Is COVID-19 a turning point in history? Learning from the past
22 Jul 2020
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In this event, distinguished historian Professor Margaret MacMillan Hon FBA joins Hetan Shah to discuss major turning points in history and how insights from the many and varied catastrophes of the past can help us to make sense of the present.
Hetan Shah: Welcome to this British Academy podcast on, Is COVID-19 a turning point in history? Learning from the Past. I'm Hetan Shah, Chief Executive of the British Academy, which is the UK's national academy for the humanities and social sciences. This event is part of our Shape the Future programme, which brought together researchers to examine a range of issues around COVID-19. This event took place on the 22nd of July 2020.
I was delighted to be joined by the distinguished historian and Honorary Fellow of the Academy, Professor Margaret MacMillan, to discuss major turning points in history and how insights from the many and varied catastrophes of the past can help us to make sense of the present.
Margaret, welcome. It's great to have you here. We're going to be talking about turning points in history. I wonder if you might kick us off by telling us what you think a turning point actually is, what's your definition of that?
Professor Margaret MacMillan Hon FBA: [00:00:58] I think it's when you look back two years later, or two decades later, and say "everything changed then". Often what a turning point does is bring together faster things that were happening anyway. There were a number of things, for example, happening before the First World War, there were social divisions, there were revolutionary ideas around, there were reactionary ideas around, there were economic crises. What the First World War did is heighten them and bring them together in a way that meant that after the war ended, Europe and much of the world was never going to be the same again. It's that sense that something has shifted.
The French Revolution was, for Europe, one of those occasions as well, that something is different and we look back and we say yes, something went then, something went on and it's not what it was. Of course, a lot of the changes have deep roots, but I do think there are moments when time seems to speed up and possibly we're living through such a moment now. There are things that we were worried about in our own societies, things that we were worried about in the international order and now, because of the COVID-19 crisis, we're much more aware of those and some of those have become much more acute.
Hetan Shah: [00:02:12] You've said elsewhere that leadership is key in this crisis and clearly, world leaders are being scrutinised across the piece in terms of their response to the pandemic. What could they learn by looking back at the behaviour and the lessons from leaders in the past, for example, in relation to catastrophes like the world wars?
Professor MacMillan: [00:02:35] What they could learn is that one of the important parts of leadership is getting the right people to do what needs to be done and putting together, as President Lincoln did, a cabinet of all the talents, or putting together, as Winston Churchill did in the Second World War, a national government which brought in some of the best people from the different parties. It's that capacity to mobilise talent and mobilise those who have good ideas and experience.
There's also a very important role that a leader plays and Max Weber is right about this, it’s the demonstrative effect, that a leader in some ways is bigger than anyone else in society, not in literal terms, but occupies a bigger platform and his or her virtues and vices are magnified. A leader who can speak in a way that seems to bring people together and perhaps reassure them, as, for example, Angela Merkel, it seems to me has done in the current crisis, or Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand, is very important when people are looking for some sort of guidance and looking for some sort of reassurance.
Of course, a leader on his or her own doesn't make history change, we know that. I'm not going back to the 'great man of history' thesis. What also comes out of this is societies which have strong institutions and which have high levels of trust among the members of society, which are resilient, are better able to cope with crises than those that aren't.
Hetan Shah: [00:04:05] Can you say a bit more about that in terms of examples from the past?
Professor MacMillan: [00:04:10] I think societies, for example, Britain, was able to come through two draining and potentially catastrophic world wars, partly because British society, goodness knows it had its divisions and certainly in the summer of 1914, there was real fear of a civil war over the Irish question, but in the end, British institutions were strong enough. The way in which Britain and the British government was able to mobilise both the people, with the support of the people and this was something that commanded a fair degree of popular support, and able to mobilise the resources of the country, show that the British institutions were strong enough.
Britain, in both world wars, was enormously successful in mobilising economic resources, in upping production, in taking over, of course, the government had to take a very high degree of society, but it was more successful, in fact than many of its enemies, including its key enemy of Germany.
You can see societies which have built-in strengths, if you like. If we look today, it's important that Japan is a cohesive society, in which people trust each other and trust their own elites and trust their own authorities, that Japan has been able to deal with the crisis, perhaps more successfully than countries where there's not that sort of trust and where the institutions aren't as strong.
Unfortunately, the response of countries like Brazil, which is, of course, going to be enormously costly for the people of Brazil, is a result of and it's highlighting some of the weaknesses in Brazilian society. The class divisions; the ethnic divisions; the racial divisions; all of these are coming out. Some parts of Brazilian society are dealing very successfully and some states are dealing very successfully with the crisis. On the whole, Brazil has not had a coherent response and that reflects something about Brazilian society.
