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Lessons from disaster: history and the current crisis

Peter N. Stearns and Richard E. Rubenstein

The coronavirus pandemic and the economic upheaval caused by attempts to control it are unique in some ways, but they are not the first or the worst crises of this sort to beset human society. What can history tell us about how such events impact existing social conflicts and create new ones? What lessons can be learned about periods of recovery that follow, and the possibilities of resolving conflicts thought to be intractable? While biomedical crises are more apt to exacerbate existing conflicts than to initiate new ones, unique features of the current "multiple crisis” have the potential to generate movements of radical reform.

Beginning with the rapid spread of the coronavirus early in 2020, much of the world has been hit by a many-sided crisis, involving disease itself, massive economic dislocation, and popular protests against economic and racial inequality. The United States, beset as well by faltering national leadership and fundamental changes in demographic balance, has been particularly challenged. Each crisis raises questions about longer-term results, and their combination heightens a sense of urgency.

In modern societies, at least, crisis immediately calls forth a need for history: people want to know if similar disasters in the past provide any guidelines for evaluating the current issues and, perhaps, orchestrating solutions. Thus, as early as March 2020, historians were being called upon to help a wider public remember past plagues. Black Lives Matter demonstrations in May and June similarly galvanized recollections of 1968 and other past battles.

History matters, in response to crisis, for two reasons: first, it offers analogies from the past, which are immediately useful in providing benchmarks for the present. But second, it also contributes to the more difficult task of figuring out what might actually be new in a current challenge. Both services - analogy and evaluation of change - apply directly to the assessment of future prospects.

One final preliminary: in modern societies, crisis also provokes at least a brief conviction that “something must be done” to make sure not only that the current problem gets solved but that it never happens again. Many modern people believe deeply if vaguely in progress, in the ability for some combination of science and policy innovation to move us forward. This was another response that emerged early on in the pandemic, and it invites juxtaposition with the historical approach.

The plague pattern: analogies

We begin with the crisis that kicked everything oft’, the pandemic itself. Through the specific virus is new, the current epidemic quickly, and correctly, called forth reminders that the human species has encountered very much the same problem many times in the past. We know a lot about what happens during and after the challenge occurs. It is worth noting that, to date, the current pandemic is relatively mild: leave aside the Black Death of the fourteenth century, which swept away up to a third of populations in Europe and the Middle East; recurrent cholera epidemics less than two centuries ago routinely claimed upwards of a tenth of many urban clusters. Perhaps the first thing to note is the capacity of the human species, in sheer population terms, to recover surprisingly quickly from what might otherwise seem an overwhelming disaster.

But the other two central historical “lessons” about plague, deriving from past analogies, are markedly less encouraging. Plagues tend to reveal and exacerbate existing structural problems; and they rarely produce constructive change, aside from the demographic recovery.

A scholar and statesman in the eighteenth century lamented that "times of plague are always those in which the bestial and diabolical side of human nature gains the upper hand.”1 And while this might seem a bit harsh in the current crisis, some common symptoms do show through.

Thus, the rich always seek, and usually manage, to find ways to escape the worst ravages of plague, ways that are not available to ordinary people. Inequalities, already rampant, typically increase in the process. In a few particularly nasty cases, privileged groups even seek to spread the plague deliberately to more vulnerable populations; exchange of infected materials, even aggressive coughing, are one result. Plagues also provoke a brutal impulse to seek scapegoats. During the Black Death, Jews were systematically attacked. In the nineteenth century, Asians were a common target, again with sometimes violent results. Here too, effects of plague-enhanced hatreds can linger even after the crisis passes. Efforts to blame other countries, or to try to conceal death rates, are newer symptoms, but they began to crop up in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.2 It will take great and

Lessons from disaster 19 deliberate care to assure that these common responses do not distort our current crisis.

The second point, and partly the result of the further problems that epidemics usually generate, is the frequent lack of constructive, long-term results. Here, we need look no farther than the “Spanish” influenza crisis of 1918-19, which has. rightly, been much in the news of late. This was a deadly global event, markedly similar to our current challenge except in age-group vulnerability - yet very few measures to improve public health responses or to prevent further outbreaks were adopted. Australia did, to be sure, revamp its federal health organization. In the United States, an old habit, of using a single drinking glass for a school classroom, was abandoned for good. But that was about it. The crisis, overshadowed by the larger results of World War I, was quickly forgotten (and rarely recalled subsequently in the history books). In the United States, a few years later, it was as if upwards of 600,000 people had died to no purpose.3

There are, to be sure, exceptions to this bleak picture. Plagues can also bring out examples of human generosity. The Black Death, unusual in many respects, did ultimately generate pressures for social change, resulting in higher wages for laborers and a loosening of serfdom, as population loss forced better treatment of the workers who remained. But this is atypical: Plagues usually either have little durable effect or make things worse.

