The coronavirus pandemic has changed the way we live, upended economic systems, and obliterated entire industries. Five historians reflect on what this all will mean once it’s documented in the history books.
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We are living through a course of history that will forever shift how humans function. From the way we interact with one another to how we work, parent and teach our children, and prioritize social issues, life as we knew it is gone. One day, historians will record these events and offer analysis for future generations.
What will they say of this time? Will we, as humans, learn from our mistakes? Will the gross inequalities and miscarriages of justice—from the political to the environmental—be etched in books and studied in universities, or just lodged in our memories until those who lived through the Coronavirus epidemic of 2019-2020 die-off? Will these events be recorded at all?
DAME spoke to five historians with specialties ranging from environmental and social justice to women’s history and American wars. Their insight adds context to the confusion and uncertainty that threatens our feeling of security. Perhaps the most comforting, each of these experts is just as human as you and I. They are living through this time, too, unsure of what lies ahead (as each reminded me, historians are not prognosticators), underscoring that we are in this together.
LaShawn D. Harris is an associate professor of history at Michigan State University and assistant editor for the Journal of African American History.
Katherine Hijar is a historian specializing in 19th-century U.S. social and cultural history focusing on gender, race, and power structures.
Allison K. Lange is an associate professor of history at the Wentworth Institute of Technology with a focus on images, women’s history, and voting rights.
Megan Kate Nelson is an expert in the history of the American Civil War, the West, Native history, popular culture, and the 19th century.
Jason L. Newton is a visiting assistant professor of history at Cornell University specializing in capitalism, labor, and the environment.
When you look back on this moment in time—from the unprecedented restructuring of daily American life, to the authoritarianism of the president—how will this history be written? Or, perhaps, how should it?
Newton: I wonder if the coronavirus pandemic, which seems so intrusive and destructive to so many across the world now, will be considered historically significant in 75 or 100 years. I hope it will be. If it is, and generations of children spend time learning about The Pandemic of 2019/2020, future politicians, bosses, and workers will be better prepared for the next public health crisis. One reason we weren’t prepared for this pandemic was because these types of events don’t get the proper amount of attention in history curriculum. Collectively, we might feel the coronavirus is historic but historians and teachers decide what is taught in classes and too often they focus on conventional politics and the deeds of great men like entrepreneurs, labor leaders, or robber barons. As we are learning now, non-human things like viruses often have the most profound effects on people’s daily lives and the course of history.
Nelson: I do think that we are going to have a much fuller account of this moment in history than so many other crisis events in the past, given that social media has provided so many Americans with the ability to record their experiences on a daily basis. The fact that women are the majority of social media users means that women’s voices will be much louder and more insistent in historical sources documenting this moment.
Harris: Scholarly and popular writings about the current political climate should consider giving attention to the different ways in which national leaders openly threatened American democracy and its institutions, waged a war on the independent press, voiced falsehoods, sanctioned the mobilization of hate groups, and unapologetically stripped away the rights of those living and laboring in the country. Equally important to narratives about political upheaval are stories about political activism and struggle against authoritarian rule.
Hijar: I often say that I wish I could be the historian who writes, with objective hindsight, about these times. While I cannot even conceive of all of the ripple effects that [Donald Trump’s] actions have set in motion, one aspect of his presidency that I find interesting is that he also seems to have inadvertently fueled movements that aim to create a more equitable society. Every generation of historians asks new sets of questions, too. It was only in the 1960s and 1970s that significant numbers of historians began digging in earnest to uncover the histories of workers, people of color, and women.
Lange: Most likely, the first inclination will be to document this crisis from the top down, looking at decisions made by our leaders and the consequences. However, the ways that this crisis affects local communities and individuals will be just as important to understand. Even in 2020, the majority of public leaders are men. If we have more documents by and about women, we will have a better understanding of the ways that this experience is shaping their lives.
For many of us, every day feels like a crisis, and the latest need is the most urgent. Looking back, what will be the most drastic, lasting consequences of these past few months?
Lange: Reflecting on the past can give us hope for the future. Looking back at the flu pandemic of 1918 and 1919, we can see the ways that women—especially as nurses and caregivers–became crucial to the nation’s recovery. Their work helped to convince Americans that they were important contributors and deserved the vote. The 19th Amendment, which prohibited voter discrimination based on sex, passed in 1920. Women of color secured positions as nurses during the crisis, which helped them enter the profession in greater numbers even after the pandemic ended. Moments of crisis can present important moments of opportunity.