It's very difficult, I think, to predict how countries will respond to crises. We can say that those countries which have already built the institutions, this question of trust is enormously important. If you don't trust your leaders, you're not going to do what they say. If you don't trust your leaders and they say "wear masks", then you're going to think, “why should I?” If you trust your leaders and you think, “well, wearing a mask is stupid, but I trust them up to this point so I will put a mask on,” I do think that makes a difference. We're seeing this in the different responses to the pandemic and we see it in responses to world wars. In the end, in the First World War, Russian society and the Russian regime simply could not take the demands of that war. It was an enormously costly and expensive and draining war in terms of lives and in terms of resources. The Russian state was already shaky. It had nearly fallen in the revolution of 1904, 1905, during the rest of the Japanese war and the government was more and more removed from the people – very weak leadership at the centre. Russian society simply buckled under the strain and opened the door for the revolutions, both in February and then later on in October 1917.
Hetan Shah: [00:07:24] Thank you. Looking beyond the national state, thinking about institutions internationally, how do you think international cooperation today has fared compared to past crises?
Professor MacMillan: [00:07:40] Well, we have more institutions for international cooperation. We have more experience of international cooperation than we would have had, say, in the influenza epidemic at the end of the First World War. There had been the development of some international cooperation in health. There was an International Sanitary Bureau and meetings of international sanitary congresses, which looked at how to control the movement of pandemics and infectious diseases around the world. There were some beginnings of that, but the international institutions that existed in 1919 were really embryonic compared to what we've got today. We do have both the World Health Organisation and we have other organisations which deal with regional issues, which deal with sharing research. We're a lot further ahead.
Of course, what is always the case with any organisation is it's only as strong as its members want it to be. One of the things we're seeing today and of course, we knew this anyway, but we're seeing it today, is that the leading powers in the world are not necessarily prepared to cooperate either with each other, or with international bodies like the WHO. The United States is withdrawing from it, which I think is a dreadful mistake, because they're withdrawing from a body which, for all its failings, has a great deal of expertise, has contacts around the world, has a great deal of experience. The American government is talking about setting up an alternative health organisation, but it seems to me this is not the time to be doing it. It takes a long time to get these bodies up and running. It seems to me, really right now, the thing that must be done is to build on what we have already.
We are seeing real weaknesses and divisions within the international order, which were there before the pandemic struck. The ways in which it's played out are highlighting those and then the temptation, which a number of nations are falling into, to blame others for their problems and they're blaming others within their own societies; the BJP in India, for example, members of the BJP party and government are blaming Muslims, for example, for spreading the pandemic. We've seen what's happened with the United States and China where they're trying to accuse the other of having created – or certainly those accusations are flying around and that doesn't help in any international response.
I'm not an epidemiologist for sure, but the one thing I know is that viruses and infectious diseases in general do not respect borders.
So to suddenly start behaving in highly nationalistic ways is I think, counterintuitive and counterproductive.
Hetan Shah: [00:10:21] This question of blaming others or blaming nations is a really interesting one. Do you see any parallels with the past; for example, the 1918 influenza pandemic being called the 'Spanish flu', for example? Which was partly, I think, as a result of the war reporting not allowing the flu to be reported in many other countries and so Spain got some of the blame, as it were.
Professor MacMillan: [00:10:51] I think Spain got very unfairly blamed for the influenza epidemic. The Spanish, of course, were neutral in the First World War and they didn't have press censorship in the way the countries involved in the war had and so they began reporting incidences of the influenza earlier than a number of other countries were doing and therefore, it got landed with the name of the Spanish flu. I think there may still be some debate about where it actually came from, we may never know. There's a possibility it started in the United States. It may well have started in Asia, I think we simply don't know how it started– I may be wrong on this. But there's always this temptation and it's not just with plagues, it's when things go wrong – we want to blame someone, and we blame our government or we blame minorities, we blame people who aren't like us. You think of all the times in Europe, when the Black Death hit Europe and who was blamed: it was the Jews, or the Protestants, because they were not like the majority of people. You think of the ways in which the Irish were blamed in the 19th century for spreading typhoid. There's unfortunately a natural, it seems to me, or perhaps not natural but there's a human tendency, which is often stirred up by unscrupulous people who want to use it for their own purposes, to blame others and to try and fix blame on people.
I think often, of course, we want simple explanations. Explanations which say there's actually no one to blame, it's just a very unfortunate thing, or it's a very unfortunate accident, aren't very satisfying. I think those sorts of explanations will always be very appealing, which point to wicked forces or wicked people who are trying to create things. We have seen through history, the tendency to blame, usually, minorities because of course, they're defenceless. If they're different from the rest of us, then we can say there's something funny about them, they're not part of us. It's very unfortunate indeed and we're seeing it again today.
Hetan Shah: [00:12:51] What's your advice to leaders who don't want to go down that road, but perhaps have siren populist voices who are trying to make that case to blame, as you say, migrants, or other religions, or other countries? What is the playbook that allows you to play a straighter bat and defend yourself against that kind of siren call?
