So as a new decade dawns upon us, will we see a rerun of the Roaring Twenties, or a re-do of the Dirty Thirties?
The answer lies in what the COVID-19 virus holds in store for us.
Without question there are pent-up reserves of energy and emotion across our country — indeed across the world — just waiting to explode. We desperately want an end of lockdowns and a return to normal life.
If the virus disappears of its own accord, or is tamed by vaccination, the 2020s could very well resemble the early 1920s, a period of wild exuberance and heartfelt joy.
But will COVID-19 disappear? While it is too early to be sure, there are signs the answer is no.
The World Health Organization now predicts the virus will become endemic, which is to say, ever-present.
HIV/AIDS is an instance of an endemic virus. We’ve found effective ways to treat the disease, but it hasn’t gone away.
Chicken pox is another example, spreading at a steady rate among young children. Here too we have effective treatments, including vaccination, but the virus continues to find enough vulnerable youngsters to infect.
If COVID-19 does become endemic, much depends on how it evolves. Most viruses survive by constantly evolving. So do some bacteria.
If they remain unchanged, the local population will eventually develop natural resistance, and the disease will die out.
On the other hand, if they mutate into highly lethal forms, they risk killing off the host population.
Their best survival option therefore is to find a middle road, by becoming less destructive, though possibly more infectious.
The new mutation that emerged in Britain toward the end of last year appears to be following this path. It has found a way to infect people more rapidly, but without, as best we know so far, killing more of its victims.
Unfortunately, left to themselves, it can take decades and even centuries for new viruses to find a happy medium. That’s what happened in the period prior to 1800, when medical science lacked treatments for infectious diseases. The population simply had to wait it out.
Fortunately, we are not defenceless. A breakthrough in vaccine creation has given us a weapon to fight back.
Until recently, it took, on average, a decade to produce a new vaccine.
But using novel techniques, the current COVID-19 vaccines were developed in a matter of months. That is a huge step forward.
With luck, it means we can track new mutations if and when they occur, and contain them before much damage is done.
All of this, of course, is still speculation. COVID-19 is a novel disease. We simply don’t know enough to predict its future behaviour.
We do, however, know enough about how viruses have behaved historically to make educated guesses as to where this all comes out.
It almost certainly won’t be a re-do of the economic disaster we call the Dirty Thirties. Along with the development of new treatment options and the arrival of vaccines, COVID-19 should be, at worst, controllable. Herd immunity will also help.
But what about the Roaring Twenties? Is that a realistic hope?
There is every reason to believe so, with the qualification that it may be the Roaring Twenty-Twos or Twenty-Threes.
For even with all the weapons at our disposal, and no doubt some new discoveries to come, we have to assume this disease will not go gentle into that good night.
It will have to be beaten to the ground, with a combination of medical science, first responder courage, and unrelenting public discipline.
And every one of us has a role to play in that.