‘A very dangerous epoch’: historians try to make sense of Covid

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It was in the first few weeks of 2020, when early reports began filtering through of a mystery virus threatening to spread across the world, that Rob Perks decided to begin collecting.

As lead curator for oral history at the British Library, Perks’s team routinely gather testimony to be archived for future research. But a comment by a historian who advises the institution stopped him in his tracks.

“I remember him saying: ‘History will be written Before Covid and After Covid.’ And I thought, he’s got something here. It began to sink in that this was different from anything I’ve ever encountered in my 30-year career at the British Library, and that we should do something about it.”

For the past year, that has meant gathering interviews with thousands of NHS workers, archiving websites, recording TV and radio channels, and collecting poetry and audio diaries, sometimes with partner organisations. It will build, he hopes, into a national archive of Covid-19 reminiscences, and an “amazing resource” for future researchers.

It is not just the Covid pandemic that can make these feel like unusually significant times. Populism, Trump’s rise and (perhaps) fall, Brexit, the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo protests, mass movement of refugees, the increased might of both China and India and many other issues have contributed to a sense of humanity having reached a historic moment, all while the climate crisis rages with ever more urgency.

On the other hand, disease is not new, and societies have always faced crises. So is it really the case that in the future we will regard this as a pivotal moment?

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“On the scale of things, this is not a terrible pandemic,” says the historian and author Tom Holland, arguing that Covid will be under control globally within a few years, “and that’s an amazing achievement”. But it may still signal a very important moment, he believes.

“A lot of people are arguing that these kinds of zoonotic pandemics [originating in other species] are expressive of biodiversity ecosystems coming under uncontrollable stress.

“And so the question is whether in 100 years, people will look back and see this as being the first of a number of epidemics [caused by] humanity crashing into ecosystems that previously humans were not part of.

“I suspect that they will, and I feel quite pessimistic about that.”

Holland – who has written widely about the ancient world, Rome and the influence of Christianity – believes social movements in the west such as BLM are part of a cultural and moral upheaval that began in the 1960s, and which he sees as being as significant as the Protestant Reformation.

Important as individual movements are, however, Holland warns against taking too parochial a perspective on their global impact, arguing that BLM’s influence, for instance, has been limited to certain countries and that beyond the west “I don’t think it has had any impact at all”.

It is a caution shared by Vinita Damodaran, a professor of south Asian history and director of the Centre for World Environmental History at the University of Sussex.

Describing herself as “a global historian who thinks in big waves”, Damodaran says what we are living through is “clearly a period of heightened uncertainty where the old ideologies no longer work” – naming liberalism, colonialism and the free market economy.

In specific local contexts around the world, she says, small- and large-scale tipping points are being reached, all of which add up to a global sense of crisis, the impact of which, particularly on the environment, is being felt even by those in more prosperous and comfortable societies.

“No longer is this happening [only] in Haiti, where you could say, right I’ll send them some money. This is a globally interconnected world, and climate change knows no borders.”

But the problem is not new, she says: “There’s this hubris which comes out of the Enlightenment of the 18th century, that humans in some senses can dominate nature” – and we should not claim to be surprised.

“There is a price we are paying for intensive farming practices. Covid has not just suddenly sprung upon us. You just have to be a historian to understand this moment.”

Historian and broadcaster Michael Wood.

The historian and broadcaster Michael Wood, a professor of public history at the University of Manchester, says: “Everything that is going on at the moment, it seems to me, all links together.”

History has seen great civilisations in China, India and across Eurasia, “but they’ve not caused these crises that we are living through now, and nor has the African world.

“You know what happened? Roughly 500 years ago, these small, aggressive maritime powers on the shores of Europe went across the world with their technology and created their empires by sea.

“And I think what we are seeing now can all be interpreted in the light of the post-imperial [age].”

Other societies may now be enthusiastic participants, but it was not they who created western industrial capitalism, he argues.

Wood has changed his mind on the long-term significance of Covid. Six months ago, cycling through a deserted city, “I thought, my God, if London can be emptied like this and everything stopped, this is going to have an amazing impact on our psychology.”

Now, he is not so sure. The psychological toll on many people has been huge, he acknowledges, but in the main “people get over these things. The Black Death killed in some places half the population of Britain, and they had six more outbreaks between the 1350s and early 1400.”

His most recent book is about China, and he argues that for all that country’s environmental problems, the scale of the climate crisis is well understood in Beijing given the risks to its society from food and water insecurity.

“Everything comes back to the climate crisis, because everything is affected by it – the political order, social order, food, water, the migration of people. So we are in a very, very dangerous epoch.”

And yet interventions can change history; many hope the UN climate change conference in Glasgow later this year, for instance, could offer such an opportunity.

In that sense, is not history – and the significance or otherwise of this time – in our own hands? “It is totally in our hands,” says Wood.

“And if you were going to be really hopeful, you’d say this is the moment when we are going to wake up and realise that our true interests on the planet are served by cooperating.

“These are things that are self-evident, there’s no denying them. What we will do about it is the imponderable.”

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