Professor MacMillan: [00:13:16] What seems to be working today, and I think it's very interesting, is really a very straightforward talking to people. It may be that we're reaching the end of the period where slogans were very appealing. We lived in a world, partly I suppose because of social media, where something short and snappy is what governments have tried to get over. What really strikes me is that the governments that have got very high levels of trust – I think the New Zealand government, something like 90% of everyone in New Zealand approves of what it's doing, which is basically unprecedented, I think, for most governments – the governments that have very high levels of trust are governments where they have spoken very bluntly to people and said, "look, we can't tell you what's going to happen because we don't know. This is what we think is happening. We're going to do our best for you. We're going to have to ask you to cooperate." Maybe we are seeing a shift in political rhetoric, where we will see an expectation on the part of publics that they will actually be talked to as if they're adults. One of the things that has struck me so much in a lot of the commentary in the United States and also in Britain too, is the man and woman in the street, the people in the street who were interviewed, saying, "I wish governments would just level with us. I wish they would just treat us like grown-ups and tell us when they don't know."
This is something governments have been reluctant to do. It may be that we're entering an age when we have a number of things, including international pandemics, which are very uncertain. We simply don't know and we may have to get used to it. We may, in fact, in a way be expecting our governments to acknowledge that. I may be wrong, but when you look at the countries which have successfully managed to persuade their populations to adopt often what are quite difficult measures, to lock down the economy at tremendous personal cost to people in involved in the economy, when we look at governments that have managed to do that, they've spoken to their people as if they expect them to understand and participate in this collective endeavour. It's the governments that have not been honest with people, who've said it's going to go away – the American government, I think, certainly the federal government in the US, is a very good example of this, President Trump and his press conferences, which have now resumed, were saying, "it's going to end... the light at the end of the tunnel" –that has, in the end, proved to be a very costly tactic because it hasn't worked. In a funny way, I think people would rather know the worst. I may be wrong, but we may be seeing a shift in political rhetoric, where there will be a different expectation of government. We may be getting a shift in our understanding of the present and the future, that we are going to have to live with more uncertainties than we thought we were living with. Those of who've lived in the developed world since 1945 have been enormously privileged because we've lived in worlds which, yes there have been ups and downs, but on the whole, we've been able to assume things will go on and someone will fix an issue.
You think of people in the past, people in the 19th century, people in earlier centuries, didn't have that certainty and they lived in worlds in which uncertainty was simply a fact of life. I'm wondering now if we're now moving into an age where we're going to have to accept, even in very prosperous and developed nations, that uncertainty is a very important component of our environment.
Hetan Shah: [00:16:43] One of our former presidents, Baroness Onora O'Neill, talks about the value of governments and other institutions focusing on trustworthiness rather than on trust, because trust fluctuates and as you say, populists can make you trust them for a short period of time, but in the long run, trustworthiness will out, because if you behave in a trustworthy way, people will continue to trust you. Do you think, in a sense, what you're talking about and the response to uncertainty, trustworthiness sounds like the long-term strategy?
Professor MacMillan: [00:17:20] Yes, I think that's a very interesting way of putting it. I would agree with that idea, that if you show yourself to be doing your best, you will be forgiven mistakes more than those who never admit mistakes.
I'm thinking of President Roosevelt, FDR, Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1930s in the United States. He came into office at a time when the Americans were very pessimistic about their state, their economy, their institutions, hideous unemployment – the United States was one of the worst countries hit in the Depression – and I think there were real concerns that democracy would not survive in the United States. He managed to establish a degree of trustworthiness. He didn't always make the right decisions and he often changed his mind, but he survived and was elected for four terms. He survived and was re-elected because people felt "well, he is doing his best and he's doing his best first and he's not going to get it all right, nobody does."
I learnt this from teaching, if I said to my students, "I've made a mistake," I think in the long run it was better, because I think they felt that at least I was trying. Whereas people who claim that they're always right, in the end, do you trust them? We all know that we make mistakes. I think trustworthiness is a very interesting concept.
Hetan Shah: [00:18:48] You were just talking about the Depression there. It's very clear that the pandemic is going to have grave economic consequences. What insights can history offer us and even potentially, is there any hope that history can offer us, in this regard?
Professor MacMillan: [00:19:06] I think we know from the experience of the Great Depression and also from the financial crisis of 2008 that governments can and ought to intervene on a large scale, which may seem unthinkable in ordinary times but is absolutely necessary in moments of crisis. It's a question of confidence, partly. It is important to get people thinking that things are going to get better, that the economy will recover.
I think it's important also to recognise that governments can do a lot more by the way of intervention and spend a lot more than we might think is possible. I think we can learn that, in the past when governments intervened with intelligence, when they intervene to prop-up – they don't always get it right, I'm not defending everything that was done either in the counter-measures to the Depression, or everything that was done after 2008 – but what they did was keep the institutions solvent, they kept society going. I think we can learn that government, is really, in my view, the only institution that can do this on the scale that's needed. We can talk about local grassroots efforts and these are very important, but I think to keep a whole economy going and to support a national health system, for example, takes government action on a very large scale indeed.
We can learn from the past and I hope we learn from this crisis as well. I think we may, as a result of this crisis, of seeing the end of this period of austerity, seeing government as something that's too big and bloated, and that isn't to say government is always perfect, but I think we're now recognising that functioning societies actually need civil services, they need government institutions that work and they need governments to sometimes intervene actively in societies when things look like they're going very wrong.
