Lessons from history: how to create progress as we come out of the Coronavirus crisis

Date: 06/05/2020 Written by: Eloise 7 minutes to read.
Eloise, our resident history geek, explores some key historical moments and the lessons they teach about what could be coming next thanks to Coronavirus.

In times of uncertainty and crisis, as humans, we have a natural instinct to seek to understand and thereby gain some control over a given situation. Living through coronavirus fits the bill perfectly, and with my background in history, my first inclination is to look at what has happened in the past to help understand and anticipate some of what might be to come as a consequence of the societal changes due to coronavirus.

Staying with the focus on societal changes, an important place to start is the observation that “change is inevitable, but progress isn’t certain”. This timely quote might be a cliché, but it’s important to remember that simply because something changes, this does not mean it is ‘progress’. While change can lead to and cause progress in society, they are not the same thing.

Many of the assumed structures of our modern world have changed or are no longer stable. And we’re collectively starting to think and anticipate about what the ‘new normal’ post lockdown will look like, aware that things will not go back to exactly how they were before the outbreak.

Through setting out some key shifts and changes from history, what can our past tell us about the potential opportunities for progress (or not) that are likely to come after the shifting sands of coronavirus have settled?

Progress from pandemics

An obvious starting point is looking at previous pandemics. Examining these reveals how the impact of change can lead to either positive or negative progress.  

Starting in the middle ages, the Black Death (otherwise known as the plague) hit Europe in the mid to late 14th century. To date, it has been the largest and most shattering pandemic in recorded history. It is estimated that it wiped out about one-third of Europe’s population at the time.

This significant shift in population levels was a key catalyst for deep social change that was to come. Put simply, this decrease in population strengthened the hand of the ordinary people. Previously, those who worked the land in a number of forms for landlords had few rights. However, with a depleted population, people were no longer expendable or replaceable; they were needed to ensure the land was farmed and their value increased. They used this to push for better pay and conditions, culminating in the Peasants’ Revolt in 1382. Although this was defeated, it sparked a social movement that led to significant progress. Rents were cut by landlords and wages for agricultural workers increased by more than half between 1350 and 1400. More people who worked on the land were able to buy their freedom and improve their lives.

Lesson: The decrease in population levels from the pandemic was a significant change, but only led to progress in the form of improvements to pay and living conditions for the majority of the populace because they capitalised on the change to push for this progress. In other words, they took advantage of the opportunity it gave them.

Another catastrophic pandemic, the 1918 flu pandemic (the so-called Spanish Flu), started, as the name suggests, in January 1918 and lasted until the end of 1920. Although outbreaks of serious disease and illness often lead to reforms and improvement in public health services and infrastructure, historian Ryan Davis has argued that in Spain the pandemic was used by those who sought to set and create the national identity (from politicians to journalists) to create a “sanitary dictatorship” to control the masses. Hard lined measures were needed for the health of the nation and its people. Indeed, Spain was governed by dictatorships from the 1930s until the 1970s.

Lesson: The changes in public health and infrastructure from the pandemic was a significant change, but it was arguably put to proactive and strategic use by ‘the establishment’ as an opportunity to implement tough political control, paving the way for rule by dictatorship.  

Progress from economic crisis

By 1945, the impact of the Second World War had left the German economy in near ruin. The Allied bombing wiped out an estimated 70% of housing, the currency was failing, industrial outputs were significantly down, food production was about half of what it had been before the war, and a key workforce group (men aged 18 – 35) were severely depleted.

How then did this nation, whose economy was so severely hit by the war, turn its economic outlook around so that by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 it was the third biggest economy in the world when measuring its GDP?

This startling transformation is known as the ‘German economic miracle’ or Wirtschaftswunde. While the Marshall Plan (aid from the United States to European countries at the end of the war) contributed something towards the recovery, it is generally agreed that a more significant factor was the development and implementation of a ‘social market economy’ in West Germany. At the time, this was completely new and marked a step-change in how things were done. Free-market capitalism was promoted which also allowed the government to create social policies that ensured the system worked for as many people as possible (that is, elite monopolies were prevented from forming to control the majority of industry or production). Other measures put in place included replacing the old de-valued currency, providing large tax cuts to incentivise spending and investment, and removal of price controls on goods.  

Lesson: To reverse the potential negative progress on the nation after the war, there was a focus on proactive investment, recovery and encouragement of spending rather than austerity and restriction (as followed in the Soviet controlled East Germany). This paved the way for the growth, building and strengthening of the economy. 

Progress from scientific knowledge

Today, vaccinations are a normal part of life, especially in the Western world. Many of us (myself included) are now waiting for the finish line in the ‘race’ to develop a vaccination for COVID-19 to help us move back to an everyday life post lockdown with minimal social distancing.

However, vaccines can be traced back to the on-going issue of smallpox in the 18th century (an all too often deadly disease at the time). A doctor called Edward Jenner heard that milkmaids did not catch smallpox but got cowpox instead, a much milder variant. He hypothesised that cowpox somehow protected milkmaids from smallpox and conducted a number of experiments to test this (like any good researcher!), culminating in testing a vaccination on a young boy against smallpox by using cowpox microbes.

The finding was that cowpox did indeed provide the boy with immunity to smallpox. This paved the way for today’s inoculations, where weakened forms of the disease in question can be used to train and enable the body’s immune system to fight a disease it would otherwise not be able to fight against.

Lesson: The key here to generate progress from observed change was the necessity to meet a practical, real need (to help reduce or prevent deaths from smallpox), the curiosity and innovation to make connections and test the links between possible cause and effects and to harness the link to improve healthcare and medicine. 

Conclusion

The overall lesson? That when change happens throughout history, progress has to be proactively worked for, and often takes initiative and courage to use it as an opportunity to try something new and daring.  Whether this is people’s determination to push for better rights, the decisiveness to opt for a new economic philosophy based on spending not austerity or individual curiosity and determination to go against the norm and take a risk to test new ideas.

Progress depends on people and the decisions they make. Being decisive, bold, and avoiding the urge to stick to what we know after lockdown is likely to be the best way to bring progress and success from crisis. Could, for example, key workers use their increased recognition during lockdown to lobby for improved working conditions as we come out of lockdown?  

Whatever happens, understanding peoples’ needs, values and behaviours to make the best decisions possible for progress will become even more pertinent in the weeks and months ahead. To stay one step ahead in making the best decisions for your work, we’re here to help you now and as we move into a brave new world. Say hello via hello@social-change.co.uk or get in touch via our project planner to tell us about your important project and how we can help.

You might also like

Get the latest insights and other interesting changemaker stuff in your inbox.

Once or twice a month, 100% real and interesting, 0% spam.
We create meaningful digital products that connect with people and make positive change possible.

Home of the changemakers.

We just need a bit more info

* indicates required

Marketing Permissions

Social Change will use the information you provide on this form to be in touch with you and to provide updates and marketing. Please let us know all the ways you would like to hear from us:

Marketing preferences

You can change your mind at any time by clicking the unsubscribe link in the footer of any email you receive from us, or by contacting us at rob@social-change.co.uk. We will treat your information with respect. For more information about our privacy practices please visit our website. By clicking below, you agree that we may process your information in accordance with these terms.

We use Mailchimp as our marketing platform. By clicking below to subscribe, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to Mailchimp for processing. Learn more about Mailchimp's privacy practices here.

Project Planner