If History Is Any Guide

Photo: National Archives

When the bubonic plague came to Europe in October 1347, it killed more than 20 million people in five years. The crisis created an opportunity to level income inequality, with labor shortages so severe that they drove up average wages. The wealthy fought the economic trend with gusto.

If that were Europe today, what might leaders have done differently? If ever there was a time to double down on history lessons, it’s during a crisis like COVID-19. When people faced similar cataclysmic events in centuries past, their descendants often ended up with cautionary tales. Smallpox decimated populations the world over for 1,500 years. Yellow fever perpetuated extreme social inequality in the American South, with enslaved people sent to work in mosquito-ridden cotton fields and “unacclimated” immigrants—i.e., those without antibodies—cast out of the job market. During the Great Depression, the “roaring industrial expansion that had boomed since the Civil War hushed to a near standstill for half a generation,” writes history professor emeritus David M. Kennedy, ’63. But the crises also necessitated inventions, and now we have vaccines and social safety nets and sophisticated monetary policy.

Certainly in our lifetimes it’s unprecedented for everyone on the planet to be grappling with the same crisis at the same time. As we contemplate the notion of a broad-based recovery, four history experts weigh in on how we might learn from the past instead of repeating it.

Jill Patton, ’03, MA ’04, is the senior editor of Stanford.

19th-century Illustration of men carrying dead bodies into a plague pit.Photo: duncan1890/Getty Images


What We Can Learn From the Plague

Power and resistance to it will shape our recovery from pandemic times.

Walter Scheidel is a professor of classics and of history and the Dickason Professor in the Humanities. He studies ancient social and economic history. Among his books is The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century, in which he makes the case that only catastrophe or mass violence can substantially temper economic inequality.

One lesson we can learn: In the late Middle Ages, the Black Death killed perhaps a third of the population of Europe. So many succumbed to the plague that labor became scarce and demand for land fell. Yet landowning elites resisted compromise: They lobbied rulers to impose laws against higher wages and generally did what they could to keep the masses down. Only where they failed did the poor end up less poor and the rich less rich. The lesson is clear: Political power and popular resistance play critical roles in shaping the consequences of a pandemic, and that’s as true today as it was then.

One probable outcome: A big crisis doesn’t necessarily change the direction of a society’s development: More often than not, it merely accelerates and amplifies existing trends. Throughout history, only the most dramatic upheavals have turned into true game changers. The coronavirus crisis won’t be one of them: It isn’t anything like the Black Death, or even the Great Depression. As long as quantitative easing—“printing money,” as the media likes to say—keeps corporations afloat and renders mass unemployment manageable, and modern medicine holds out a credible promise of deliverance, our society is unlikely to experience radical change. Instead, the pandemic is boosting shifts that were already underway, from digitalization of the workplace to skepticism of globalization. It has also widened the gap between protected and precarious workers, between young and old, and between digitally connected and disadvantaged students.

One opportunity we can glean: But all is not lost. Even lesser crises encourage us to consider alternatives. We saw this in 2008, when the Great Recession put social and economic inequality on the agenda. The current shock once again reminds us of this problem, highlighting the lack of progress and the need for intervention. As the famous economist Milton Friedman observed, when a crisis leads to change, “the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.” Right now there is no shortage of competing ideas, from conservative short-term fixes that seek to preserve the plutocratic order all the way to a Green New Deal. Even though this crisis won’t be devastating enough to sweep all before it, it should be capable of nudging us toward low-hanging fruit: more accessible health care, stronger worker protections, a sustained push for social justice. While none of this will create an egalitarian wonderland, such incremental improvements are now well within our reach.

Headshot of Walter ScheidelPhoto: Stanford News Service


Archival illustration of a doctor vaccinating the poor in New York City against smallpox.Photo: Everett Collection/Shutterstock


What We Can Learn From Smallpox

Biological contagion is only part of the story.

Michael Wilcox is an Indigenous archaeologist and a senior lecturer in Native American studies at the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity. He was on the anthropology faculty from 2001 to 2017. He studies the intersections of colonial violence, disease, forcible removal and food sovereignty in Indigenous populations. His Bay Area–based research challenges the contention that California Indians became extinct during the colonial period.

One lesson we can learn: I ask people to reconsider the idea that diseases are these free-floating, biologically neutral elements of human societies, and that when they latch on to a specific population, it wreaks havoc on them as part of a natural, evolutionary process. Part of that story is that Native Americans lacked immunity to these diseases—that there’s something deficient in our DNA that did not allow us to respond to these diseases in the same way that Europeans did. 

But these same diseases decimated populations in Europe. Every year we still have to get inoculations for all types of infectious diseases. People talk about disease in the Americas as if it erased “virgin” Native populations. But pathogens move and adapt to our circumstances and behaviors. We need to include colonialism as part of this equation—social and sexual violence, land dispossession, lack of access to clean water and traditional foods all could be considered comorbidities. Population declines were the product of a whole host of factors directly related to colonial activities.