Again, we're not going to get it right all the time, but the alternative, the idea that the market will solve everything, well, I hope that idea has now finally been discredited because in so many ways... anyway, we can get into arguments about it, but I don't think there's ever been a truly free market, in the sense that some of the free marketeers like to think there is. There have always been constraints and there's always been societal input. I think the idea that the market somehow is this perfect force, which will always make things work in the end, is absolutely discredited.
We're now recognising that we need government intervention, we need regulation, we need ways of defining and working together for something called the common good. I do think, I hope, one of the advantages of, no, advantage is the wrong word, but one of the consequences, perhaps beneficial consequences of this crisis, is it will make us think again about our own societies. I was reflecting and asking questions, we have to ask questions. I was reflecting when I was looking at the brief film at the beginning of this session about the British Academy and the range of things that it studies, the range of things that the humanities and social sciences deal with. I think collectively those disciplines have a lot to offer in helping us think about the issues facing our societies. We're not going to come up with clear solutions maybe, but we can help us think through them and begin to look for the sort of solutions that might work.
Hetan Shah: [00:22:26] We've certainly been using this opportunity to bring our Fellows and other scholars together to reflect on how society is changing. Perhaps we'll come back to that towards the end of our conversation. First, you were saying not everything happens at the scale of government. Thinking about social history, what can we learn from oral histories, personal diaries and accounts of people who've lived through wars, pandemics and other national disasters. Also, what's your sense of today's equivalent archives as we move more into a world of social media?
Professor MacMillan: [00:23:02] I think what we can learn from looking at the diaries, the reflections, the letters, photographs, of peoples from the past, whatever material we get, is we learn first of all to respect the past and to understand that these were living, breathing people. They would not have been exactly like us and we would have had some things in common but other things not, but I think it helps us to have a connection and an understanding.
If you look at some macro history, and you see tens of thousands of people did this, millions of peoples did that, you miss the grittiness of history, the sense that these things actually mattered. The First World War, we talk about millions who went off to fight and the millions of women who went to work in factories and take on the sort of jobs the men were doing. I don't think we get a sense of what that actually was like, unless we think and read and understand the individuals who were involved. Just at that level, it's very important, but I think we also pick up things. What's always fascinating about social history is that we are trying so often to get at the voices of those who aren't always heard. Much of history is made by the very articulate and of course, so much of history was made by those who were literate, which for much of history was a very small minority in society. We're only getting a part of the understanding of the past if we only look at those materials that the literate produced. What we're trying to do with social history is get a sense of the currents running through history, the social attitudes, how are they changing?
Social historians have been really, extremely inventive and imaginative in the ways in which they've looked for sources. They use, for example, court records. I knew someone in Toronto who worked on looking at ecclesiastical records, where husband and wife wanted to divorce. He found all sorts of things about attitudes, about gender attitudes, about marriage, in ways that I think maybe earlier historians wouldn't have done. Also the ways in which social historians are trying to recover the voices of people, like Natalie Davis has done, for example, trying to recover the voices of French farmers, people whose voices hadn't been heard. This is really important.
What social history does is give us a much deeper and more nuanced understanding of the past, which can be missed if we only look at those who write the records, those who are able to write the records. Trying to get into the sensibility of the past, the feeling of the past. One of the interesting new fields is the history of emotions. How do we know what people meant in the past when they said hate, or love? How do we know what was meant by emotions? We're trying to understand that. I think through social history, we're getting a much richer appreciation of the past, which really adds depth and colour to our understanding.
Hetan Shah: [00:25:58] What's your reflection as a historian about what will be the equivalent archive today provided for historians of tomorrow? Will people be looking at Twitter feeds to see how we responded? Are people keeping diaries in the way they used to?
Professor MacMillan: [00:26:19] I don't think people are keeping diaries. I sometimes think, I'm glad I won't be around in 40 years trying to write the history of this period, because in a funny way there'll be too much material, but not enough. There will be Twitter feeds, and I think there are some interesting things being done now with people analysing words that reoccur, patterns that reoccur, but we may not be getting individual voices.
As far as I know, I always ask people if they keep diaries and an awful lot don't and people don't write long letters anymore. When you think of the letters that people would write to each other, which were like a form of diary and often, people took care over them and they would talk about the daily round and what their lives were like. We're not getting that. Emails are of an essence. They may be stored somewhere and then they disappear, but most of our emails are very brief and very short.
In a funny way, I think we may have less sense in the future when we look back of what people in our time were thinking and feeling because so much of what they're doing is instantaneous, quick, dashed off. It's the reflection that, again, I think often helps us to understand the past. If you sit down to write a letter to someone on the other side of the world, you take time over it because you're describing your life, you're describing what's going on in your life, you're talking about what's happening to the family. If you're sending off a quick email or you're doing a FaceTime, it's not the same. You're not reflecting in the same way, so I think it's going to be tricky.
