What do I read during an epidemic? What else but books about epidemics, like John M. Barry’s “The Great Influenza,” about the catastrophic 1918 pandemic that killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide.
The 1918 disease, incorrectly called “Spanish flu,” probably first jumped from pigs to humans in the American Midwest, and then spread all over the world. It was both more contagious and more deadly than today’s Coronavirus; and medicine at that time – especially in the US – was surprisingly primitive. Some American doctors in 1918 still believed in bleeding as an effective treatment for various illnesses. Viruses had been known to cause disease – Polio for example – for some time, but most doctors and researchers believed that influenza was caused by a bacillus. There was no preventative medication and no treatment that had a significant effect on the course of the disease.
Epidemics test societies and their institutions, particularly their governments. They exacerbate divisions between groups, expose incompetence and venality among officials, and exact a price for ignorance or stupidity in the population. This was the case in 1918, where, for example, military authorities in the US transferred troops from camps where the virus was active to ones that were as yet free of it, against the advice of their own medical officers. They shipped thousands overseas in crowded troopships, where the majority of the occupants – who appeared healthy when boarding – fell ill during the voyage. Death rates on some ships exceeded 10% of the sick. Hidden incompetence became suddenly visible.
Everyone is familiar with products that look like functional items but are not. For example, you can buy a shiny wrench and find, the first time you try to loosen a tight bolt with it, that it is not properly sized and made of soft metal. You end up with scraped knuckles and possibly a rounded-off bolt that is even harder to remove. In Hebrew, something like that is called “an as-if product” (mutzar ca-ilu). There are also as-if public officials, as-if generals, and even as-if presidents and prime ministers. These are people who are sufficiently skilled in politics (or perhaps related to someone who is) to obtain a public position, but cannot or will not do the job associated with it.
Like the as-if wrench which might look good in your toolbox and even work if the job is not too difficult, as-if public officials can stay in place harmlessly for years in easy times. But when they are tested, as by a war or epidemic, their worthlessness is made manifest. Such was the American Surgeon General in 1918, Rupert Blue, and many military officers. And such are many of the members of the Knesset and cabinet ministers in today’s Israeli government.
When a society is successful – prosperous, relatively at peace, politically stable – there are negative effects on both the institutions and the general population. The longer the period of success lasts, the more serious is the decay. The effect of success is a general decline in fitness to survive; but until something comes along to test that fitness, the decline isn’t easily noticeable. But there are some early warning signs.
One is the increase in the number of as-if officials in various institutions and government. A bloated government (like the Israeli government with its 36 ministers, half of whom are unnecessary) is a warning: many of those are as-if ministers. Sadly, Israel’s Prime Minister, formerly one of the very best, has recently become an as-if Prime Minister.
Another is a continuous increase in the proportion of resources consumed by the public sector. More is not necessarily better, if the “more” just goes to increase the size of bureaucracies without improving service. It’s true that increasing populations require increased expenditures to provide the protection and services they need; but the increase should be in proportion to the population.
Some institutions are grotesquely out of balance. In the US, for example, the cost of a university education has skyrocketed along with the proportion of administrators (many of whom are as-if workers) to teaching faculty. As the cost has increased, the quality has decreased. The system is producing large numbers of poorly educated, frustrated young people who are unqualified for productive work.
Until an epidemic comes along, who cares if the head of your public health service is an idiot? Until your army has to fight, it doesn’t matter if the generals ignore such things as the condition of vehicles and aircraft, equipment stored for the use of reserve units, and the quality of their training. Until there is an economic crunch, so what if the majority of your public officials spend their workdays doing little more than consuming resources and sexually harassing their subordinates?
The general population is also not spared the deleterious effects of sustained peace and prosperity. Often called “affluenza,” one symptom is an ever-increasing desire for material goods coupled with anomie and anxiety, a difficulty in establishing long-term relationships, and an inability to defer gratification of wants.
Israel, despite her precarious location, has been spared real adversity at least since the Second Lebanon War, although the need to maintain a citizen army and repeated skirmishes with our neighbors does add a certain amount of tension. The US, because of its geographical isolation and professional military, lacks this irritant. On the surface, that’s good; but it is damaging to the psychological health of the citizens.
If affluenza continues for a long enough time, the decay in functionality of a society’s institutions plus the built-up pressure in the population, in which all but the top strata of society are frustrated from their inability to get what they want, in material and psychological terms, leads to civil disturbances and perhaps even a general breakdown in order. This appears to be what is happening today in the US. In particular, young people – who are always the point of the spear in any revolution – have been massively frustrated by the failure of the American educational system to provide the promised economic or psychic benefits.
In Israel, we see similar problems, but to a lesser degree. On the other hand, it has become clear that our political system is fundamentally broken – we have an as-if government – and because of this we could be unable to respond to the next serious crisis.
Whether either Israel or the US will make the real and fundamental changes to their institutions, governmental and otherwise, that are necessary to their survival as strong, democratic nations, is beyond my ability to predict.