8 Pages Posted: 4 Feb 2021 Last revised: 10 Mar 2021
Date Written: June 9, 2020
Asks what, if anything, we can learn from the past about the COVID-19 pandemic, drawing from other major epidemics in world history. Argues that history often fails to teach leaders and experts the “lessons” we might expect, and that strategies to contain epidemics are constrained by nations’ deep-rooted traditions and institutions. Popular understandings about zoonotic diseases (transmitted from animals to humans) have led to complicated policy responses with mixed results. Analyzes how the imperatives of war have often conflicted with the task of protecting populations from disease. Concludes that while history may not always tell us what to do, it can warn us about impending challenges; it tells us not to hearken back to some unrecoverable past but to attend to the conditions that have led us to this point, and to focus on repairing the social fault lines that this pandemic has intensified.
Note: Sections of this paper were published under the title “History Lessons: Can We Learn from the Past?” in Items: Insights from the Social Sciences, Forum on Democracy and Pandemics, Social Science Research Council (16 July 2020).
Keywords: Epidemic, pandemic, disease, COVID-19, history
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