There are two kinds of history to learn from.
One is the specific events. What did this person do right? What did that country do wrong? What ideas worked? What strategies failed?
It’s most of what we pay attention to, because specific stories are easy to find.But their usefulness is limited.
Covid-19 is the biggest event of the last decade, maybe the last generation.But what’s the takeaway for me?
I’m not a policymaker or an epidemiologist, so specific lessons about public response and vaccine development aren’t relevant to me.
They might be only a little relevant to policymakers and epidemiologists, because future pandemics could have little in common with this one.
History is full of specific lessons that aren’t relevant to most people, and not fully applicable to future events because things rarely repeat exactly as they did in the past.
An imperfect rule of thumb is that the more granular the lesson, the less useful it is to the future.
The second kind of history to learn from are the broad behaviors that show up again and again, in multiple fields and different eras. They are the 30,000-foot takeaways from events that hide layers below the main story, often going ignored.
How do people think about risk? How do they react to surprise?
What motivates them, and causes them to be overconfident, or too pessimistic?
Those broad lessons are important because we know they’ll be relevant in the future. They’ll apply to nearly everyone, and in many fields.
The same rule of thumb works in the other direction: the broader the lesson, the more useful it is for the future.
Let me offer one of those lessons from Covid-19. I think it’s one of the most important lessons of history:
Lesson #1: Calm plants the seeds of crazy.
Per-capita death from infectious disease in the United States declined 94% from 1900 to 2010. It went from the most common cause of death to one of the rarest.
Part of what’s made Covid dangerous is that we got so good at preventing pandemics in the last century that few people before January assumed an infectious disease would ever impact their lives. It was hard to even comprehend.
The irony of good times is that they breed complacency and skepticism of warnings.
Smart epidemiologists have been warning this could happen for years. But mostly to deaf ears, and a public that assumed pandemics were something that happened only in history books and other parts of the world.
It’s hard to convince someone that they’re in danger of a risk they assume had been defeated. Some of why “it’s just the flu” became a phrase this year is because it’s normal to cling to something you’re familiar with when confronted with something you’re not.
That wouldn’t have been the case if Covid-19 happened 100 years ago, or even 50 years ago.
Infectious disease was so much more common then – from typhoid to measles to polio to scarlet fever – that the public’s understanding of how dangerous an outbreak could be was greater back then, even if we know infinitely more about viruses now than we did then.
In 1918 humans had never viewed a virus under a microscope. But “wear a mask and keep your distance” they understood better than we do today.
“Plow money into vaccines and public health programs” – was something we became experts at in the 20th century, too. Then we got healthier and more naive.
“As public health did its job, it became a target” of budget cuts, Lori Freeman, CEO of the National Association of Health Officials said this summer. Local health departments have lost a quarter of their workforce in the last decade.
The theme goes on and on: Two things have plunged in the last 80 years: death from bacterial infection, and funding/development of new antibiotics that will combat future infections.
The U.N. thinks drug-resistant bacteria could kill 10 million people a year by 2050, reversing the lives saved since penicillin came into use in 1945.
Historian Dan Carlin writes in his book The End is Always Near:
Nothing separates us from human beings in earlier eras than how much less disease affects us. If we moderns lived for one year with the sort of death rates our pre–industrial age ancestors perpetually lived with, we’d be in societal shock.
That’s the important part.
It’s weird to think that Covid would be easier to deal with if we hadn’t made so much infectious-disease progress over the last century.
But we did. So now it’s a generational nightmare.
Calm plants the seeds of crazy.A lot of things work like that.
An important lesson from history is that the risks we talk about in the news are rarely the most important risks in hindsight.
We saw that over the last decade of economists and investors spending their lives discussing the biggest risk to the economy – was it Ben Bernanke’s monetary policy? Barack Obama’s fiscal policy? Donald Trump’s trade wars?
No, none of those. It was a virus. Out of the blue, causing havoc we couldn’t comprehend.
The same story, again and again.
Photo credit: Markus Spiske on Unsplash