One consequence of the mission system in California was that Native people were put into barracks that had 20 to 30 people in a single room. The rooms were segregated by sex, so people were not allowed to reproduce. These tightly packed quarters are the exact nightmare for disease spread. 

Colonization wasn’t an accident. The health outcomes of Native peoples, who were at the bottom of the social ladder in colonial societies, were purposefully engineered that way. 

One probable outcome: Look at the way that COVID-19 is affecting different populations. On the Navajo reservation, many people don’t have access to clean water to wash their hands. There isn’t access to good health care. Through changes to their diet, they’re predisposed to comorbidities, such as diabetes. These comorbidities are not part of any natural biological process; with Native peoples, they are a product of colonial policies in the past and also in the present.  

Many communities of color live in food deserts—places where you don’t have grocery stores. People can’t purchase fresh fruit or vegetables, and they end up with a lot of processed foods. When those communities are affected disproportionately by COVID-19, you can see there are things that go into their poor outcomes that don’t have anything to do with their not wanting to be healthy or their having poor health and hygiene habits. I’m worried about poor communities being blamed for things. And the ease with which we seem to be writing off our elderly population as expendable blows my mind.

One opportunity we can glean: We have a problem in this country right now with articulating a sense of community that we all can believe in. The impact of that is that our political divisions are playing out in our health outcomes. There are real manifestations of not believing that you are connected to your fellow human beings. 

Americans like to believe that we are part of a special social experiment where life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is something that we all share. But it doesn’t seem like we have really figured out how to create or maintain community as a nation when we need one another. 

Our society is being driven apart at the same time that we need to act as one. We are raising questions about who we are and how we act appropriately toward those who are most vulnerable in our society. Are they us or are they not us? If they’re us, then we need to act.

Headshot of Michael WilcoxPhoto: Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service


An archival illustration of a mob of men outside a hospital.Photo: Keith Lance/Getty Images


What We Can Learn From Yellow Fever

The problems with privilege mount up.

Kathryn Olivarius is an assistant professor of history. She studies 19th-century America with a focus on the antebellum South, the greater Caribbean, slavery and disease. Her research explores how epidemic yellow fever disrupted society in the Deep South when, nearly every summer, the mosquito-borne virus killed up to 10 percent of the urban population.

One lesson we can learn: Disease is never just a biological event. It’s a social and economic one, too. Epidemics show the seams of society—what’s strong and what’s not. In the case of yellow fever, which in the 19th century killed about 50 percent of the people it infected, it exacerbated many forms of privilege and discrimination that already existed. Society became stratified not just along the lines of race but also by this immunity calculus, with so-called acclimated citizens on the top. If you were unacclimated, you could not get a job. You could not live in certain places. You could not get life insurance. Being immune became one of the most important credentials you could possess. The system of privilege that developed enabled the economy to keep functioning. 

There are many differences between 19th-century yellow fever and 21st-century COVID-19. The latter is a lot less fatal. We were able to map the genome of this virus almost immediately. However, we are seeing some of the same social effects as we await a vaccine. There is incredibly disparate access to health care. One of the things that is very similar—and scary—is that we are potentially looking at an endemic disease that we’re going to have to live with long term and adapt to.

One probable outcome: Some leaders have adopted the line that it’s almost a patriotic act to go back to work and “reopen” our economy. This sets off a sort of lightning bolt in my head. That is exactly the cynical, ultra-individualist, blindly commercial attitude we saw before: that public health is not the responsibility of the government; it’s the responsibility of individuals to take on disease risk.

It’s framed as a choice, but this is not a real choice for many people. They don’t have an option but to go back to work, often in very dangerous circumstances. This is disproportionately true of people of color, poor people, undocumented people, wageworkers without the kind of leverage or recourse that others have. We’ve already seen people make the rational choice to go out and get sick so that they can hold this immunity credential. That invites huge, huge problems for people’s individual health and their community’s health.

One opportunity we can glean: Americans are individualistic. Hopefully, this can become a civics lesson in how to build a more collaborative society: We Californians have to cooperate with Texans, who have to cooperate with Germans, etc. And obviously, wear a mask to protect those around you. 

We could also fundamentally restructure health care to acknowledge that it’s a right deserved by everyone; that it actually benefits society writ large for everyone to have access. We could use this moment to reset quite a few sectors of our economy and governance, to try to make people feel protected and valued by the state. New Orleans in the 19th-century South never did any of this stuff. They doubled down on a hyper-libertarian attitude toward health. The end result—biologically justified inequality—wasn’t pretty. We don’t need to go back to that world.

