Learning from the Current Crisis – Professor Peter N. Stearns

This is a reflection written by Professor Peter N. Stearns for the new series from The Bahá’í Chair for World Peace on Learning During the Covid-19 Pandemic.

The suffering and dislocation caused by the recent pandemic legitimately provoke all sorts of thoughts, including many constructive suggestions about how we can build on short term response to construct a better society and, more specifically, seek to prepare better for similar crises in the future. I certainly hope some good can indeed emerge. 

I am a historian, however, and while this does not predispose me to pessimism I do think that, in the current circumstance, evidence from the past raises some cautionary flags.

First: we are in the early stage of responding to the virus and dealing with the considerable economic collapse. It is arguably premature to project too much, or even to evaluate the magnitude of developments around us. Grievous as the death levels are, to date they suggest a fairly mild plague event and/or, despite all our misgivings, some real improvements in our ability to respond. This does not begin to compare, at least as yet, with the great plague of the 14th century or even the “Spanish” flu of a century back.* This might be a slightly hopeful finding, but it also cautions against necessarily expecting dramatic long term response.

Second: we know that epidemics often involve unfortunate corollaries, some of which we see around us today though, so far, in fairly mild forms. The rich show their ability to escape the worst conditions, leaving these to the poor. Many people seek scapegoats in minority populations, and sometimes this has contributed to longer-term discriminations – for example, against immigrants, as in the United States after the Spanish flu. Modern epidemics, also, have frequently complicated global relations, encouraging mutual barriers that prove hard to modify. Here too, we see symptoms around us.

Indeed, one of the things we may be learning from the current crisis is that we have not advanced as much as one might hope over responses that contributed to difficulties in the past. Arguably, greater awareness here of this historical dimension can help us minimize some of the less constructive responses we see around us, though it also suggests this may not be easy.

Third: while some epidemics produce considerable change this is not always the case. In Western Europe the Black Death did help shake up serfdom and created some new economic opportunities for ordinary people, even inspiring some impressively egalitarian protests. More modestly but significantly, the cholera epidemics of the 19th century promoted new urban public health measures that paid off over time.

But the most recent roughly comparable epidemic, the influenza experience of 1918-19, produced surprisingly little positive result. It did lead to a permanent abandonment of the communal drinking glass that had been a common item in  many public schools. But that was about it. Despite distressing death rates and, surely, much private grief the episode was surprisingly quickly forgotten.

This was surely partly because it came on the heels of a major war that was far more visible. It may have reflected populations that were simply more accustomed to surges in the death rate than we are today. There are a number of reasons to anticipate that our current crisis will have more durable effects, whether good or bad – including the probability that the economic dislocation will be unusually great.  

But there is a warning here as well: we cannot assume that people will not be eager, assuming a crisis that eases within a year or so, to go back to their accustomed habits just as quickly and fully as possible, with little thought that there is much reason to learn or remember (individual grief aside). We see signs of this now too, particularly in the United States, in the eagerness of some groups to pretend that nothing much has been happening except some political overreaction, that getting back to a prior normal is the transcendent goal. 

And this suggests that if the crisis is to yield some positive results, and not just greater prejudice and isolation with a dose of greater inequality and authoritarianism tossed in, it is going to take really conscious effort and careful organization – arguably including solid political action.  It will not spring magically from a chastened population.

The past record does offer some hope, however, that again reflects some of what we are seeing around us today. Samuel Cohn, one of the leading students of epidemics over a long stretch of time, notes how often these events provoke surprising signs of empathy and community action, alongside some of the nastier social symptoms. This too was quite visible a hundred years ago. Again, the challenge will be to build on this kind of spirit for the future, against the impulse to go back to established patterns as quickly and fully as possible. The challenge, indeed, is to do better in turning crisis into constructive change than most of our ancestors managed in somewhat similar circumstances. 

*Though of course the CDC has just predicted a second wave of the virus, worse than the first, which would replicate the 1919 experience.

About the Author:


Peter N. Stearns is University Professor of History at George Mason University and editor of a forthcoming volume (Routledge) on the modern history of death. 


You can view Professor Stearns’ lecture from the Bahá’í Chair for World Peace Conference, Learning Outside the Lines here.

You can find out more about the Bahá’í Chair by watching our video here.

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