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History Lessons: Can We Learn from the Past?

July 17, 2020

History Lessons: Can We Learn from the Past?

July 17, 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic has precipitated a historical autopsy to unearth teachable lessons. While some characterize it as an unprecedented catastrophe against which we have few defenses, others are excavating the records of plagues past, certain that we must have learned something from them. The web is awash with unenlightening parallels: entire societies took to mask-wearing during the 1918 influenza pandemic, local authorities concealed information about the bubonic plague in 1665 London. I have to admit to reaching for the delete key during the last decade as each successive epidemic produced appeals to study the “lessons learned” from Ebola, Zika, the Black Death or even the Plague of Athens. But this pandemic demands an answer: Do governments actually “learn”? Have societies gleaned anything useful from their prior encounters with disease?


Trapped in the past


Of course, learning from history can mean different things. For some serious scholars of contagion like Peter Baldwin,1 it entails recognizing that nations develop inimitable ways of being and doing, so that their experience with disease comes to shape the strategies they choose and their sense of the possible when confronted with new ones. If every infectious disease triggers a response molded by the institutions and practices formed in an earlier period then what we can “learn” from the past is that officials and politicians will inevitably resort to familiar measures, be they quarantinist and restrictive or largely civil libertarian in character. History in this sense is something akin to a deeply ingrained culture, or template, whose dictates it may not be possible to escape, and “learning” would mean leaders accepting that they cannot remake past practices or press new methods on populations accustomed to older ones. Those populations, in turn, may discover that their governments cling to well-honed techniques of disease containment despite scientific evidence that they are ineffective.


The US affection for “travel bans” is an example. In 1987, AIDS was added to the list of “dangerous and contagious diseases” with the passage of a Supplemental Appropriations Act. This effectively created a nationwide ban on the admission into the United States of individuals with HIV/AIDS. Despite arguments from medical experts that it was unenforceable and dangerous, the ban remained in place for 22 years. In 2014, congressional hearings saw the same demands for a travel ban against individuals from three Ebola-afflicted West African countries. In the end the United States settled for restrictions, forcing travelers from the affected countries to fly via US airports with screening procedures in place. The World Health Organization (WHO) cautioned against such travel restrictions for Covid-19, on the grounds that they were ineffective and counterproductive in the long run, but President Trump initially barred travel to the United States from China for non-US citizens, claiming that he was first to impose a “China ban.” This was factually inaccurate—the US ban was not the first, it exempted several categories of travelers, and many other countries joined the United States in imposing restrictions on travel from China, and, as time wore on, on one another. However, longstanding practice suggests that the United States is unlikely to abandon this strategy or change its approach to containing infectious disease at its borders.


“Those populations ... may discover that their governments cling to well-honed techniques of disease containment despite scientific evidence that they are ineffective.”

In similar terms, a nation-state’s response may be constrained by its political institutions. John Barry, author of The Great Influenza about the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, was reportedly uneasy about what George W. Bush gathered from his account: in the event of an avian flu pandemic (which seemed imminent in 2005), the United States should acquire the legal power to quarantine areas where outbreaks occurred and use the military to execute those powers. But what is interesting about the efforts to impose quarantines and other restrictive measures in 1918 is that they were rarely or intermittently effective. In the decentralized US federal system, the curtailing of activities and public gatherings and the closing of schools tended to vary state by state and sometimes even town by neighboring town. The lesson in this instance is that the powers granted to US states makes it extremely difficult for the nation to pull together when it comes to containing disease. The enduring significance of federalism has been apparent again recently as states found themselves trying to outbid one another for the purchase of protective equipment and ventilators.


Sweden exemplifies the effects of deep-rooted traditions on policies. Its efforts to manage Covid-19 have followed its “template” for tackling social problems. Instead of imposing the stringent lockdown of some other European nations, it has depended on the high levels of trust in civil society and the public authorities, characteristic of Swedish political culture, to persuade its citizens to adopt protective actions without closing down the economy. It has permitted daycare centers to stay open, freeing more people to go to work, and it did not close restaurants, bars, or parks. To some extent, this has been possible because Swedes are used to deferring to expert authorities in a nation where many government agencies have high degrees of autonomy. Decisions and briefings about Covid-19 have been made by public health bureaucrats and epidemiologists rather than by politicians. And alternative approaches are discouraged by a set of constitutional constraints that rarely permit the imposition of emergency measures. Initially, Sweden kept its death toll below that of some other European nations but now that toll has risen and the country’s strategies are coming under fire by some of its own experts. The lesson here is not that the Swedish approach toward Covid-19 was problematic, but that it should not surprise us, and that it may be difficult for the country to change course.


As this case suggests, longstanding legal arrangements also affect how government edicts are received in some regimes. We see this reflected in how concerns about privacy evoked by various strategies to contain Covid-19 have played out in different political and legal settings. The 2018 European Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), for instance, places stringent requirements on European Union member states with regard to the use and processing of personal data. If the United States had the kind of protections inscribed in this regulation, its residents might not feel so anxious about the prospect that mobile tracking devices may be used to trace the contacts of the infected.


At its limit, this version of history’s lessons suggests that, for better or worse, nations are prisoners of their pasts, Clio’s grip is unrelenting, and we cannot flip a magic switch to alter the underlying structural and cultural realities that shape a nation’s response to an epidemic.

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About the Author

Rosemary C.R. Taylor

Rosemary C.R. Taylor

Local Affiliate

Rosemary Taylor is associate professor of sociology and community health at Tufts University. She is the author of articles on public health and comparative health policy, co-author of Local AIDS Policies and ...
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