ADELAIDE - As 2020 staggers towards its dismal end, the trail of upheaval and disasters left in its wake will continue to reverberate around the world for many years to come.
When historians of the future are considering the impact of Covid-19 on the world, they will be presented with a smorgasbord of issues to contemplate.
In the USA they will be struggling to understand how the world’s largest and most successful republic became so seriously and corrosively divided along so many fracture lines.
So divided, in fact, that its very existence as a viable democracy has been called into question.
Our future historians will especially be trying to figure out how an obvious narcissistic sociopath, a person conspicuously lacking in any sort of moral or ethical compass, could only be so narrowly defeated in a presidential election.
How could 70 million Americans possibly think that Donald Trump and his Republican Party enablers actually represented their interests in the face of all evidence to the contrary?
Similarly, events in the UK and Europe will call into question the underlying competence of various national governments, most of which have conspicuously failed to effectively manage the response to the pandemic, with an ensuing massive loss of life and a severe economic recession.
Meanwhile, the apparent success of the Chinese government in suppressing the disease and minimising its economic impact may lead some historians to wonder if an authoritarian model of government may be preferable to democracy when it comes to dealing with national crisis.
Certainly, there are more than a few contemporary thinkers openly contemplating this question.
Some of them regard the events of 2020 as clear evidence that democracy is no longer about achieving the greatest good for the greatest number but more about preserving the wealth and interests of the richest and most powerful segment of the population.
Historians will study events in countries like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Australia in an effort to understand why and how they succeeded in managing the pandemic and its economic consequences so much better than most of the rest of the democratic world. What did they know or do that the others did not?
From a contemporary viewpoint, the simple answer seems to be that the governments of these countries, notwithstanding significant cultural differences, followed the advice of the medical, scientific and economic experts and their respective populations had sufficient self discipline to comply with that advice.
In an Australian context, it seems we collectively are more willing to put our trust in governments at a time of crisis than people in, say, the USA or UK or France. This is despite our supposedly ingrained anti-authoritarianism and ‘she’ll be right’ attitude.
It seems it eventually opted to do nothing and rely upon blind luck to avoid disaster. Future historians may be hampered by the lack of data upon which the PNG government based its conclusions.
It seems to me that this absence of coherent policy is further evidence, if any was needed, that PNG politics is less about governing and more about the struggle between different loosely affiliated groups of mostly self-interested individuals to acquire wealth, power and influence.
So governing in the public interest has become a subsidiary activity which is routinely disrupted or ignored due to the interminable political machinations of the type vividly on display in the last few weeks of 2020.
The evidence of history is that pandemics have impacts that are felt for a very long time after the disease has vanished or otherwise ceased to be a major problem.
An extreme example of this was first outbreak of the Black Plague (1347–50) which ushered in the end of medieval feudalism in Britain and much of Europe and simultaneously created the circumstances in which a wealthy mercantile class could rise to prominence.
This, in turn, eventually spawned the economic revolution which largely created our modern world.
Less extreme examples include the Plague of Justinian (541-549), which brought to an end the last attempts to restore the Roman Empire and so ushered in the so-called Dark Ages.
History might have taken a very different course, in Europe at least, if Justinian had succeeded in restoring the empire to its former glory.
In each of these cases, the long term effects of the pandemic were impossible to predict. This seems likely to be the case for the current pandemic, even assuming that the roll-out of vaccines is able to bring it under control.
The human and economic toll of 77 million cases and a reported 1.7 million deaths has already been significant for the world.
The geo-political impacts are also substantial, notably the emergence of China as a major power with an appetite for political and economic dominance in its self defined sphere of influence.
The weakened and divided democratic world has, so far at least, looked on in helpless impotence.
Under the malignant influence of Donald Trump and his enablers, the USA has chosen to effectively abandon its international leadership role and so far no power or group of powers has shown an ability or will to step into that role.
A Biden administration will find it very hard work to restore the confidence and trust that once allowed the USA to speak for the democratic world.
Re-creating badly fractured relations, especially with Europe, is likely to be a labour of years, not months.
PNG will find itself between the proverbial rock and a hard place as China seeks to increase influence and democratic countries like Australia seek to prevent it from doing so.
With deft diplomacy PNG may even succeed in benefiting from this competition, but it is going to take a level of judgement and sophistication in international affairs so far not much in evidence, at least at a political level.
PNG also will have to confront significant internal problems, notably Bougainville’s expressed desire for independence.
To refuse Bougainville’s demands seems likely to provoke serious unrest if not the resumption of civil war. To acquiesce may well stimulate similar demands for autonomy from other disgruntled provinces.
Whoever is in power, there is no easy answer to this problem. The preferred policy until now has been prevarication, obfuscation and delay.
It seems that the new Bougainville president, Ishmael Toroama, is determined to push the issue harder than his predecessor John Momis.
Eventually a decision may be forced by circumstances beyond political control. This is usually the way things work with intractable political problems.
So, as we all bid adieu to a dismal 2020, the future seems more likely than not to be fraught with further difficulties even as Covid-19 fades (we hope) into the background as just another infectious disease.