Historians are “the worst people to predict the future”, yet we asked one about post-COVID life
Historians are the worst people to predict the future, says history professor Frank Biogiorno.
Nonetheless, I asked Frank to join me for a webinar at Canberra Show earlier this month to look back at the past and find answers to the present.
Frank is professor of history at the Australian National University and author of several books, including The 1980s: the decade that transformed Australia, named ACT Book of the Year in 2015. He is currently writing a history of Australian political life from the earliest times to the present day.
When you write a story about Australia, what are you doing with COVID-19? Since we don’t know how it’s going to play out, is this a chapter or an afterword?
Frank pondered this question and said it had become clear to him that the pandemic was not “just an afterthought.” Instead, it represents “one of those moments that historians call, somewhat hackneyed, a turning point.”
The pandemic experience has revealed aspects of Australia and our place in a bigger world that most of us, perhaps, did not understand. COVID-19 has been “remarkable” in its ability to reveal “vividly colored” issues in our society that were once in “sepia,” he said.
There are few signs that COVID-19 will have demographic effects similar to those of the Black Death, which historians say wiped out “half or even more than half” of Europe in the 14th century. No 20th century pandemic, not even the Spanish flu epidemic that killed some 50 million people, has been so devastating.
But Frank spoke of COVID as a “window” on how the past imposes itself on the present – “how we are captivated by history” – and the role of the pandemic as a “site of exposure. “to the values ââand structures of society in the present.
He highlighted how values ââand social norms can change quickly. German sociologist Norbert Elias, famous for his 1939 book The process of civilization, examined forms of social behavior that at one time would be considered acceptable and rude in another.
Erasmus, a brilliant 16th-century mind, considered it good manners to spit out food in the corner of a room for servants to dispose of, “something most of us wouldn’t do on a dinner today, âFrank noted.
It doesn’t always take centuries for social norms to change. Smoking in public places has gone from acceptable to offensive within decades. Our sense of the difference between civil and uncivil, of what is considerate and reckless, will be influenced by the pandemic, Frank said.
Will showing up to certain social situations one day without a mask be as unacceptable as cigarette smoke or body odor, he asked? Are we going to go back to greeting people with a kiss? Are we ever going to look at someone with âa cough and a runny noseâ the same way?
Many of these questions are for future historians to ponder, but ultimately our social behaviors âexpress something of a sense of communityâ and of our âsense of obligationâ to others.
COVID-19 has also revealed impulses deeply rooted in Australian history. Frank gave several examples.
Border controls were a “distinctly antipodes” response, he noted. This “deep psychological vein”, brilliantly captured by cultural historian John Williams in The Quarantined Culture, had been undermined by governments during this crisis.
Traditions of “collectivism” – stronger in Australia than in most other parts of the world – point to our convict origins and the “fundamentally bureaucratic nature” of society. The disrespect of masks and the movement of people have a precedent of fines and a “handful” of short prison sentences in 1919 during the Spanish flu.
We talked about the backlash against scientists in popular culture and social media.
Frank reflected that the pandemic had given “a huge boost to the prestige of science” – with chief medical officers being considered “celebrities”. This parallels the role of economists during the Great Depression. While the expertise of economists was questioned, the 1930s were finally the era which raised the âprestige of the professionâ. Similar progress can be expected from the status of medical science.
The pandemic also revealed a lack of service capacity within our federal government, Frank noted.
The 1919 vaccination program was carried out with “much more efficiency.” He pointed to CSL, founded in 1916 as Commonwealth Serum Laboratories, which was an Australian government agency focused on vaccine manufacturing. It is a good example of the âcapacity and confidenceâ of federal governments in earlier times.
Once the peak of the pandemic has passed, the impetus to restore may be more powerful than the impulse to renovate and rebuild, Frank observed. This too has priority in Australian history. In the years following World War II, many Australians were tired of restrictions and austerity and “wanted to see something like the world they knew before the war would be restored”.
We will not be going back as before. But are we going to move on to something better?
Historians “need perspective” to make sense of the past, Frank commented. But even now, there are many reasons to be hopeful. We have a more nuanced debate on the regulation of elderly care, the vagaries of precarious employment and the social safety net, for example. We can âlook back and say that governments have worked wellâ and that our people have shown âan enormous level of social discipline around social goalsâ – two great resources for the future.
But Frank’s insightful exploration left me wondering: why aren’t more people looking to the past to understand the consequences of today’s pandemic? Do we need more investments in history teaching to build longer term collective memory?
There have been comments about past pandemics in Australia, Frank noted. “I even remember Scott Morrison referring to the Spanish Flu, in relation to how it had divided states from each other and the Commonwealth.”
But, in general, our analysis has been “haphazard”. The problem, Frank said, is that “historically semi-literate” people look to the past, but “in a way that ignores or misunderstands the context, makes misleading analogies, or is simply wrong about key details.” .
The solution? Building historic literacy ‘from the ground up’. âHistorical interpretation generally does not offer clear guidelines for action in the present. It offers warnings and suggests possibilities.
It also suggests that we should start promoting more history lessons in our schools or watching history repeating itself.