History lesson #1, then, in the current crisis: any expectation that a tragedy of this magnitude will surely generate positive reform is unrealistic. Improvement may result, but it will take deliberate and sustained effort.

The plague pattern: changes

Happily, in this case, there is a second history lesson: analogies are inexact, and there is reason to emphasize the ways in which the current crisis differs from past examples. There are two key points here, mutually related.

In the first place, most modern people, and certainly most Americans, are less inclined to accept the inevitability of plagues and other diseases than was the case just a century ago. Of course, we have had more recent epidemics. AIDS is the leading example, and threats like SARS, but there has been no experience of COVID-like rapid dissemination since 1919. This may mean that we are not only more shocked by the pandemic - and this is clearly true, compared to the influenza outbreak; news coverage has been far more extensive - but more insistent on major changes that will reduce the chance of recurrence.

This links to the second, and more basic point: modern people have become less tolerant of death, more insistent that responsible authorities do something about it. Signs of this began to emerge in the nineteenth century.

Already in 1838, after a severe typhus outbreak in Britain, reformer Edwin Chadwick managed to persuade a reluctant government (worried about infringing on "liberties”) that sanitary conditions among the poor must be improved, not only for their sake but also for wider benefit.4 Already in 1892, hesitant response by the government of Hamburg to a cholera episode caused the voters to remove it for incompetence5 (just as, in 1920, American voters removed the national leadership that had overseen responses to the influenza, though in this case there were many factors involved).

Almost certainly, this kind of impatience has increased by the early twenty-first century. A considerable, though obviously not uniform, body of opinion has become intolerant of spikes in death rates - even, apparently, when old people are disproportionately involved. We also don't like situations in which lots of people die in public, rather than shielded by best efforts in a hospital - another response that was less uniform in 1919. Most obviously, many moderns have greatly extended both a belief in “science” and an insistence that science come up with rapid remedies.

Whether these raised expectations will overmaster the limitations suggested by historical analogies is, of course, unclear. We cannot even be sure that impatience with fumbling responses will topple existing governments, though current public opinion polls suggest some possibilities. At the least, we are not trapped by analogy: those seeking change can work to heighten the new impatience about death, to seek to address some of the deep, underlying problems the pandemic has revealed.

One other point deserves mention. The global context in which the pandemic has unfolded is also unusual. Epidemics have always, of course, involved international contacts - the Black Death spread from China to the Middle East to Europe; cholera usually reached Europe from India and then on to the Americas. Responses to epidemics have also had global repercussions: quarantines have affected trade and migration flows at least since the fourteenth century. But the current crisis, involving tensions around existing global institutions like the World Health Organization and amid the mounting competition between the United States and China, may have wider, and less predictable, implications. The result could exacerbate hostilities or provide another motive for more constructive reform.

The confluence of crises

By late spring 2020, it was becoming obvious that the pandemic was hardly the only concern. Disruption of trade and collapse of employment inevitably led to comparisons with the Great Recession and the Depression of the 1930s. Then, on top of this came a wave of civil rights protests that, again, had its own historical precedents.

Each strand invites its own mixture of analogy and change analysis, applying both to the nature of the crisis and to the adequacy of prior response. We do know, for example, some of the measures that can be taken to recover from a downward spiral - though the record, both in the 1930s and in 2008-9, suggests that Western societies, at least, are often too timid, extending hardship far longer than necessary. This is also a good time to assess the responses to the earlier civil rights movement, which were not negligible, but which demonstrably fell way short of the mark, in areas such as police behavior and imprisonment. We can also usefully compare public response, where at least in the short run, attitudes toward racial injustice seem to be shifting rapidly compared to the divisions of the late 1960s.