I think what also is going to be tricky is for historians like me, who have written about international negotiations, for example, things like the outbreak of wars, the material's not going to be there. I think governments in the past used to write; diplomats, for example, would write very freely about their postings, and very freely about who they were dealing with, because only a handful of people would ever see what they've written, or so they thought. They wrote very freely. Now ever since WikiLeaks, people are very worried about putting down anything that can compromise them, because almost anything we now know can be leaked. Constantly, there are armies of hackers out there trying to breach even the most carefully encrypted messages, as we know. I think the sheer weight of documentation – we won't understand how people thought about things, we're not going to understand the decisions they made. I talked to someone in the United States who was in the American government in 2008, when the whole financial crisis took place. He was involved with the negotiations about who to bail out and how. I said, “did you keep a diary?" He said, “I didn't have time. We now can't remember and I can't remember why we made the decisions we made, I can't remember what my thinking was at the time, because we were so pressured and we weren't keeping a record". I think that is going to be a real problem for future historians: too much of one sort of material and not enough of another sort.
Hetan Shah: [00:29:12] That's really fascinating. There's a whole field around digital humanities, which I suppose it's time to think about, what are the new methods that humanities scholars will need to make sense of this kind of material?
Turning to thinking more about people in pandemics, we've got research which is showing that, certainly in the UK, it's ethnic minority communities who've been most at risk, or have had higher prevalence from COVID. Also, research just published yesterday by our statistical office, showing that, in a sense, there's a broad correlation between your ability to work from home and your pay. The poorer you are, the more likely you're going to have to go to your place of work, which presumably means you're more at risk. Can you say a bit about how, in a sense, privilege has sheltered people in the past from catastrophe and how far that works, or how far actually at the point that there really is national catastrophe, privilege can't really shield you in the end?
Professor MacMillan: [00:30:16] Yes, it's interesting, isn't it? People used to try and escape the Black Death, for example. They would move out of the towns and cities when the plague started, those were the people who could afford to do it. They'd go to the country estates. In fact, they weren't always that much safer because rats, as we now know, carry the lice that spread the Black Death and there were rats in the country with lice on them, just as much as they were in the city. I don't think privilege always helped, but certainly, people felt that it would and they tried to escape from it.
I think we are seeing, again, that privilege is making a bit of a difference. Same thing, just to go back, I was thinking in India, British India which I studied, in the summer, those who could afford to, usually the British in the upper sections of the army, or the civil servants, or rich enough to be able to afford it, would go up to the hills where the weather was cooler and where they were less likely to get the infectious diseases which were on the planes. Privilege has, often, I think, helped people to survive plagues which are affecting those who are poorer. What we're certainly seeing now, in the ways in which the COVID-19 has affected certain communities, that those who live in very crowded conditions, who live in areas that are very polluted, for example, are more likely to catch it and perhaps more likely to suffer lethal consequences.
We are also seeing the well-to-do working from home and one of the things that has happened and another consequence of the pandemic, is we've recognised just how much at the lower levels of society – of course, people have been saying this for years and we all should have been much more aware of it, but I think it's been brought into the forefront of our attention now – just how much developed societies depend on the labour of those who are badly paid, who are insecure in their employment. Far too many people have had to go to work because if they don't go to work, they're going to get fired.
That is a real condemnation of our society and the way in which it works. The ways in which health services, for example, have outsourced things like cleaning hospitals to people who are not unionised, who don't have anyone to speak for them, who are badly paid, who don't get, as we find out, proper personal protective equipment.
Of course, what we're also realising is so much of the consumption of Western societies depends on poor parts of the world, depends on the farms and factories in the less developed or the poorer parts of the world, in Africa, in Bangladesh, in other parts of the world. We know that those people have suffered disproportionately, people in crowded factories, we know that farmers in Africa are going to have trouble selling and moving their crops because of the pandemic.
I think we are beginning to recognise and I hope we're beginning to realise we must do something about this. It's not just at home, it's not just in Britain or Canada or the United States or the other prosperous countries of Europe that we need to pay much more attention to how the poorer members of society are treated, but we also need to pay much more attention to the poorer parts of the world who are suffering, often disproportionately, because they simply don't have the resources.
One of the things that worries me is that as the vaccines are developed, there will be, and I think we're already seeing it, and they'll be real pressure for the governments of developed nations to sequester those vaccines for themselves, to make sure their own people get them first, and not to pay due attention to what's going to be needed in countries that really need the support. Not just financial support, but are going to need the vaccines, that are going to need the capacity to deliver those vaccines.
Hetan Shah: [00:34:12] Thank you. Every age feels that this time is different, we're living in a unique period and of course, today's conversation and session is to say, no, there are lessons from the past that we can learn, but what's your sense of what genuinely is new? Where are the areas where our present age is different and actually, the lessons from the past may not be so pertinent?
Professor MacMillan: [00:34:37] Where we are the same... we tend to think our globalisation is completely new. The world before 1914 was very globalised as well, with mass communications, mass transportation, linking together world economies, mass movement of peoples around the world, it was a very globalised period. We tend to overestimate, perhaps, how new globalisation is.
