Lessons From History – How We Can Learn From Historic Events

Posted by Kambala

One of the great gifts of history is its ability to give us perspective on the trials we experience in modern-day life. As we all attempt to adjust to the challenges of COVID-19, it can be helpful to recognise that it is just the most recent in a long history of infectious diseases. Although it can be scary, COVID-19 is not the eruption of a horrifying new reality; it is in fact the return of a past and familiar enemy. The virus is novel, but the pattern is old, and it always ends in recovery.

In the Medieval period, the Black Death is said to have killed up to 200 million. Historian Bennett Sherry states that to put the Black Death into perspective, “an epidemic today on [this] scale would kill between one and two billion people.” Smallpox was responsible for as many as 300 million deaths in the twentieth century alone, and the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918–1919 killed some 50 to 100 million people. The history of these infectious diseases shows us that humans have faced dire pandemics in the past and that humanity is resilient. In fact, we did so well in eradicating infectious disease that by 1972 the esteemed microbiologists Macfarlane Burnet and David White predicted that “the most likely forecast about the future of infectious diseases is that it will be very dull.” How wrong they were.

In addition to perspective and the resilience of our global population, the history of infectious disease has taught us other important lessons. Some of those lessons are medical and scientific and are being used now in an effort to find treatment and a vaccine for COVID-19. Some of the other lessons are more sociological and may provide your daughters with some comfort.


We will get through this

Just as humanity survived the pandemics of the past, we will survive this one, both financially and physically. We should note, too, that we are not just surviving – the situation is improving. There has been a drastic decline in annual deaths from infectious disease, from around 800 deaths per 100,000 people in 1900 to about 60 deaths per 100,000 by end of the twentieth century. Epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch points out that “death rates from infectious disease dropped by nearly 1 percent a year all the way through the century.” That’s good news.


It’s ok to have unknowns

We generally fear the unknown, but unknowns can have positive as well as negative results and we shouldn’t assume the negative. Furthermore, if we look to past pandemics, we can learn that there is a positive response to the fear of the unknown – we can use it as a catalyst for common good.


The beauty of cooperation

History shows us how epidemics transcend national borders, as do the responses to them. We have defeated past health threats through close international collaboration, and we have survived troubling times through mutual community support. We have already seen Kambala bring that lesson into action as we work together to provide our students with the care and education they need to prosper throughout the COVID-19 situation.

History can be a source of information and also of comfort at times like these. It’s comforting to think that one day soon, COVID-19 will be part of our history.


About the Author

Kate Green is a Senior History Teacher at Kambala. She has been teaching History for 10 years and is interested to find that some of her courses now include historical events that occurred during her own lifetime. She has loved the challenge of teaching online during the COVID-19 experience and she is looking forward to seeing her students back in the classroom soon.