How historians are telling our future again on Covid-19

Ahead of the first of the University of Derby’s Covid Talks, ‘A Footnote in History or a Pandemic that Changed the World’ on Wednesday 19th August, Professor Keith McLay, Pro Vice-Chancellor Dean of the College of Arts, Humanities and Education, considers how historians have used their skilled assessments of the past to examine the consequences for times ahead.

Back in the day, prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, there was a flurry of what has since been viewed as prescient media interest in Superforecasting. 

Curiosity had been stimulated by the Prime Minister’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings’ quest for data scientists to join his team in Downing Street which he related back to his review of Philip Tetlock’s and Dan Garner’s Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction

This book synthesised research into the exactness of political forecasting.  In short order, in terms of relative accuracy in prediction, the book offered two categories of forecasters: the ‘hedgehogs’, unwieldy and prone to the sweeping grand narrative and big ideas whose prognostications repeatedly proved poor; and the ‘foxes’, detailed, highly numerate and open to multiple sources of data who produced dynamic and accurate predictions. 

Although Superforecasting does not privilege exclusively the numerical, the data and the modelling in quite the way that Cummings presented it to fit his apparent antipathy to Humanities graduates in Downing Street, the purported qualities of the ‘foxes’ clearly favours the scientific in forecasting.

Lessons of the past

It struck me then, and again especially now in the throes of the Covid-19 pandemic, that while Superforecasting is a lively compelling read which presents a persuasive argument, if you set to one side its foundation on futurology, then historians have throughout the ages been offering forecasts by identifying the lessons to be learnt from historical example. 

From the contrasting moral and political lessons for societies offered respectively by Herodotus’ The Histories and Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian Wars, to Thomas Babington Macaulay’s 19th century Whiggish version of British history as an inevitable progression to an enlightened and liberal democracy, to the Marxists’ Historical Materialism which teaches that societies change through the development, and often clash, of material conditions, historians have been serving the future through lessons from the past. 

This form of didactic historical forecasting can be applied to the broad sweep of history or to a specific event such as the Covid-19 crisis.

Observing previous pandemics

More will come on Covid-19 pandemic from historians, but to date there has been a rich seam of comparisons and contrast from the most fatal – the 14th century plague labelled The Black Death, which is estimated to have killed upwards of 200 million people world-wide – through to the immediate post-First World War ‘Spanish Flu’ and the early 21st century outbreak of ‘Swine Flu’. 

Of these examples, the Spanish Flu (1918-1920) has been cited most often due to the sharpness of the similarities and contrasts. Of the former, albeit different in severity and restriction, are the responses of the British governments in 1918 and 2020. So, for example, in 1918 pubs were not closed, but publicans were encouraged to clean glasses thoroughly in running water; people were not confined to their households, but were encouraged not to congregate; and strong hygiene practices for hands as well as catching sneezes and coughs in handkerchiefs were promoted as they are today. 

The contrasts between the two pandemics notably reside in the demographics of the victims. Although it is probably still too early to comment with authority for Covid-19, it does seem to impact disproportionately on the old and those with underlying health conditions while for the ‘Spanish Flu’ there was a notably high death rate amongst young adults.

Clear and resonant judgements

The other significant contrast is perhaps more sociological and anthropological. Although the history will become clearer over time, in its experience and weariness of crises the immediate post war generation was probably better disposed to endure the ‘Spanish Flu’. 

It’s an obvious point, but Britain has not faced such a constraining challenge since the Second World War and therefore historians anticipate that evidence will in time reveal the extent of the nation’s struggle, not just medically but socially and societally, with Covid-19.

Futurology aside, historians have thus for centuries been forecasting and pulling together sources, not all numerical or data-driven, to help understand the events of the present; the Covid-19 crisis simply fits into that pattern. 

The challenge, however, is that as the biblical proverb guides, ‘no prophet is accepted in their home town’: lessons from history and the judgments of historians are typically clear, sharp and resonant but are rarely learnt by policy makers. Whether from a ‘hedgehog’ or a ‘fox’, forecasting can only be relevant and effective if informed by the past and received by open minds.


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