Living Through History: ‘Stuff You Missed In History Class’ Talks Covid-19

As people who study history and pandemics, Stuff You Missed In History Class hosts Holly Frey and Tracy Wilson wanted to spend this episode talking about how strange it is for everyone to be in “this unique position...where we have a front-row seat to history being made.” They talk about how the quarantine has affected them personally, as well as “parallels in the past” they’ve noticed, from past pandemics like the 1918 flu or the Black Death, and how the government response mirrors Parliament’s actions during the Irish famine, as well as pondering how we’ll look back at this time, especially in comparison with how our grandparents talk about the Great Depression.

Many of the steps we’ve taken to slow the spread of the coronavirus are identical to the measures taken during the 1918 flu, from canceling public gatherings and closing businesses to adjusting public transit schedules and wearing masks when out in public. That’s because we don’t have a vaccine yet, so we’re having to resort to tried-and-true methods like these. Then, as now, people considered many of these measures to be “overreacting,” reserving most of their concern for the economic effects. The irony, of course, is that these steps are intended to decrease the death rate, and if they work, it will look like an overreaction, when actually “they reacted appropriately” and saved a lot of lives. 

There’s also been similar laissez-faire attitudes to certain demographics bearing the brunt of the diseases’ effects in the past. Recently, it was suggested that older people, who are more prone to fatally contract coronavirus, would be happy to put themselves at risk to get people back to work and get the economy going again. Tracy points out that the Great Famine in Ireland had devastating effects because Parliament took their time dealing with it, “kind of saying, ‘well, those aren’t the people that matter,’” Tracy tells us. Beyond how barbaric that attitude is, they argue that allowing the virus to simply run its course could be even more detrimental to the economy; when the Black Death swept Europe, so many people died that there weren’t enough laborers to bring in the harvest, and people starved.

Of course, this isn’t really the first historic event we’re living through; they talk about the Challenger and Chernobyl disasters, 9/11, the dot-com and housing bubbles bursting, and so on, but somehow this pandemic feels different. They discuss why, getting into all the fallout from this major event in history, how historians might look back and write about our actions, and much more on this episode of Stuff You Missed In History Class.

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