of the class system, and a significant break-down of the patriarchy.
The fight for woman’s suffrage was finally won, and women gained the right to vote.
This new era of social freedoms had other expressions. Fashion abandoned the corset, and short skirts became socially acceptable. Music entered the Jazz Age, artists invented Surrealism, and socialist political parties were on the rise.
These may look like minor historical details to us today, but these would have sounded nonsensical just a decade before. A modern day equivalent might be waking up in 2024 to a collective global abolition of immigration rules.
But this period of mass social freedoms was also accompanied by mass social restrictions. The United States launched Prohibition in 1920 – and then when waves of Eastern and Southern Europeans started to arrive on its shores after the War, it issued a brand new Immigration Act. Elsewhere, Socialist and Communist movements became mainstream, as did Fascism in response to it.
What can we learn from this?
While many of these social changes already existed in nascent form, the global trauma of four years of war and three years of a global pandemic seemed to act as a mass accelerant.
We might hope that the real accelerant was the War and not the Spanish Flu. But if we’re still looking for historical similarities, there are already extraordinary changes in motion today.
The Great Resignation has become a buzz phrase, and the United States has just overturned Roe v Wade. In the Ukraine, we are watching Russia engage in modern-day imperialism in real time. The arrival of cryptocurrency is driving a re-evaluation of the definition of money. And Elon Musk seems to be testing the limits of what a Corporate Leader can do politically without entering politics directly.
We also know that Climate Change is here to stay. And Covid has taught us that governments can be more than bureaucratic slow-moving machines by proving to us and themselves that it’s possible to pass and enforce unpopular legislative changes overnight when the well-being of citizens are under threat.
But we should enjoy the boom while it lasts
From where I’m sitting, global travel is booming. The hotels and flights are full, and the airports are overwhelmed. The services industry, where so many of us work, is getting an influx of business to make up for their Covid downturn. On my neighbourhood Whatsapp groups, folks are complaining of eight-week long waiting lists to get embassy appointments for Schengen visas. Perhaps it’s just pent-up desperation to travel after years of lockdown.
But it might also be something more. And if so, we should enjoy it until the next Great Depression #livefortoday
Rolling Alpha posts opinions on finance, economics, and sometimes things that are only loosely related. Follow me on Twitter @RollingAlpha, and on Facebook.
Brendon Versfeld July 18, 2022 at 14:37
Oh my, a new post. *soaks in the dopamine for a second*
I can agree that, on the face of it, there are a number similarities. Your post does feel quite anecdotal though. What does the data say, and are there similarities to be drawn to now?
For example, I would interested to understand what happened with interest rates then (and how does it compare to where we are now). What percentage of household budgets were spent on debt service etc at the start of the 20’s compared to now?
My sense is similar to yours, but I suspect that many people are leaning hard into debt to enjoy some nice things now, and that will certainly end in tears when interest rates inevitably rise in the near future….Reply
Brendon Versfeld July 18, 2022 at 14:39
PS, when can we have another “who pays SA’s tax”. I am very interested to see how the picture has changed since your last one. It seems (my anecdotal observation) that many high earners have left SA’s shores, and I wonder if this plays out in your pie charts…Reply