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Learning from History: Lessons from the Pandemic – Part 2

This is Part 2 of a series – click here to read other Parts!

In the previous article, we introduced the questions this series will address, laying out a Roadmap to Recovery:

  • What lessons have you personally learned from the COVID-19 Pandemic Era?

  • What have we learned as a global human family, and what do we need to learn?

  • Why is it important?

  • What do we do about it?

And in the interest of answering these questions, we introduced the big-picture terminology we’ll rely on as the boundaries and compass on our Roadmap:

  1. From Pandemic Era to Recovery Era

  2. From Greater Resignation to Greater Reengagement and Reimagination

  3. Moving On with Business-as-Usual to Moving Through with Transitional Ceremonies

What does it look like to take on these initiatives and questions? I’ll be providing several concrete answers in upcoming articles. These have been guided by many observations, conversations, research, and my community pandemic recovery work. And they’ve also been guided significantly by my reading of history.

The COVID-19 pandemic was unprecedented in so many ways. But, as I mentioned in the previous article, it does fit into a larger category of worldwide communal traumatic experiences. And, for better or worse, we have been through those before. I’ve been especially struck by the parallels and lessons from recent precedents, which we’ll explore in this article:

And even more so than these sweeping historical narratives, our own personal narratives – including our own experiences with trauma – can inform our perspective on what we need to learn from the past. We’ll explore one of my own experiences in the next article as well:

These three examples each offer their own insights on the questions and roadmap outlined at the beginning of the article. Each offers a powerful lens through which we can look at our task at hand of Recovery, Reengagement, Reimagination, and Moving Through. As you read through what I’m learning, I invite you to reflect on what you can learn from histories you know yourself, and from your own intimate stories. And I invite you to share that wisdom, as I hope to share some here...

The 1918-1920 Pandemic & Post-WW1 Crisis: How to Fail at Recovery

The last COVID-scale pandemic lasted from approximately February 1918 to April 1920, as the world struggled with a strain of the influenza virus, typically misnamed the “Spanish flu.”[1] This coincided with the end of the First World War:

  • the final Armistice (or ceasefire) between the Allies and Germany was signed on 11 Nov. 1918,

  • the Treaty of Versailles (officially ending the war) was signed on 28 Jun. 1919, and

  • the Paris Peace Conference (further negotiations) concluded on 21 Jan. 1920.[2,3,4]

It’s generally estimated that as many as 50 million from the disease and WW1 together, 15-25 million people per catastrophe. To say the least, the duration of the war was horrific, the end was protracted, the overlap with the virus was tragic, and the lack of public health systems to accommodate victims of either calamity was glaring. Considering these daunting facts, we may be prone to let our forebears off the hook for how they responded. How did they respond? By almost every measure, badly. To focus on the actions in which the U.S. was involved:

  • For the eight months from the Armistice until the Treaty of Versailles, the Allies (Americans, British, French, etc.) blockaded German ports, effectively killing hundreds of thousands of people with starvation and disease.[5]

  • Then in the Treaty and Conference process, the Allies extracted punitive reparations from Germany, drastically more than the defeated empire was capable of paying (the final payment wasn’t made until 2010, 90 years later).[6]

To Germans at the time, and to historians thereafter, these actions were understood as mostly vengeful rather than strategic in any significant way.[7] They are widely regarded as having sown seeds of resentment among the German people, toward the Allies and toward the leaders of the German Weimar Republic who complied with them. The acrimony was stoked even further when this all precipitated the cratering of the German economy in 1921-23, in which many people had to barter so they wouldn’t starve.[8] By 1933, these seeds had grown into the newly installed Nazi regime. Soon the Allies found themselves fighting with Germany once again – in the most destructive war in human history. And none of this is to excuse the Germans – they of course abetted the scourge of fascism. Everyone in every country was desperate, yet everyone made decisions.

Given all this self-sabotage, it’s perhaps not surprising that, throughout the three decades from the beginning of World War 1 to the end of World War 2, little was done on any large scale to proactively help anyone recover from either the Great War or the pandemic.[9] Some people were able to partake in the short-lived Roaring 20’s – a time of compensatory partying, which did help people cope to some degree.[10] But many more fell into the Lost Generation – millions now stranded in quiet desperation, addiction, grief, and rootlessness, susceptible to the lure of rising totalitarianism.[11]

Rather than confront the deeper, shared emotional and spiritual reality of what everyone had been through, the response to the 1918-1920 Pandemic and Post-WW1 Crisis was a mere slide into dissociation, with a side of scapegoating to gloss things over. And without a healthy process to address grief and rekindle passion, these emotions were pushed underground – only to rear back up with a vengeance. We opted for relief rather than recovery, and paid a ruinous price.

In summary, to use our terminology from the previous article:

  • The Pandemic-and-WW1 Era effectively lingered on for decades despite being “over.”

  • There was a Greater Resignation: declining mental-emotional-spiritual health and community cohesion; increasing depression, anxiety, despair, isolation, loneliness, escapism, animosity, polarization, and inequality.

  • “Moving on” and “business-as-usual” proved to be illusions, soon giving way to a backlash worse than what anyone could have imagined.

Unfortunately, it took the crisis of the Second World War to teach us the error of our ways. Fortunately, we did learn.

The Post-WW2 Crisis:

How to Succeed at Recovery

The aftermath of World War 2 is one of those rare, inspiring stories in human history, proving that our species – even the most powerful people among us – can learn from our mistakes and build a better world.

