Historians are "the worst people to predict the future", nevertheless we asked one about life post-COVID | HerCanberra

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Historians are “the worst people to predict the future”, nevertheless we asked one about life post-COVID

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Historians are the worst people to predict the future, says Professor of History Frank Biongiorno.

Nevertheless, I asked Frank to join me for a Salon Canberra webinar earlier this month to look back on the past to find answers to the present.

Frank is a Professor of History at the Australian National University and an author of several books, including The Eighties: The Decade That Transformed Australia, named ACT Book of the Year in 2015. He is currently writing a history of the political lives of Australians from earliest times to the present.

When you’re writing a history of Australia what do you do with COVID-19? Given we don’t know how it will play out, is it a chapter or an afterword?

Frank has been pondering this question, and said it became clear to him that the pandemic is not “just an afterthought”. Instead, it represents “one of those moments that historians call, in a rather hackneyed way, a turning point”.

The experience of the pandemic has disclosed aspects of Australia and our place in a wider world that most of us, perhaps, didn’t understand. COVID-19 has been “remarkable” in its ability to reveal “in vivid colour” issues in our society that were once in “sepia,” he said.

There are few signs that COVID-19 will have similar demographic effects to those of the Black Death, which historians believe wiped out “half or even more than half” of Europe in the fourteenth century. No twentieth-century pandemic—not even the Spanish influenza epidemic that killed some 50 million people—has been so devastating.

But Frank spoke about COVID as a “window” onto the way in which the past forces itself onto the present—“how we are captives of history”—and the pandemic’s role as an “exposure site” to society’s values and structures in the present.

He pointed to the way in which social values and norms can change rapidly. German sociologist Norbert Elias, famous for his 1939 work The Civilising Process, examined forms of social behaviour that in one era would be considered acceptable and in another rude.

Erasmus, a brilliant sixteenth-century mind, considered it good manners to spit out his food into the corner of a room for the servants to dispose of, “something that most of us would not do at a dinner party today,” Frank noted.

It doesn’t always take centuries for social norms to change. Smoking in public places evolved from acceptable to offensive in matter of decades. Our sense of the difference between civil and uncivil, of what is considerate and inconsiderate, will be influenced by the pandemic, Frank said.

Will turning up to some social situations without a mask one day be as unacceptable as cigarette smoke or body odour, he asked? Will we return to greeting people with a kiss? Will we ever look at someone with “a cough and a drippy nose” the same way?

A lot of these questions are for future historians to ponder, but ultimately our social behaviours “do express something of the meaning of community” and our “sense of obligation” to others.

COVID-19 has also exposed impulses rooted deep in Australia’s history. Frank offered several examples.

Border controls were a “distinctively antipodean” response, he remarked. This “deep psychological vein”, brilliantly captured by cultural historian John Williams in The Quarantined Culture, had been mined by governments during this crisis.

The traditions of “collectivism”—stronger in Australia than in most other parts of the world—hark back to our convict origins and the “fundamentally bureaucratic nature” of society. Non-compliance of masks and movement of people has a precedent of fines and a “handful” of short gaol terms in 1919 during the Spanish flu.

We talked about the backlash against scientists in popular culture and social media.

Frank reflected that the pandemic had delivered “an enormous boost to the prestige of science”—with chief medical officers seen as “celebrities”. This is in parallel to the role of economists during the Great Depression. While people questioned the expertise of economists, ultimately the 1930s was the era that elevated the “prestige of the profession”. We may expect a similar advancement of the status of medical science.

The pandemic has also exposed a lack of service capacity in our federal government, Frank noted.

The vaccination program of 1919 was handled with “a great deal more effectiveness”. He pointed to CSL, founded in 1916 as the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories, which was an Australian Government body focused on vaccine manufacture. It’s a good example of the “capacity and confidence” of federal governments in earlier eras.

Once the peak of the pandemic has subsided, the impulse to restore may be more powerful than the one to renovate and reconstruct, Frank observed. This too has precedence in Australian history. In the years after World War II, many Australians were tired of restrictions and austerity and “wanted to see something like the world they’d known before the war would be restored”.

We won’t go back to the way things were. But will we move forward to something better?

Historians “need perspective” to make sense of the past, Frank commented. But even now there are many reasons to be hopeful. We are having more nuanced debate about aged care regulation, the vagaries of casualised employment and the social safety net, for example. We may “look back and say governments did OK” and that our people showed “enormous levels of social discipline around social goals”—both great resources for the future.

But Frank’s insightful exploration left me wondering: Why don’t more people look to the past to understand the consequences of today’s pandemic? Do we need greater investment in history education to build a longer-term collective memory?

There has been some commentary about past pandemics in Australia, Frank noted. “I even recall Scott Morrison making reference to the Spanish flu, in relation to the way it had divided the states from one another and from the Commonwealth.”

But, in general, our analysis has been “haphazard”. The problem is, Frank said, that “historically semi-literate” people turn to the past, but “in a way that ignores or misunderstands context, makes misleading analogies, or simply gets key details wrong”.

The solution? To build historical literacy “from the ground up”. “Historical interpretation doesn’t usually offer clear guidance to action in the present. It offers warnings and suggests possibilities.”

It also suggests we should start championing more history lessons in our schools—or watch history repeat.

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