Headshot of Kathryn OlivariusPhoto: Stanford News Service


Unemployed men queued outside a depression-era soup kitchen opened in Chicago by Al Capone. Photo taken February 1931.Photo: National Archives


What We Can Learn From the Great Depression

If an issue sticks around long enough, a sluggish system may rise to the challenge.

David M. Kennedy, ’63, is the Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History, Emeritus. His scholarship integrates economic and cultural analysis with social and political history, with particular attention paid to the concept of American national character. He won the Pulitzer Prize in History for his 1999 book, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929–1945.

One lesson we can learn: The Great Depression lasted 11 years, as customarily measured, from 1929 to 1940. Its initial impact was especially swift and brutal, putting one of every four breadwinners out of work by early 1933, in an age that knew nothing of unemployment insurance or any kind of meaningful safety net. Yet candidate Franklin Roosevelt was not alone in 1932 when he reflected on the mystifying docility and stoic passivity of the Depression’s victims. “Repeatedly he spoke of this,” Roosevelt confidant and brain truster Rexford Tugwell recorded, “saying that it was enormously puzzling to him that the ordeal of the past three years had been endured so peaceably.” Americans of that day proved remarkably capable of submitting to long-term misery as a way of life. 

Today’s Americans show no such qualities of patient resignation in the face of hardship, nor do their leaders—as dramatically evidenced in the rapid counter-punches that both the outgoing Bush administration and the incoming Obama administration delivered to the Great Recession in 2008–2009, not to mention the bipartisan relief measures enacted at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Not least because of the Depression experience, we are much less prepared to tolerate remediable misery and more ready to accept—indeed, to demand—that the full panoply of governmental power be deployed when crisis strikes. 

Unlike the still-debated drivers of the Great Depression, the root cause of today’s crisis—the SARS-CoV-2 virus—is a sharply focused target against which the formidable weight of this and many other governments is being thrown. So there’s good reason to believe we are not doomed to repeat our forebears’ decade-long ordeal.

One probable outcome: Much will depend on its duration. The Great Depression provided the opportunity for the Franklin Roosevelt administration to enact the New Deal, a comprehensive set of innovations that permanently transformed much of the American social and economic landscape, in my judgment for the better. 

At the outset of the Obama administration, in 2009, many people believed that a comparably transformative moment had arrived. The parallels with the Hoover-to-Roosevelt transition in 1933 were ubiquitously invoked: a reform-minded Democratic president succeeding a failed (or surely less than fully successful) Republican, in the midst of a cataclysmic economic crisis apparently careening toward Great Depression 2.0. Obama’s first chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, summed up the mood in a memorable quip: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” But for all the extravagant hopes of that moment, the Obama administration managed to achieve only modest reforms (notably including the still-contested Affordable Care Act). 

The Great Depression lasted more than a decade; the New Deal’s principal and lasting reforms —notably the Social Security Act—date from mid-decade, five years into the Depression and two or more into Roosevelt’s tenure. Thanks to lessons learned from that episode, the Great Recession was stopped in its tracks in a matter of months, and the window of political opportunity was slammed shut. 

So what should we expect the COVID crisis to produce? If, as some anticipate, an effective vaccine is developed quickly, the crisis will have proved to be relatively short-lived and we should therefore not expect to see big consequences. But if, dreadful thought, the pandemic and its attendant economic paralysis persist for years, we might see major changes, for better or for worse. 

One opportunity we can glean: We live in a constitutional order and a two-century-old political culture that by intention and habit are formidable impediments to change. In such a system, lasting change, if it happens at all, comes only in the context of hugely disruptive calamities, like the Civil War and the Great Depression. The founders, in short, built a political machine designed to constrain the exercise of power, not facilitate it. 

So, the arc of possibility in our own day will be largely defined not only by the depth but also by the duration of this crisis. One might better say of these three crises: pandemic, economic coma, and strenuously renewed calls for racial justice in the wake of the killings of George Floyd and others.

If there is a point at which these three crises converge, it’s likely to be in the realm of health care. The last several months have surfaced several deficiencies and associated inequities afflicting our society: the inadequacy of governmental institutions tasked to protect the public’s health (despite countless warnings from epidemiologists over many years about the need to prepare for increasingly likely pandemics); the vulnerability of patients whose medical insurance is tied to their place of employment; the fragility of a consumer-based economy when consumers are confined to their quarters; and, though not caused but amplified by the media coverage of racist police behavior, the scarcely less scandalous revelation that communities of color have the poorest health and the highest COVID-19–related mortality rates of all Americans. 

So if the energies generated in these several dimensions of disruption can somehow be coordinated and focused, we might at last join the family of nations—that’s virtually all of them in the so-called developed world—who manage to provide quality health care to all their citizens, all the time.

Headshot of David M. KennedyPhoto: Stanford News Service