Historical lessons for unprecedented times

ANALYSIS: If you’re a North American who was born in the past 75 years, you’ve never seen anything like this. What can the past teach us about the right way to respond to COVID-19?
By Dan Dunsky - Published on Apr 01, 2020
Men wear masks in Alberta during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. (CP/National Archives of Canada)

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“Have you ever seen anything like this?”

That’s the inevitable question in conversations these days. Have we ever witnessed anything quite like what we’re living through with this pandemic?

Well, if the “we” in question is a North American born in the last 75 years, the answer is no. No way.

Certainly, there have been events since 1945 that have affected and altered our society. The 2008-9 financial crisis was a global-liquidity crunch that caused nearly half a million Canadians to lose their jobs. September 11 and its aftermath reoriented Western foreign and domestic-security policy. AIDS, once we understood what caused it, changed our personal behaviours.

But the COVID-19 pandemic is different in substance and scale. It is at once a health, economic, and social catastrophe with enormous consequences already. The unemployment rate is near 15 per cent and growing. Hospitals are bracing for a deluge of critical patients that will strain our health-care system. Half of Canadians are worried they’re on the brink of insolvency. There is no “us and them” in this pandemic: we are all equally likely to be affected one way or another.

Perhaps that tragic equality resembles the Cold War, when we were all equally likely to die in a nuclear exchange between superpowers. However, even during those decades, the economy chugged along, people went about their lives, and friends didn’t need to stay two metres apart. During the Cold War, we could be by our loved ones as their lives ended. Not now.

The temptation, then, is to look a bit further back, at the great upheavals of the first half of the 20th century — the Spanish flu, the two world wars, and the Great Depression — for hints as to how to react and respond to this 21st-century plague. There, we’re on firmer ground for comparison, though hopefully our current situation won’t last nearly as long as those cataclysmic events.

Still, it’s a useful comparison, if only to see which lessons we should take from then and which we shouldn’t.

The right lesson is that it is appropriate to engage in a “whole of government approach” to this crisis. That means focusing the full resources of government — ministries, the public service, and public agencies — on solving a particular problem and all its manifestations.

In times of war, this means mobilizing a country’s productive capacity to support the war effort, as Canada did during WWII. Outside of war, the gold standard for this approach is FDR’s New Deal, which marshalled the vast resources of the United States to overcome the Great Depression. (Paradoxically, because of the First World War, and our then limited understanding of virology and immunology, the Spanish Flu pandemic did not receive a “whole of government approach.”)

Canada’s federal and provincial governments have judged COVID-19 to be so significant, with consequences so severe, that a “whole of government approach” has become necessary; all other considerations, including the dollar costs associated with this approach, are secondary. In other words, the paramount issue facing Canadians now is managing the impacts of COVID-19 until we (hopefully) develop a vaccine and can inoculate ourselves against it.

The wrong lesson to draw from the past is that our current situation should be viewed in a pre-crisis context and through the lens of existing ideologies.

Some demagogues are using the pandemic to argue for an end to migration. Others argue that the measures taken by governments to help relieve the strains caused by the novel coronavirus demonstrate that they were right all along about the need for redistributive economic policies. Still others have argued that COVID-19 is an example of nature hitting back.

Just as generals are always prepared to fight the last war, some pundits and interest groups are using this crisis to promote policies that predate it.

We are in uncharted territory right now. We do not know what our world will look like once this pandemic has passed. Will it hasten the adoption of the “touchless economy”? Will we adopt a universal basic income? Will we go to restaurants ever again? Who knows? History offers us a guide but can’t say much about the specifics.

What we do know is that we will get through this. We know that because we have gotten through similar, and worse, crises before. For those of us born after the Second World War, this is a moment to find our resilience, just as preceding generations did.

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