The Pandemic and History

Four historians consider whether the experience of the pandemic has changed their views on the nature of historical crises.

Coloured woodcut image of the four horseman of the apocalypse as printed in Anton Koberger's German bible, f.577r, 1485 © The University of Edinburgh.

‘The last year has underlined the interconnected nature of events’

Alex von Tunzelmann, Author of Blood and Sand: Suez, Hungary and the Crisis that Shook the World (Simon & Schuster, 2016)

Strictly, the answer to this question is no: the facts of this pandemic and the response have not changed the facts or natures of previous crises. More broadly, though, watching a global crisis unfold in real time has made me think about how I approach historical crises in three ways: focus, connections and diversity of experience.

The nature of crises is that they’re incredibly complicated. The ‘hot’ period of the Suez Crisis lasted around 16 days. It took me more than three years to research and write about it, because so many different powers and interests were involved all around the world: it coincided with the Hungarian Rebellion, threatening to draw the Soviet Union and the US into a Third World War. Future historians will have to reconstruct the pandemic from a global mountain of information, including social media as well as conventional media. My advice to them (and to myself) is to focus; it’s better to tell one story well than to be overwhelmed by the material.

The experience of the last year has underlined the interconnected nature of events in a crisis. For instance, I’m interested in the phenomenon of conspiracy theories and denialism, which crop up in a lot of historical crises. It would be hard to tell the story of Covid deniers without rooting it in the last couple of decades of the ‘anti-vaxx’ movement, the expansion of conspiracy theories, the erosion of traditional media, the decline of trust in government and so on. The nature of crises and crisis responses is that they do not happen in a vacuum. Exploring these connections makes it even harder for a historian to maintain focus, but that is part of the challenge.

Finally, diversity of experience. The pandemic has brought suffering to many. Yet there are large numbers of people who are quite indifferent to this. There are those who have benefited materially from the pandemic and those who seek to deny or minimise its effects. For historians of past crises, this is a reminder that human stories are never simple; we must never presume a single response. The nature of human experiences and opinions is always astonishingly varied.

 

‘It has deepened my understanding of the emotional response to such events’

Jessie Childs, Author of God’s Traitors: Terror and Faith in Elizabethan England (Vintage, 2014)

When the vestrymen of the burnt-out church of St Sepulchre’s gathered together after the Great Fire of London in 1666 they established several things very quickly: a new way of meeting, a list of the most vulnerable pensioners and a set of safety measures. They relit the streets, fixed the fire engines and recast the molten bell-metal into ‘sound and tuneable bells’.

Those impulses – to regroup, protect and come together as a community – have been iterated by the pandemic. From clapping on British doorsteps to singing from Italian balconies, a sense of campanilismo (loyalty to the bell tower) has been strong. The pandemic has also reinforced the view that most people, if faced with an existential threat, will prioritise security over liberty. Hobbes still matters.

It is no surprise either that the pandemic has exposed and deepened the cracks in society and caused further stresses to the economy, healthcare and education. It has not, therefore, changed my views on the nature of historical crises, which are in any case varied, contingent and hard to distil, but it has deepened my understanding of the emotional responses to such events.

Throughout the lockdowns, I’ve been writing about the British Civil Wars of the 1640s. A combination of natural and man-made factors made the 17th century a ‘global crisis’, in Geoffrey Parker’s phrase. Those who lived through it sometimes seem like iron men and women. It is easier now to appreciate their anger, confusion, envy, apparent apathy and extraordinary resilience. Having grappled with home-schooling, I’m more forgiving of lacunae in registers and diaries. Contemporaries spoke of their ‘distracted’ times. I’d always thought it was a euphemism, but now I realise that it is exactly the right word.

Past crises show that cities and states can rise from the ashes of catastrophe, but it takes inspired leadership and an awful lot of work. The British test and trace scheme was abysmal, the vaccine rollout magnificent. It may be that we can ‘build back better’, as the slogan goes, find a new equilibrium and perhaps even tread more lightly upon the earth. But at this point it is too soon to say.