But what is arguably most remarkable, from the standpoint of historical analogy, is how rare it is to confront three crises of this magnitude - disease, economic collapse, civil rights surge - simultaneously. The three strands obviously interrelate - racial imbalance in pandemic incidence feeds response to police brutality, and all three crises highlight structural economic inequalities, all of course in the context of a changing global balance of power. Under circumstances this unusual, one’s use of historical analogy must be cautious, especially considering that it is not yet clear how deep and long the economic downturn will be, or how rapid and complete a recovery can be expected. Even so, history offers some tantalizing suggestions.

First, multiple crises even more disastrous than the current crop have occurred in some situations that produced revolutions or counterrevolutions. The Russian Revolution of 1917 took place on the heels of World War I, which ravaged the economy and virtually destroyed the Russian Army as an effective fighting force. The Nazi counter-revolution of 1933 was the product of multiple crises including Germany's defeat in the World War I. punitive measures by the Allies, and the Great Depression, which struck Germany earlier and more fiercely than it did other nations. Clearly, this does not mean that revolutionary changes of this sort are in the offing for nations now afflicted by the coronavirus and economic recession. But there is evidence that people undergoing multiple crises are inclined to view the source of their problems as a defective system rather than simply poor leadership or some other temporary condition.

This was the case, for example, during the 1930s Depression, when a large coalition of activist groups supporting President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal pushed him to change the old system by creating a welfare state, undertaking massive infrastructure reforms, and guaranteeing the rights of labor unions. A revolution did not take place in the United States, but systemic thinking helped generate substantial reforms. It is certainly possible, although by no means inevitable, that the sort of systemic criticism that already characterizes the thinking of activists in groups like Black Lives

Matter will become more marked among other aggrieved groups, such as workers and lower-level professionals.

Second, in an age in which conservative nationalism of a “populist” sort has become an important movement around the globe, it is quite possible that multiple crises will produce a more pronounced shift to the right. We cannot foresee how people in diverse societies will choose to exercise their political power, but we can say that the political decisions to be made at times like this are particularly fraught, since these battles tend not to be between moderates of various stripes but rather between (relative) extremists. By the time this book appears, the U.S. presidential election of 2020 will be history, but it is as good an example of any of the high stakes political decisions that may be made in eras of multiple crisis.

Finally, where multiple crises are long-lived and are followed by lengthy, halting, and uneven periods of recovery (as during the Great Depression), an alteration of political psychology can generate sustained movements for radical reform. From the time of the "Anarchist Prince,” Peter Kropotkin, to the work of scholars like Ted Robert Gurr and Charles Tilly, analysts have noted that a period of recovery that raises and intensifies popular expectations for further improvement is more likely to produce mass movements for change than a straight downward spiral. In this regard, it is also worth remembering that the three interrelated crises we have been discussing could well turn out to be the forerunners of additional crises, including environmental disasters related to climate change, new economic challenges, and an unpredictable global military environment.

To summarize: historical analogies stimulate speculation by calling attention both to similar past events and to unique aspects of the present. Predicting the likely outcome of an era of multiple crises is no simpler a matter than predicting the future of any other era, but one thing seems fairly clear: the post-coronavirus world is not likely to return easily to some precoronavirus state of “normalcy.” Confidence in public institutions has been deeply shaken. Systemic inequalities and incapacities have been dramatically exposed. Certain vulnerable social groups are already redefining their relationships with other groups and the State. How time-consuming and difficult the post-corona recovery will be is impossible to say at this point, but we would not be surprised, years from now, to see the 2020s described as a decade of intense and fateful turmoil.

Here, the citizen can only hope for a combination of popular pressure and responsive leadership to generate the range of dramatic changes that an extraordinary mixture seems to call for—a combination that has not clearly emerged, in Western societies, since at least the later 1940s. And here the historian (who also happens to be advanced in years) must simply wonder at

Lessons from disaster 23 the magnitude of the challenge involved, compared to available precedent -wonder, and perhaps hope.


  • 1 Barthold Niebuhr (1816). quoted in Samuel Cohn, Epidemics: Hate and Compassion from the Plague of Athens to AIDS (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019).
  • 2 Cohn, Epidemics.
  • 3 John Barry, The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History (New York: Viking Press, 2004).
  • 4 Christopher Hamlin. Public Health and Social Justice in the Age of Chadwick: Britain, 1 SOO-1854 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998).
  • 5 Richard Evan, Death in Hamburg: Society and Politics in the Cholera Years (New York: Penguin Books, 2005).

3 From the frying pan to the fire

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