A reimagining of Stefan Zweig’s World of Yesterday
Despite the propriety and the modesty of this view of life, there was a grave and dangerous arrogance in this touching confidence that we had barricaded ourselves to the last loophole against any possible invasion of fate.
In its liberal idealism, the pre-COVID world was honestly convinced that it was on the straight and unfailing path towards being the best of all worlds. Earlier eras, with their wars, famines, revolts, and lack of technology were deprecated as times when mankind was still immature and unenlightened.
But now it was merely a matter of decades until the last vestige of evil and violence, especially in the Middle East and poverty would be eliminated completely, would finally be conquered, and this faith in an uninterrupted and irresistible “progress” truly had the force of religion for our generation.
Most believed more in this “progress” than in the Bible, and its gospel appeared penultimate because of the daily new wonders of science and technology. In fact, in 2019, a general advance became more marked, more rapid, more varied. That, in particular, has to do with artificial intelligence. Robots have become better at adopting high-level human functions, and AI-enabled medical research has been evolving at the speed of light.
Traditional taxis were replaced with sharing economy apps, booking accommodation via home-sharing platforms has become a widely-shared habit, and online shops made it easier to exchange goods worldwide. Thanks to social media apps, one could video call from person to person.
Cafes and pubs still remained the centre of casual social gatherings. People moved around in electric cars and e-scooters with a new rapidity; they soared aloft, and the dream of Icarus was fulfilled. Comfort facilitated by economic progress made its way from the houses of the fashionable in the West to those of the middle class, and Africa. It was no longer necessary to go to a library to get a book, and meeting new people was easier with dating apps.
Climate change became the key concern, and many of us have given in to alarmism calling for all sorts of bans. It often felt like people in Europe and the US have become so spoiled by our unprecedented freedoms and progress. At the same time, innovative solutions such as nuclear energy were slowly but confidently gaining popularity despite most governments pursuing the policy of alarmism. People became more handsome, stronger, and healthier, as sports could be accessed via gym sharing and calorie counting apps steeled their bodies.
Online advertising ensured that consumers were chased by products and services that could make their lives better and longer. Thanks to gene editing, the risk of many common diseases, including Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and several cancers could be significantly reduced. Child mortality has dropped to its lowest since 1950, and diseases like polio, river blindness and elephantiasis, and AIDS were declining, and all of these miracles were accomplished by science, the archangel of progress.
Progress was also made in social matters; year after year minorities were gaining new rights, gay marriages were allowed in more countries, women’s rights were also reaching new heights, and even the problem of problems, the poverty of the great masses, no longer seemed insurmountable.
Every single day, 325,000 more people got their first access to electricity. Sociologists, professors, and businesses were competing with one another to create healthier and happier living conditions for everyone. Supermarket shelves were filled with food from all across the world, and everything that was valued by any individual was deemed essential and needed.
Globalisation persisted as the key narrative of the day despite some state’s desire to put brakes on it. Travelling became much safer and more available. In fact, so much that we started taking it for granted. For Europeans, especially, it was possible to travel freely across Europe. Waking up in Paris, having lunch in Brussels, and dinner in London was feasible and encouraged in our era of travelling obsession. Many bragged on social media about the number of countries they visited, the popularity of travelling could only be compared to the gladiators’ games in Roman Arena.
Small wonder, then, that this time sunned itself in its own accomplishments and looked upon each completed decade as the prelude to a better one. There was as little belief in the possibility of such barbaric declines as wars between the peoples of Europe as there was in witches and ghosts. Increased overdependence on each other was to take all the credit for that.
Young people were comfortably saturated with confidence in the unfailing and binding power of tolerance and conciliation. They honestly believed that the divergences and the boundaries between nations would gradually melt away into a common humanity and that peace and security, the highest of treasures, would be shared by all mankind. The idea of the nation was withering away, and it was being replaced by the only god accepted by all: technological progress.
It is reasonable that we, who have since the first case of COVID was discovered, removed “security” from our vocabulary as a myth, should smile at the optimistic delusion of that idealistically blinded time of our life, that the freedoms and progress of mankind must connote an unqualified and equally rapid moral ascent.
We of the COVID era who have learned not to be surprised by an outbreak of government’s lockdown decisions, we who were denied basic rights to spend Christmas with our families, chat over coffee with our friends, for who our latently tyrannical governments decided what goods were essential, and who started to see travelling as a privilege, we who expect things worse than the day before despite the vaccine news, are markedly more skeptical about a possible moral improvement of mankind.
We have had to accustom ourselves gradually to living without certainty, without knowledge of when this will end, without freedom, and without security. Most millennials and generation Z who had benefited the most from the pre-Covid era have found themselves lonely and struggling in these tough times.
Party nights, first dates, conferences, coffee meetings with friends — everything moved online, and it is only then we realised how privileged we used to be. We spent our evenings scrolling through pictures of those past — and freer times — when we could hold hands and hug, stand next to each other without masks, and work from cafes. Human relationships were transformed enormously, and the idea of sending senses no longer seemed like a Black Mirror episode. And yet, the Covid era showed us that we can never escape ourselves and that what mattered to us most must be held close. It was our first pandemic, and though lost and often deeply disappeared, we had to move on and learn to live in the new normal.
Long since we have denied the religion of our past selves and our faith in the rapid and continuous rise of humanity in the years to come has been shattered. To us, gruesomely taught, witnesses of a catastrophe which, at a swoop, hurled us back tens of years of humane endeavour, that rash optimism now seems banal.
But even though it was a delusion that served us in the pre-Covid time, it was a wonderful and noble delusion, more humane and more fruitful than our watchwords of to-day; and in spite of my later knowledge and disillusionment, there is still something in me which inwardly prevents me from abandoning it entirely.
That which, in his childhood, a man has drawn into his blood out of the air of time cannot be taken from him. And in spite of all that is daily blasted into my ears, and all that I myself and countless other sharers of my destiny have experienced in trials and tribulations, I cannot completely deny the faith of my youth, that someday things will rise again-in spite of all.
Even in the abyss of despair in which to-day, half-blinded, we grope about with distorted and broken souls, I look up again and again to those old star-patterns that shone over us just a year ago, and comfort myself with the inherited confidence that this collapse will appear, in days to come, as a mere interval in the eternal rhythm of the onward and onward. We will be free again.