Whether the plague, the world wars or now coronavirus, serious crises reorder societies. With effort and imagination, can we shake off a nightmare and wake ourselves into a brighter tomorrow?by Margaret MacMillan / May 7, 2020 / Leave a comment
In the autumn of 1954, when I was 10, we had a hurricane in Toronto. We were surprised; tropical storms were not meant to come that far inland or north. Hurricane Hazel hit hard: the winds howled and sheets of rain hammered down; tree branches snapped; our street became a stream, and the power went out. Creeks and rivers throughout southern Ontario turned into raging torrents that carried away roads, bridges and, horribly, barns and houses, sometimes with their unfortunate inhabitants inside.
In the next weeks, the city and province picked up the pieces with the help of the armed forces, which were still large and well equipped thanks to both the Second World War and the Korean War. Citizens chipped in with furniture, clothes and money for those who had lost everything. And the public and government decided that we needed to be prepared for next time. A powerful conservation authority was set up to monitor and channel waterways and laws passed to prevent houses being built on flood plains. An unforeseen benefit was that Toronto’s network of wooded ravines was saved from further development, and preserved to provide much-needed green space for the city.
Catastrophic events such as Hurricane Hazel, and of course Covid-19, are hard to predict. They bring out weaknesses and expose previous bad decisions in societies. Yet they also demonstrate that mutual support makes a difference, and that coping and recovery happen best when societies possess effective leaders, strong institutions, a willingness to deploy sufficient resources as well as the capacity to redeploy them rapidly.
It is never too early in a crisis to search the past for insight about what we might be doing right or wrong. If we use history wisely, drawing on insights from the many and varied catastrophes of the past from wars and plagues to financial meltdowns, we can put our present crisis in perspective, and perhaps also give ourselves hope. After all, societies can and do recover from disasters, and those willing to learn from them can mitigate or even avoid reruns.
Even more importantly, knowledge of history gives us the capacity to…