History Doesn’t Repeat Itself, but It Rhymes

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The Schulich School of Business in Toronto has a great interdisciplinary webinar series on “Shaping the Post-Pandemic World” not unlike our course, which I try to follow as much as possible. Today I listened to business history professor Matthias Kipping, whom I got to know and value during his research stay at FU Berlin. In his talk, Kipping provided an important historical perspective on the Covid-19 crisis, with several important lessons.

Lesson 1: “History doesn’t repeat itself – but it rhymes.” There are patterns that tend to happen again and again. One such pattern is that pandemics happen to humankind again and again. This teaches us is that we should invest more in preemptive action, i.e. the development of vaccines and medications which (my addition: for profit reasons) have not received enough attention so far, starting with antibiotics research to cure tuberculosis, a major killer with 1.5 million deaths/year or malaria (killing about 400k children/year) and, of course, coronavirus vaccines, which could have been a focus of research since SARS and MERS. One thing is certain from history: There will be another pandemic.

Lesson 2: “It will eventually get you”, meaning globalization is not to blame. Yes, maybe today’s mobility helped the virus to spread more rapidly, but also the historical pandemics, like the Justinian plague or “the” plague, spread widely around the globe.

Lesson 3: “Roosevelt vs Mussolini”. Looking at the past, our future can go in two directions, and you can find both directions as frames used by our political leaders. One option would be to enter a kind of “post WWII reconstruction” area, forming the basis for a new global economy and possibly reaching a new, green as well as social “New Deal”. Another, bleaker option would be to enter into a post WWI “wild twenties” period followed by a Great Depression and marked by nationalism, protectionism and a dismantling of the global order. However, even this path might lead to a “New Deal”, as the one forged by Franklin D. Roosevelt in response to the Great Depression.

Lesson 4: “So far, populists have fared poorly” – but who has done well? On the one hand, intrusive and oppressive surveillance regimes like the Chinese one; and on the other hand democracies with empathetic leaders listening to science – with New Zealand’s Arden, Germany’s Merkel or Taiwan’s Tsai being prime examples.

History has shown that humankind can beat killer diseases like the smallpox through science – but whether Covid19 will turn into a comparable success story crucially depends on our leaders. Only history will tell us who’ll win.

1 thought on “History Doesn’t Repeat Itself, but It Rhymes

  1. Pingback: Democratizing and Decommodifying Work after Covid-19 | Organizing in Times of Crisis

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