What is clearly new is social media and the access of billions of people around the world to social media. I think things that in the past would happen in one part of the world and not really be understood in another part of the world, now are becoming understood. Catastrophes that happened could be perhaps covered up or ignored, in ways that they can't be covered up and ignored now. The pressure and the importance of social media is quite different. The ways in which governments are using social media and using communications, both for good and evil, is perhaps much greater than it was in the past. Although governments have always tried to use the levers of communication to get over the message they want and to suppress the ones perhaps that they don't want. This whole concept of cyber war is very new and the ways in which peoples, whether groups who are carrying out blackmail or whether government-sponsored operatives, are using this whole cyber world to undermine faith, to undermine elections, to try and influence elections, to spread rumours, to spread conspiracy theories, it's happening much faster on a much greater scale than it used to in the past.
Hetan Shah: [00:36:26] Then finally, before we open to audience questions, let's come back to the title of our talk, which is COVID-19 as a turning point in history. Do you think it's too soon to be able to say whether the pandemic will be a turning point, or do you have a view as to whether it will be or not?
Professor MacMillan: [00:36:46] I think historians have a built-in objection to making any assumptions about their own periods they’re living through and so we tend to say it's too soon to tell. There's disagreement, I've talked to friends who say, "look, two years from now, we're going to be looking back and saying, what were we worried about and everything's gone back to normal."
My sense, I think, as an historian, I probably have no greater insight into this than anyone else, but my sense, is that this is a turning point. That things that we were uneasy about in our own societies, things that we felt weren't working well, have now come up much more to the forefront and in some cases been deepened, and trends that were taking place – there was already a sense of unease among young people that the world was not necessarily going to be very promising for them, they're going to have trouble finding jobs. I was noticing this among students I was teaching and these were students, of course, who were among the elite students, who you would assume would not worry about finding jobs. In fact, they were. We're now recognising that there's a whole younger generation that we have been short-changing and we haven't really been worrying about. Now, of course, the COVID has made this situation really, in many cases, very difficult indeed. It's interrupted their educations, it's damaged the economy.
Also, I think we're realising the increasing power of money in our own societies, the ways in which wealth has been concentrated in fewer and fewer hands and that again was something people worried about before the pandemic hit. We're now more aware of the great divisions within society. We were talking earlier about the ways we've become aware of those who work in our societies and make them run and make them function and just how badly, often, they are treated.
Once these things have become visible, I'd like to think we can't forget about them. Some of the damage will also be reflected in the international order. The damage done to the WHO, the attacks on the WHO, I think have undermined an institution which could be reformed, but is very important. The competition between the United States and China, which was there anyway, is now taking a much more dangerous turn, the rhetoric is escalating. That's not entirely the COVID, but it's partly because of the COVID.
If I were making a prediction, which as I say, historians are not good at and we don't like doing, if I'm making a prediction, I would say that there has been a fundamental shift in how we think about our world. There have been things that have become more apparent that we should've been more concerned about before, and I like to think that we will not simply go back to business as usual.
Of course, we don't know if COVID-19 is ever really going to go away. There are some illnesses, some diseases which simply become part of the landscape and we manage to live with them. HIV/AIDS, when that first became a matter of public concern, I remember the panic, "This is going to go on, people are going to die in the millions", and we managed to find ways of dealing with it, we haven't found a way of getting rid of it. That's true of a lot of other diseases as well, such as malaria.
It may be that COVID-19 will become part of that illness or disease landscape that we have to live with. That may continue to make a difference to the ways in which we move around the world. We won't, I suspect be jumping on and off airplanes as much as we did. We may live in more cautious ways. I wonder if we will ever go back to kissing people when we meet as salutations. It may be that we now behave in different ways. As happened in Asia, it may be the case that we become much more accustomed to wearing face masks. It just becomes part of what we do.
Hetan Shah: [00:40:51] Let's see, there's a small minority who can't wait to start booking their cruises. We've now got some questions from the virtual audience; Rosemary Coppell asks, “in the event of an epidemic or violent conflict, what do you find causes nations to turn inwards or outwards to find a solution?”
Professor MacMillan: [00:41:19] I think it depends on the nature of the challenge. In the Depression, because it was something that hit societies very hard, the tendency was to turn inwards to try and see what you could do to mend your society, which, as we now know, was not always the best thing to do. In fact, turning inwards and putting up tariff barriers and pulling back investments from abroad damaged world trade, which went down very, very sharply between 1929 and 1932 and hit everyone and in the end, made the Depression worse for people.
I think if it's a social and economic crisis, political crisis at home, you tend to turn inwards. If there is a threat, when you look at why nations fight, it probably boils down to about three things. One is fear. You fight because you have to, because someone is going to do something to you, because you see that your national existence is at stake. Or you fight because you want something that someone else has, you want to acquire something. Then there's the third type of fighting where you have the equivalent of a crusade. You have an idea or you have an ideology which turns you outwards to look for enemies, although you can often turn inward to look for the enemies at home as well.
I think it depends on the nature of the crisis, whether you turn inwards, or whether you look outwards. Sometimes your response should be, perhaps, to look more outwards. With the COVID-19 crisis, we can see that working with other nations, whether it is to try and find a vaccine, or to try and find cures, or to try and find ways of limiting the spread is actually very important. The temptation has been to turn inwards and look only after your own people.
