The question that would appear to override all others about the current pandemic is this one: When will it end? And second: To what degree will all of society be changed by this experience?
Since no one knows the answers to these questions (nor can even hazard an educated guess), industries such as television that are schedule-dependent cannot make plans right now in the customary ways.
Ordinarily, the TV business would be in the midst of a crucial time in its annual calendar -- when plans are made for the May and June ad sales push.
And along with that: All of the planning and scheduling that goes into developing and producing new content, and the marketing and promotion campaigns that are mounted in support of all that -- from the upfront presentations (all cancelled) to the talent publicity tours and advertising that saturate all media in advance of any new television season.
With the TV industry on hold, all of that is dead in the water. When it can be revived is anybody's guess.
And as everybody knows, guesswork is largely meaningless. It is also inevitable in the event of a phenomenon such as a pandemic that few (if any) people alive today have ever experienced. With no real knowledge or experience to go on, the result is conjecture.
Commentators, opinion-makers and pundits are all giving us their guesses about what the world will look like -- i.e., how it will change -- when the pandemic is really over, and people and businesses start picking up the pieces and reassembling their lives and routines.
To cite one example, where the TV business is concerned, you are already reading about how the pandemic disruption will hasten the demise of the upfront buying and selling season.
The thinking seems to be: The pandemic is showing everyone that elaborate upfront presentations -- indeed, the entire process of booking fall inventory months in advance -- is old-fashioned and not necessary.
In general, much of the commentary posits that, based on the degree of disruption caused by the the pandemic, society and every segment within it (TV and media included) will come out of this experience fundamentally changed.
This line of thinking envisions the pandemic as a breaking point or dividing line between two epochs that will be dramatically different -- the time before the Great Coronavirus Pandemic of 2020, and the time after.
It is easy to feel this way while in the midst of this experience. And yet, past history shows that an entirely different outcome is possible.
For among the characteristics noted by historians of the Spanish influenza of 1918 (the last pandemic that is more or less comparable to the one we are experiencing now) was the phenomenon of forgetting.
This reaction would appear at first glance to be counterintuitive. Who will soon forget the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic? Nevertheless, to a significant degree, this is what happened as the Spanish flu faded.
“The important and almost incomprehensible fact about Spanish influenza is that it killed millions upon millions of people in a year or less. … [And yet] the very nature of the disease and its epidemiological characteristics encouraged forgetfulness in the societies it affected. The disease moved too fast, arrived, flourished and was gone. …,” wrote Alfred W. Crosby in his definitive history aptly titled America's Forgotten Pandemic (first published in 1976).
Those who lost loved ones naturally experienced a period of mourning. But for many others not personally affected in that way, the pandemic receded and dropped out of sight.
In the poignant final chapter of his book, Crosby notes that the leading lights of 1920s literature in America virtually ignored the flu pandemic in their writings about the era. One exception was Katherine Anne Porter, who nearly died in the Great Flu and wrote one of the only pieces of literature about the pandemic published 21 years later in 1939, “Pale Horse, Pale Rider.”
Her final paragraph would seem to indicate that, far from the world changing fundamentally in the aftermath of the 1918 flu (and the Great War which also ended that fall), life returned to the tempo at which it proceeded before these cataclysms.
Perhaps her words teach us that we should not necessarily expect our world to emerge from our own pandemic drastically changed.
Her point and the verdict of history would seem to indicate that societies change fundamentally during crises in order to meet the challenges they present. But before and after them, life does not necessarily change significantly because it does not have to.
“No more war, no more plague, only the dazed silence that follows the ceasing of the heavy guns,” Porter wrote. “Noiseless houses with the shades drawn, empty streets, the dead cold light of tomorrow. Now there would be time for everything.”
Photo courtesy of National Geographic, from the 2019 miniseries “The Hot Zone.”