To say the least, there was much to rebuild. A staggering 70-85 million people lost their lives in the Second World War. Much of Europe and East Asia lay in ruins, struggling with food shortages and poverty. Considering these daunting facts, it might’ve been understandable if our forebears had mounted an inadequate response. So how did they respond? By almost every measure, much better than after WW1. The most notable response was, of course, the Marshall Plan:

  • From 1948 to 1952, the U.S. disbursed $11.8 billion in grants and $1.5 billion in loans (that’s in 1948 dollars – $115 billion total in 2021 dollars) to European countries to rebuild their housing and infrastructure, and get people working and eating again.

  • During that same time it also disbursed about half as much to East Asian countries, though these weren’t officially considered part of the Marshall Plan.[12]

This stimulated unprecedented economic, political, and demographic recovery and growth, quickly enabling all recipient nations advance well beyond their pre-war vitality. It also helped lay the groundwork for what would become the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU) – permanently preventing another apocalyptic war in Western Europe.

Prevention of such a war was the ultimate purpose of the plan. Everyone saw clearly how the harsh, retributive actions of the Allies after World War One and demonization of Germany had incubated fascism, paving the way for the horrors of World War Two. This time around, the U.S. and other nations set out to prove that forgiveness, generosity, and reintegration were the only way to healing, peace, and progress. And prove it we did.

On a smaller scale, the recovery effort of the city of London is just as stirring. The 1940-41 Blitz (or Bombing of London) destroyed or damaged vast swaths of almost every neighborhood, killed over 30,000 people, and threatened to hobble Britain’s morale.[13] Winston Churchill is often credited with rousing the nation’s gumption with his speeches during this time, but even more so, he was responding to a collective mood that was already present among the citizenry. Amidst the devastation, ordinary people were organizing in a grassroots effort, block-by-block, neighborhood-by-neighborhood, to rescue the wounded, bury the dead, clean up and rebuild the city, and support each other.[14]

Despite so many people being traumatized, psychological research demonstrated that, compared to before the bombing, the communal recovery campaign improved people’s mental health overall and reduced anti-social behaviors across the board (addiction, crime, suicide, etc.). These positive effects lasted long after the war, and galvanized a visionary spirit of British resilience. We’ve seen a similar pattern with community responses to other disasters, including the 9/11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina.[15]

Rather than give into inertia and condemnation as we did with the previous crisis, the response to the Post-WW2 Crisis envisioned a larger definition of shared humanity and repair. We coordinated a conscious outpouring of aid, to prevent another crisis and ensure an optimistic future. We faced our grief, tapped into passion, and channeled them constructively. We embraced recovery over relief, helped heal our history, and laid an enduring foundation.

In summary, to use our terminology from the previous article:

  • The Marshall Plan helped end the WW2 Era and activate a Recovery Era.

  • The healing of London indicated a Greater Reengagement and Reimagination happening for people around the world.

  • Both efforts proved that moving through a worldwide communal trauma is the only real way forward.

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, I believe we ideally need a recovery effort on the scale of the Marshall Plan – a global restoration of individual and collective wellbeing, and a massive down-payment on growth.

I know that’s a tall order. The good news is, even if we can’t muster something quite that bold and sweeping, we can still follow the example of Londoners during and after the Blitz. While I think it’s a good practice to hold the largest possible vision for recovery, and a top-down strategy may be vital, a bottom-up one is even more so. We can come together, block-by-block, neighborhood-by-neighborhood, to rebuild health and community. And we must.

But even this grassroots approach requires enormous work. How do we rally enough people to the cause? And how do we ensure people get what they need for their own healing along the way?

I believe Transition Ceremonies hold the key. We need special, set-aside contexts to acknowledge, process, and honor the Pandemic Era, and reorient to the Recovery Era. For many of us, including me, the last few years have hit home just how important these are.

What do these Transition Ceremonies look like?

Stay tuned for Part 3: Learning from Our Stories!

If you’re looking for some practical insights before then, check out the Lessons from the Pandemic Hub on my website. And if you’re looking for ways to help the Recovery, Reengagement, and Reimagination effort ASAP, share that Hub page and share this blog with people you know, especially if they’re struggling with these things or are a leader who can make a difference in your community.

Works Cited, Further Reading
  1. Wikimedia Foundation. (2023, March 20). Spanish flu. Wikipedia.

  2. Wikimedia Foundation. (2023, March 21). World War I. Wikipedia.

  3. Wikimedia Foundation. (2023, March 22). Treaty of versailles. Wikipedia.

  4. Wikimedia Foundation. (2023, March 16). Paris peace conference (1919–1920). Wikipedia.

  5. Wikimedia Foundation. (2023, February 6). Blockade of Germany. Wikipedia.

  6. Wikimedia Foundation. (2023, February 19). Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles. Wikipedia.

  7. Wikimedia Foundation. (2023, March 16). Aftermath of World War I. Wikipedia.

  8. Wikimedia Foundation. (2023, March 16). World War I reparations. Wikipedia.

  9. Recovery Series News, research and analysis. The Conversation. (2020, July 28).

  10. Wikimedia Foundation. (2023, March 20). Roaring twenties. Wikipedia.

  11. Wikimedia Foundation. (2023, March 19). Lost generation. Wikipedia.

  12. Wikimedia Foundation. (2023, March 22). Marshall Plan. Wikipedia.

  13. Wikimedia Foundation. (2023, March 21). The Blitz. Wikipedia.

  14. Bregman, R. (2020). Humankind: A hopeful history. (E. Manton & E. Moore, Trans.). Little, Brown and Company.

  15. Solnit, R. (2020). A paradise built in hell: The extraordinary communities that arise in disaster. Penguin Books.

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