Dan Snow on Covid History (and Cummings)
David and Helen talk to the historian Dan Snow about the parallels for the current crisis. Is it like past pandemics or is it more like a war? What has it exposed about the weak spots in our societies? And what have we learned about the role of political leadership? Plus we explore the value of Churchill comparisons on the 80th anniversary of his great WWII speeches and we dip our toes into the Cummings affair.
Lockdown, quarantine, social distancing have been borrowed from the past.
- This is not as great a mortality or morbidity event as past pandemics, at least yet.
- But we are not as separate from past human experience as many people would like to believe.
Perhaps the better comparisons are the forgotten ones: 1957 and 1968.
- The other main comparison is the Spanish flu, which was far more lethal.
- Politicians treated these past flus as background events. This crisis is all consuming.
- Most people in 1919 died at home. Health infrastructure changes the conversation.
- The politics of healthcare are central to this—especially because governments decided that protecting health systems would be the priority.
This event has exacerbated existing faultlines, but also, things that we’ve assumed were facts of life have been completely halted.
- Can things go back to ‘normal’?
- There may be more homeworking, but will there be less air travel?
- Pandemics expose weak spots in societies. Western societies are old and increasingly unhealthy. This is a disease that targets the old and the unhealthy.
Are future historians more likely to see this as an economic crisis than as a health crisis?
- We’ve been in monetary unknown territory since the early 1970s.
- When we look back at the economic narrative, we’re going to be looking at a much longer story about what happens when the world’s central banks allow polities to live with much more debt outside of wartime.
Are we now health-fiscal states?
- The state, in Hobbesian terms, exists to keep people alive. In the modern world, that means both health and external security.
- We should expect the state to show itself for what it is in both war and health crises.
- The health side becomes more important in aging societies.
Johnson is trapped between what the pandemic looks like it requires with regards to Cummings and his government’s ability to deal with Brexit.
- Johnson does not want to face the next phase of Brexit negotiations without Cummings.
- For Johnson to sacrifice Cummings now would be existential for his government; that’s why he doesn’t want to do it.
Mentioned in this Episode:
- History Hit
- TP with Richard Evans on cholera
- John Oxford on the Spanish Flu for BBC
- Democracy for Realists by Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels
- Our most recent conversation with Adam Tooze