Read the past, know the future
Published: Apr 20, 2020 07:08 PM

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Former British prime minister Winston Churchill once said: "The farther back you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see." The COVID-19 pandemic has repeatedly broken people's previous assumptions. At first people thought it was just a new SARS, then it was predicted to likely come to an end when summer arrives.

It's now already late April and over 2.4 million people have been infected and nearly 170,000 people have died worldwide. Now some people believe the pandemic may only be in its early stages, and the wings of the butterfly that spurred this global hurricane have not yet fully expanded.

People are clearly full of anxiety and fearful of the future. We do not know when the pandemic will end. 

This situation has arisen due to our indifference and contempt for infectious diseases, which are the number one enemy of human health. The best way to cope is to calm down and look for answers in history books.

Evidence shows that the ancient Sumer, one of the first civilizations in the world, suffered infectious diseases that were transmitted from person to person causing a reduction in the population. Around 3,000 BC, on the Mesopotamian plains, the Semites unexpectedly replaced the Sumerians. A reasonable assumption is that infectious disease led to mass deaths of Sumerians. As I said in my previous column, infectious diseases have caused countries to rise and fall over the last 5,000 years.

For the US, which is still the world's most powerful country in terms of overall strength, policy makers had better read History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides and The History of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon. They would learn how the Persian Empire, Athenian Empire, Alexander Empire and Roman Empire grew weaken in the face of a plague. A short time after encountering a plague, many ancient empires experienced social chaos, famine, homelessness, bankruptcy, and even imminent collapse. When coping with an infectious disease, the stronger the empire the more modest it needs to be. Arrogance and ignorance have proven fatal.

China has successfully curtailed the worst of the epidemic, but to take a lesson from The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, by US historian John M. Barry, still can be helpful. 

After the first worldwide confrontation between humanity and nature in 1918, scientists developed medical technology and modern concepts to confront the unfamiliar force of nature. Since then, US medical experts have been determined to elevate the country from the world's medical backward to the most advanced. 

Chinese people should learn from the rise of the US. We should not be arrogant or blindly relax. Instead, after gaining world-leading experience in epidemic prevention, we should continue to accumulate experience, so as to gain more power for sustainable development and solving people's difficulties.

People who wants to know the future, should read the history of the Black Death in the 14th century. That was the darkest moment in the history of human civilization. About a third of the population in Europe died from the plague. In the East, the population of China during the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) suffered a sharp decline due to war and plague.

The different ways the East and the West dealt with the plague led to completely different development prospects. In China, people were still living under feudal dynasties. 

But in Europe, people bravely separated from the past and started to reflect on their values and rights. They criticized the paralyzing religious consciousness and finally awakened during the Renaissance, creating the Western civilization that later led the world.

The impact of this COVID-19 pandemic is far from over. Everyone should have the lowest possible expectations. Today, after more than 5,000 years of civilization, humans still have not completely understood infectious diseases. Human are living in the most unpredictable ecologically turbulent era this planet has ever faced. We need a revolution in our thinking about how humans reshape their relationship with microorganisms and nature.

The world's leading thinkers including Henry Kissinger, Joseph Nye, and Thomas Friedman have said that the COVID-19 pandemic will alter the world order. But in which way? Will the year 2020 be a watershed in economic cycles like the 2008 financial crisis? A watershed like the great power structure change after the end of the Cold War in 1991? A watershed like the one in world order at the end of WWII in 1945? Or even a watershed for civilizations brought by Ferdinand Magellan's voyage in 1519?

The answers to those questions will not only be found in our post-COVID-19 future, they are already in the hands of everyone who dares to think.

The author is professor and executive dean of Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China, and executive director of China-US People-to-People Exchange Research Center. His latest book is Great Power's Long March Road.wangwen2013@ruc.edu.cn
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