 

‘It makes me think what is happening now is different’

Anthony Barnett, Author of The Lure of Greatness: England’s Brexit and America’s Trump (Unbound, 2017)

Yes and no. No: historic crises were as they were. Pandemics usually intensify but do not change existing forms of rule. With the exception of the Black Death, which appears to have transformed the value of labour because of the extent of the losses, natural disasters such as plagues do not alter the nature of a society. They are a challenge that amplifies existing problems but do not pose a systemic crisis.

Thus, in the 20th century, pandemics were still regarded as fate: the flu pandemic of 1919-22 killed more people than the First World War but left little lasting legacy. Similarly, the pandemics of 1957 and 1968. If you have not heard of them, that proves the point. AIDS and Ebola were lethal for the communities impacted, but did not become a ‘historic crisis’.

This pandemic is different. It has not led me to alter my view about what has happened in the past, but it makes me think what is happening now is different.

Until recently, all that could be done was slow infection rates: fatalism was unavoidable. As humanity became capable of genuine self organisation, a cult of fatalism was generated to protect rulers from popular agency. Called ‘market fundamentalism’ or ‘neoliberalism’, it insisted government was the problem and market forces had to be obeyed to achieve a better life.

Economically, its success ended with the financial meltdown of 2008-09. Now, politically and socially, the hegemonic theory of government has been overturned by a micro-organism. Tremendous advances in medical science and technology meant that Covid could be treated. In 1919 there were not intensive care units able to treat patients under 24-hour sedation. There was not, therefore, the danger of life-saving wards being overwhelmed in the same way. Governments had to act.

President Macron has said: ‘We are going to nationalise the wages and the profit and loss accounts of almost all our businesses ... It’s against all the dogmas, but that’s the way it is.’ A huge effort will be made to rehabilitate the old order after its period in intensive-care, but it is unlikely to re-emerge unchanged – the pandemic has generated a historic crisis of its own. 

 

‘The pandemic has made more vivid the disaster that unfolded in the New World during the 16th century’

Camilla Townsend, Author of Fifth Sun: a New History of the Aztecs (Oxford University Press, 2019)

Living through the pandemic has made more vivid the disaster that unfolded in the New World during the 16th century. Following contact with Europe and its viruses, the indigenous population of the Americas dropped by at least 85 per cent over the course of the first century. By the 1580s, some Spaniards feared that literally all the Native Americans would die.

Because of this horrific context, there has been a tendency on many modern people’s part to speak of ‘die-offs’, to assert that around half the population would perish when an epidemic took place, or even to explain the conquest as a consequence of the fact that so many people were dying of disease that they couldn’t fight back militarily.

But the Aztec-language histories do not speak of events in this way. Instead, they convey an abiding sadness. Now, I understand better why. 

This past year, though most of the world mitigated relatively successfully by keeping people at home, there were pockets that experienced Covid’s full two per cent mortality rate; certain areas in New York City, for instance, or square-block areas in New Jersey, where I live. The sound of the sirens, the stories from my students’ families and my own fear for loved ones combined to leave me feeling traumatised. But, a few months later, life had continued for most of us and we were finding ways to laugh again. Our smiles were shaky, but genuine.

In the 16th century, smallpox could kill between 20 and 30 per cent of those that caught it. More common diseases, such as whooping cough or measles, had lower mortality rates. There was no die-off that left whole towns empty overnight. Instead, people went through something like unmitigated Covid, then a few years later, Covid but ten times worse, then the next year, a bad flu season, then in a decade, something twice as bad. After decades of this, they felt so vulnerable, their psyches didn’t know which way to turn. They focused on small victories. In a record in a small church in the 1620s, a man wrote: ‘Today no one’s child died.’ The survivors still laughed sometimes the following year, but by then, their sense of themselves in relation to the universe had changed forever.