There’s a World Out There

If Covid-19 has taught us anything it is that the West – and that includes its historians – must expand its horizons. 

Shinto priests at Meiji Shrine, Tokyo, 1 January 2021 © Carl Court/Getty Images.

Both producers and consumers of history tend to divide roughly into two camps. There are those who seek to find the present in the past, using examples from history to confirm their current prejudices. And there are those  who engage with the past on its own terms, however uncomfortable that might prove, trying to understand differing world views, however strange and disconcerting they might seem. 

For me, one of the appeals of studying the past is its strangeness, its unfamiliarity, and the challenges that it presents. It is all too easy to see one’s self in the ‘other’ rather than the other itself. This inability to look beyond one’s world view also presents a challenge to our understanding of the present and, indeed, the future.

As I write, early in the new year, cases of Covid-19 and its new variants are on the rise again. Though vaccines have arrived – in the case of the Oxford version, cheap and easy to administer – there may be many more grim months ahead. This situation could, perhaps, have been avoided or at least mitigated in some way had we in the West been a little more expansive in our horizons. When the virus first emerged, the western media, notably in Britain, took a rather parochial view of events. It became obsessed with the outbreaks and responses among its neighbours, in Italy, in Spain. In parts of Asia a very different but under-reported story was emerging in countries as diverse – in politics, economics and culture – as South Korea, Vietnam, Taiwan, Singapore and Japan (in the latter, just over 1,500 have died of Covid from a population of 127 million). There, spikes are more like undulations and the success may be accounted for by the wearing of masks, widespread since the SARS outbreaks of the early 2000s, consideration for others and the proximity of existential threat. Recent reports from Europe and the US have been a litany of despair. More reporting from Asia might have offered not only hope but instruction. Perhaps the experience of the last year may prompt more of us in the West – including historians – to look beyond our near horizon.