Nelson: I am hopeful that the lasting consequences will actually be positive—that the photographs of smogless cities will bring home the impact of pollution and climate change on natural and built environments; that people will finally understand how profoundly stupid it is to attach health care to workplaces; and that Americans will appreciate how important it is to have a functioning federal government full of experts in pandemic response and logistics.
However, all of this depends on how long this crisis lasts. If it’s six months to a year, I don’t think there will be any long-term, systemic changes in the way that Americans do anything. We have proven ourselves adept at forgetting about crisis conditions once they are over. The longer the pandemic lasts, the more lasting effects it will have on American society.
Harris: During this unprecedented moment in modern American History, I hope to witness the global community’s continued outpouring of compassion, kindness, and generosity, as well as citizens’ sustained efforts to hold elected officials accountable for political miscalculations, corruption, and misconduct.
Newton: Maybe some big historical event will happen because of COVID-19. Perhaps the economic recession will be protracted. Perhaps the economy will be restructured or geopolitics will be rearranged. There might be wars or revolutions. If any of these things happen, the textbooks will cover those events and not the biology of the virus, the sickness, daily life under social distancing, or the social, economic, and environmental relations that caused the virus to jump to humans and spread so rapidly.
Our nation has never been more fractured, even during a time when we need a collective effort to move forward. Do you think this time will serve to unite us, or divide us even further?
Nelson: The political fracture in America is not healing; it is growing wider. And yet on a local level, we see a lot of people experiencing the pandemic in very similar ways and coming together as communities. There are racial and class inequalities that exacerbate and change these experiences across the country. But the ways that the pandemic has changed who we think of as “essential workers,” and the fact that so many people in so many different circumstances are having similar day-to-day experiences, is unprecedented in this nation’s history.
Harris: In such uncertain times, the current socio-economic and political circumstance and national health crisis is illuminating both a united and divided country. Amid the global pandemic and stripped civil and human rights of American citizens, undocumented citizens, and incarcerated men, women, and children, millions of Americans are uniting in unexpected ways. In the streets, public venues, and halls of Congress and on various social media platforms, concerned about civil and human rights violations, working toward restoring individual citizenships rights, and ensuring that all citizens have fair and equal access to healthcare, housing, employment, and voting. At the same time, the country is deeply divided over a host of socioeconomic and political issues especially as it pertains to civil and human rights. Many Americans are seemingly becoming less concerned about the lives of our most vulnerable and marginalized populations, including those that are poor and disenfranchised, caged and entangled in American carceral institutions, and undocumented.
We can talk now about tragedies of the past—like wars, slavery, and the Great Depression—as teaching moments, almost intangible to the present day. But such perspectives take time. How long do you think we’ll be feeling the ripple effects of the coronavirus crisis?
Nelson: Given the immediacy of our technologies, I think people are already processing what this moment means and will mean, on so many different platforms. Americans do not have to rely on newspapers or even historians to understand what is going on around them; everyone is writing the history of this event in real time. This may actually result in the mass democratization of the practice of history.
Newton: Though we should hesitate to draw direct comparisons through history, the more information we have about past non-human actors the better prepared we are as citizens. For example, some of the first anti-labor laws were established, not through the lobbying of Gilded Age robber barons, but by the 14th century, European royalty responding to the Black Death. Yellow fever immunity bestowed a type of biological badge of privilege on 19th-century Louisianans, giving immune people access to certain jobs, life insurance, and creating immunologically segregated neighborhoods. The effects that pathogens have had on history can be grand in scale.
Lange: This crisis will dramatically alter American society. In the same way that people note that their grandparents are resourceful because they lived through the Great Depression, future generations see our stockpiles of toilet paper and whisper about how we lived through the coronavirus pandemic.
What will be the biggest lesson our future History will teach us about this era?
Harris: Until the nation can have an honest conversation about the wrongs and injustices and legacies of the past, and how the pains and trauma of the past impacts the country’s contemporary socio-economic and political landscape, citizens will continue to witness and experience the aftershocks of American slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and other dark chapters of American history.
Newton: Recognizing the historical agency of non-human actors like viruses can unite us. It shows us that we cannot have an adversarial relationship with the natural world and the things around us, or we are bound to suffer. Instead, we need to have a mutualistic relationship that is conducive to both human and environmental prosperity. This understanding of history might make future generations better prepared to tackle the next global health crisis, or, more importantly, global climate change.
Lange: Persistence. Women’s voting rights activists persisted in their fight for the vote during World War I and the flu pandemic that immediately followed. They also felt like everything was conspiring against them. But they kept pushing to create a more equal society. We should do the same.
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