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History may be a guide to how COVID-19 may unfold, says expert

Last Updated May 24, 2020 at 12:04 pm PDT

Epidemics and The Modern World cover (Courtesy: John Ackermann, NEWS 1130 photo)

Pandemics are not only biological events but social events; how people and institutions interact

If Spanish Flu taught us anything it's that societies are resilient

We are experiencing COVID through the lens of statistics, how our individual behaviour relates to collective behaviour

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — It’s been said that history is the greatest teacher.  That may also be true in the case of COVID-19, in terms of where it’s been and where it’s going.  Mitchell L. Hammond prefers to leave the science to the scientists, but the University of Victoria Assistant Professor of History will admit there are parallels between the novel coronavirus and other pandemics.

“They’re both biological events.  You know, they involve microbes and how they spread,” he explains.  “And they’re also social events that involve how people interact and how institutions interact.”

LISTEN: Epidemics and The Modern World

In his book, Epidemics and The Modern World, Hammond writes, “Humans write history but microbes have history too.  A full reckoning of past events and future solutions must take account of how one history depends on the other.”

“We have to think about both of these dimensions of pandemics when we’re thinking about what consequences they’ve had for our history and what we should do about them,” he says.

“A lot rests in our hands, individually and collectively, so I think it’s difficult to forecast how things will go,” Hammond admits.  However, he adds many of the conversations we’re having now, were had a century ago during the Spanish Flu pandemic.  And if that experience taught us anything, it’s that societies are resilient.

“The Spanish Flu was responsible or contributed to tens of millions of deaths worldwide in just the space of 18 months, but thereafter, in the 1920s, much of the world entered a period of great vitality and prosperity,” he points out.

There is also a key difference between today and a century ago.  “We’re experiencing this pandemic through the lens of statistics…to think about how our individual behaviour relates to collective behaviour,” Hammond says.  “‘Flattening the curve’ simply means people will become sick more gradually, connecting individual behaviour to collective well-being.”

Epidemics and The Modern World is available from The University of Toronto Press.