Pandemics change history: How will our ancestors judge us?

The Black Death, the pandemic that killed between a third and a half of Europe’s population in the fourteenth century, left landowners with the prospect of crops rotting in the fields. Landowners in the north of Italy responded to the challenge by paying workers more, which fostered the development of a middle class. In the south the response was different – the nobility tightened their control on serfs, passing laws stopping peasants from leaving their villages, and increasing the amount of work each man was forced to do. Many historians date Italy’s social and economic divide today to these different responses. (Charles Mann, in The Atlantic).

I, like many of you I am sure, never contemplated the idea that life, as we knew it, would be completely upended by a pandemic. That a tiny microbe would fundamentally alter the way we interacted with our families and friends, our workplaces, our economic stability, and bring us up close and personal with our and our loved ones’ mortality. But we are here. And six months into the pandemic, and facing into at least six months more, I find myself deeply concerned about the lack of thinking about what sort of society and world we want to have as we come out of this pandemic. I worry that the emphasis on short-term decisions will distract us from making conscious choices to reset the direction of our society. We need to put time, thought, energy and money into re-imagining a better future: How will our ancestors judge us?. As George Bernard Shaw puts it, “Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine and at last you create what you will.”

This is about personal, communal, national, and global reinvention and how we respond is a moral question:

“Epidemics are a category of disease that seem to hold up the mirror to human beings as to who we really are. …. They show the moral relationships that we have toward each other as people.” Frank M. Snowden, Yale University, author of “Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present interviewed by The New Yorker

If Snowden is right and a mirror is being held up, what will the mirror reflect back to us? Are we going to be people who take on the challenges of building a different, but better, world or are we going to be the idiots referred to by author and philosopher Manchán Magan when he asked, “How idiotic would it be to combat the deadliest health threat of the modern age, only to return to a society set on destroying its future?”

There is massive amount of thinking and research going on surrounding the medical aspects of the disease – as of 9th September 2020 there were over 600 drugs and vaccines targeting coronavirus in development. Billions of euros are being invested. I see nothing like this investment, time and effort being put into thinking and researching how we might seize the moment of disruption created by the pandemic to envision and build a better future. There are some individuals, think tanks and organisations working in this area – some of my favourites are Yuval Noah Harari, The Conversation, The LSE, Ted Talks. I also loved the approach of Martin Parker, the Professor of Organization Studies at the School of Management in the University of Bristol, who invited more than 30 experts from academia and civil society to contribute their thinking to his book Life After COVID-19: The Other Side of Crisis There is thinking going on – but it’s too little, too sporadic, too disjointed. It needs to be joined-up and, of course, if it is going to be anything more than hot air, it needs to build a bridge to policy-makers.

One of the books that has most impacted on me during the pandemic has been The Good Ancestor by Roman Krznaric which poses the question, “Are you being a good ancestor?” The book challenges us to break out of the short-term thinking that is inbuilt in so much of our political and economic system. Just looking at the types of long-term thinking he identifies (including Deep-Time Humility, Intergenerational Justice and Cathedral Thinking) helped me to change my mindset. One of the exercises in the book haunts me – it invites you to imagine a young person in your life on their 90th birthday giving a speech about the legacy you left them. I think of my very bright and perceptive thirteen-year-old godson, Irial, in 2097, giving a withering speech about how I and others walked unthinkingly into the future during the “Pandemic” and left our descendants with a world which is much lesser than the one we grew up in and enjoyed.

Jean Callanan – September 2020

Also See Re-Imagining A Better World Post Covid and my blogs for the Huffington Post