Sometimes what is the instinctive reaction isn't necessarily the best one, but sometimes the crisis forces you to look out. I know in the 1930s, I don't think the British government particularly wanted to look out and contemplate going to war with the Axis powers, but it was forced upon them. In the appeasement policy, they did their best to try and avoid a war, because they really felt they had enough problems to think about at home and they wanted to concentrate on those, but they were forced to look outwards. Sometimes you may want to draw up the drawbridge and turn inwards. Sometimes the world won't let you.
Hetan Shah: [00:43:43] We've got a question from Cassie Smith-Christmas and she asks, "in past epidemics, have we seen the utter denial of the existence of the virus on the scale of denial we're seeing in some places, such as the United States? If so, what can we learn?”
Professor MacMillan: [00:44:02] Well, I think there's a range of human reactions to challenges. One, of course, is to deny it. One is despair, and I think with the Black Death, you saw that range of reactions, or those who said, "we're just going to go and have a good time, we may get it, we may not get it," and those who more or less gave up and said, "we're going to all die." And then there were those who said, "let's see what we can do about it.” One of the things that I think was striking about the Black Death was those who volunteered, the people who went round to bury the dead. The doctors who tried to deal with, of course, an illness, which they didn't know how it spread or how it could be treated, but they still tried to do so.
We see the same range of human reactions today. Denial. We've seen that in other things. We've seen it with polio epidemics, which I remember as a child. Every summer, city governments in Canada, for example, would tell people they shouldn't go into crowded places. They would close the swimming pools and a lot of people would complain and say, "this is ridiculous" and "it's all plot" or "it's just nonsense". I think we're seeing the same thing today. Although if you go on denying something, sometimes it will catch you anyway. A number of those people who went to the presidential rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, who felt wearing masks was ridiculous, it now turns out have got COVID-19. What is interesting, I think, is sometimes circumstances, the spread of a disease will change people's minds, but no, it's very worrying. Again, it somehow is furthered by the nature of the international communications we have. The anti-vaxxers, who might have been a small minority scattered around the world, are now able to come together and, in very worrying ways, spread the message that vaccination is bad for you. They've already done their damage with things like the vaccination for childhood diseases and now they're beginning to get active on COVID-19 vaccines.
This is very dangerous, because people will die as a result. It's a huge issue for governments. They have to try and deal with it and they have to go out to communities and try and reason with people and they have to try and talk to people. It's not easy to do, but the alternative of being very authoritarian, so, "you're going to have the vaccination, whether you want it or not", is not something most democratic societies want to contemplate and in democratic societies would arouse tremendous resistance. It is very difficult, but I think it is going to be an enormous problem. It was in the past and it's going to be one now as we try and collectively deal with COVID-19.
Hetan Shah: [00:46:46] Thank you. I've got a question here from Matt Goacher, "did the pandemic have an impact on the 1918 peace process and do you think that a challenge like this, that affects people all over the world, can act as a unifier?"
Professor MacMillan: [00:47:03] I've been thinking about the impact of the influenza on the end of the First World War and the Paris Peace Conference, which followed it in 1919. It's very hard to find any evidence. Certainly the soldiers on the front were affected by influenza and there's some research being done into whether German soldiers were affected more. I'm not sure it's clear. I think soldiers on both sides were affected. As far as the Paris Peace Conference went and the peace settlements at the end, I found very little evidence that it was something they were thinking about very much. There's very little in the written record of the deliberations in Paris. What they were thinking about is how to feed Europe, what they were thinking about, of course, is how to make peace and what sort of peace terms they should draw up to deal with Germany and the other defeated nations. They're also thinking about how to deal with revolution. There was a real fear that what had happened in Russia was going to spread around the world, and that was going to spread westwards into Europe, as well as elsewhere.
Very little mention, occasionally in someone's diary you will get a reference to someone who died overnight. The Spanish flu tended to affect young men and young people, between about 28 to 32, often people in the prime of life. What was terrifying about it was that they died very quickly. But very little in the deliberations that I've come across, and strikingly very little in the writing of the 1920s, you don't get poets, or painters, or artists of other sorts, writing about the influenza. I can only think, I may be wrong, but I've been thinking about this, that it was possible that they lived in a world in which more people did die of disease. People died of things that people don't die of today.
Both my grandfathers, who were in the First World War, had mothers who died at childbirth and that was simply something that happened. Death of younger and fit people was more prevalent than it is today. Of course, they'd just come out of a war in which possibly nine million men had been killed and so more death, in a way, was something that just added to that sense of loss, but it was not a particular catastrophe in the way that perhaps what we're going through today is.
Hetan Shah: [00:49:27] Now an interesting question from Nigel Todd, “are turning points and crises full of uncertainties about familiar institutions and worldviews also likely to generate millenarian religious frenzies fixated on the fulfilment of ancient prophecies?" I think you can take that in a slightly broader sense, but, what might this unleash in terms of religious fanaticism or cults, all of those bits of behaviours where people are looking for more certainty?
