History Has Stopped, and We're Back to Fearing the Strongman in the Kremlin

Life in 2022 is a case of long COVID. The pandemic won't go away, and neither will Trumpism, Brexit or Princess Diana

Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany
People from Ukraine's Donetsk and Luhansk regions watch Russian President Vladimir Putin's address at their temporary place in Rostov-on-Don region, Russia, Monday, Feb. 21, 2022.
People from Ukraine's Donetsk and Luhansk regions watch Russian President Vladimir Putin's address at their temporary place in Rostov-on-Don region, Russia, Monday, Feb. 21, 2022.Credit: Denis Kaminev /AP
Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany

You wake up in the morning and discover you’re healthy. Your muscles no longer ache, your consciousness is lucid, you’ve got your appetite back. The disease is behind you, at long last. The R number is also falling, and people around you are resuming their lives. A new dawn appears to be breaking over the world. You think about traveling, dancing, devouring life.

And then, a few days later, you discover that something is wrong, after all. The cough hasn’t actually gone away. You get up in the morning with a foul taste in the mouth. A gloomy murkiness weighs down your thinking, and above all there is fatigue – a stubborn fatigue that has no cure. The coronavirus, it turns out, hasn’t actually gone away. In the best case, the first – short – stage is over; now the post-corona has set in.

The long-COVID experience at the individual level is the equivalent of the collective experience of the coronavirus crisis. Everyone is tired – including those who haven’t been infected by the virus. It turns out that the main attribute of the coronavirus itself is not an unprecedented lethal nature, but the stubborn refusal of this disease to leave the stage. The first declaration of the “post-corona” era was voiced as early as the spring of 2020, but since then we’ve gone through one wave and another wave and yet another wave of the pandemic, and there may well be more to come. Like other “post-” phenomena, post-corona turned out not actually to refer to the day after the pandemic, but to its continuation.

The “long-COVID” syndrome is one of the best-known aspects of the disease, one that was identified soon after the start of the crisis. But isn’t this a quite precise metonym for the general state of the world at this time? If we examine the matter, we will find that we are immersed in post-corona-like phenomena that are cropping up in every sphere of life. In fact, life itself has become a case of exceptionally lengthy long COVID.

I still remember the day the Cold War ended. It was said to be a once-in-a-century event. It was hard to exaggerate the drama of the moment when the red flag was lowered from the Kremlin. The split in the international alignment that had prevailed since World War I ended in one fell swoop, almost by surprise. A new world order dawned, demarcating anew the borders in Europe and of many other countries worldwide. It’s not surprising that many termed the dissolution of the Soviet Union the end point of the “short 20th century.”

A patient suffering from long COVID undergoing examination this week in the post-coronavirus clinic in Ichilov Hospital, in Tel Aviv. Everyone is tired. Credit: Amir Cohen / Reuters

Yet within a decade and a half, historians and political scientists had begun to wonder whether the collapse of the Soviet Union really had been such a dramatic event. The rise of illiberal regimes in Eastern and Central Europe proved that the fall of communism marked no more than the supplanting of one form of oppression by another form of oppression. The revolutions of the late 1980s turned out to have occurred only on the surface and did not prove to be long-lasting. The ruling elites of the communist era reemerged as authoritarian, nationalist oligarchs and politicians.

In the past few years, the situation has become even grimmer. The Cold War did not end. Communism is no longer with us, but the inter-bloc struggle is being rekindled and is perhaps deteriorating into a crisis at a level of seriousness that would not shame the middle of the last century. We thought we were girding ourselves for the new challenges of the 21st century: melting icebergs, corporate dictatorship, doing battle against robots – but instead, we gave gone back to being afraid of the tough people in the Kremlin, just like our parents and grandparents. The order of the hour is to prepare for the previous war.

Long trail

In the meantime, other crises, such as Brexit, are also displaying an irritating persistence; the periodical Foreign Affairs recently dubbed it the “Never Ending Brexit” in an article that laid out the cumulative and rolling costs of Britain’s departure from the EU. The divorce may have been finalized, but the legal battle over property and alimony has barely begun. And that’s just one example. Does anyone still think that Trumpism was really vanquished? With the passage of time, it’s emerging that Trump himself is a type of long COVID, which could assail us again in the midterms.

Something odd is happening: The momentum of history appears to have stopped. Instead of racing ahead, time is spreading like some sort of oozing tar. Every problem that comes up on the agenda leaves a long trail behind it, recalling Princess Diana’s wedding dress (she’s another figure from the last century that refuses to let us be).

Science-fiction films tend to paint the future in the image of a catastrophic event – an asteroid slamming into Earth, a tsunami or an invasion of aliens – which appears as breaking news on television, sending masses of people into the streets. But the actual dynamic that’s emerging is very different: The problem we need to cope with is not the event itself, but its insistence on staying put and not relenting – like an irritating guest who refuses to go home even when the hosts are already yawning.

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