Professor MacMillan: [00:50:01] Well, yes, it's happened before in the past, hasn't it? That you get people saying, "this is punishment for what we've done." You've got this very odd phenomenon in the 14th century with the Black Death of the flagellants, who said, "this is God's punishment", who went around, beating themselves, often until they collapsed and in some cases died, as a way of expiating their sins or the sins of society. I think there are always those who think in an apocalyptic way, who will pick on an event and say, "this is the punishment for what we have done."
It'll be interesting to see if we do get these millenarial movements. I'm trying to think if we've seen any yet. Perhaps some of you may know, have we had people saying, "this is a punishment for the excesses of society or because we've done wrong things"? We've certainly had people saying, "this is nature's punishment," but I think in a way that's an understandable argument, that we have destroyed so many of the natural habitats of beasts. We're living much closer to a lot of wild animals and beasts, various sorts of mammals and so on than we used to and that we are eating things which perhaps we might not have eaten before, that it has become easier for diseases like the COVID-19 and like SARS before it, to skip from animals or birds into human beings, but that seems to me is actually a rational observation, it's based on observation. I don't think it's quite the same, it's not saying, "we deserve to be punished." Maybe as I say, watch this spot. Maybe in the next few years, we will see some religious cults or some movements growing up which do use this as an excuse to condemn humanity or claim that we're heading in a dreadful way.
Hetan Shah: [00:51:55] I suppose the flip side of this next question is that a lot of the focus has been about the impact on our physical health, but is there anything we can learn from the past, about how we can manage our mental health in these difficult times?
Professor MacMillan: [00:52:11] I don't know, because the past is a different country and people reacted in different ways and had different expectations. What we can learn from the past, is the capacity of people to be altruistic and to work together. We tend too often, I think, to see, perhaps I shouldn't say this, sometimes it may be the influence of economists, that we are trying to maximise our own benefits and our own profits, and we're making rational choices to do that. Perhaps by looking at the past, we can also see, there are certainly examples of peoples who worked together, who sacrificed themselves, the peoples who stayed in the plague-ridden cities, for example, the people, the medical personnel and others who worked in the giant infirmaries in the Spanish influenza, often at the cost of their own lives.
Perhaps when we look at the past, we can see a capacity for communities and for people as individuals to come together and work to try and deal with these sorts of challenges. We see it, ironically enough, in wartime as well. You see people pulling together in societies under threat, in ways that they might not in peacetime.
George Orwell famously said, and I'm only paraphrasing, that he didn't like much about England, he objected to much of it, but when it was under attack, he felt he would support it and defend it, although he reserved the right to criticise it. I think if we look at the past, we should not just look at the bleak picture. We should look at the times when people did, in a sense, pull together and help each other and support each other and remember that as well.
Hetan Shah: [00:53:52] Probably the final question, and this one is slightly tricky to interpret, but let me read it out and then we can try and make sense of it: "How do you see the reactionary forces, such as what is happening with Trump and the use of federal police, reacting to current political realities?" Now, I wonder whether the way to interpret this is, how are some of our more either dictatorial or populist leaders, I'm thinking of Bolsonaro as well, having to come to terms with a situation which obviously they cannot control?
Professor MacMillan: [00:54:32] Yes. I suppose you would like to think it makes them think twice, it humbles them. In fact, I think the reaction, unfortunately, is for them to become even more as they are. Unfortunately, what we're seeing is a number of authoritarian leaders using the excuse of the crisis to do things they want to do anyway. For example, the way Erdoğan is taking the opportunity to extend his control over Turkish society and to extend Turkish influence abroad. The way the Chinese are using the occasion to extend their control over Hong Kong and to continue to persecute the Uighur.
Unfortunately, I don't think leaders will always react rationally or accept that they can't control everything. What we have to hope is that in democratic countries and countries that have strong social institutions, that even leaders who are not well-intentioned and who have authoritarian tendencies will be limited by what they can do. I suppose we should take some comfort from the fact that President Trump, in his last press conference said that wearing masks was now a good thing, but I think he's done a lot of damage along the way.
I do think crises are times when those who are ruthless enough will try and use them for their own ends and seize more power. That, I think, is very worrying indeed.
Hetan Shah: [00:56:07] Well, that's a sobering note upon which to end. Look, it's been a privilege to have such a wide-ranging conversation with you, Margaret. I suppose on the more optimistic side, the thing that I take away from this is the importance of institutions and trust and the way that the pandemic is, in a sense, uncovering trends and issues that were already there. I was fascinated by your point that you wouldn't want to be a historian in 40 years' time trying to make sense of today. Well, let's leave that for future historians in the British Academy and other places to worry about.
I was very pleased to slightly selfishly pin you down against your better judgment to say that COVID is a turning point in history and I hope we might come back again in five years' time to see what the early trends and signs are about as to whether you were right or not.
Let me thank you so much for joining me today, and thank also our virtual audience, who've borne with us in this strange circumstances. Just a note to all of you out there, do subscribe to the British Academy's newsletter and social media channels to hear more about the events and the policy work that we're doing, both around the pandemic and around the wider impact of our disciplines. Thank you very much.
Professor MacMillan: [00:57:28] Thank you.
This talk originally took place on 22 July 2020, part of the Shape the Future programme, which brings together researchers to examine a range of issues around COVID-19.