Attention to historical context is particularly important when it comes to disasters, because social scientists long considered them to be, by definition, events without histories at all. Like lightning strikes, disasters seemed to many observers to be pure chance: they came out of nowhere to create their own new realities. Disasters, the sociologist Charles Fritz argued in an influential 1961 article, “provide…a clean break from the past.”1Charles Fritz, “Disaster,” in Contemporary Social Problems: An Introduction to the Sociology of Deviant Behavior and Social Disorganization, eds. Robert K. Merton and Robert A. Nisbet (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1960), 692. Indeed, social scientists often were drawn to the study of disasters precisely because they believed disasters stripped away historical context, “provid[ing] an arena for the observation of peculiarly human (as opposed to culturally unique) behavior,” Fritz wrote, by “blanking out…the past.”2Fritz, “Disaster,” 685 (for “clean break”), 655 (for “blanking out”).
If that view now seems clearly misguided, its legacy endures. The category of disaster itself, for example, identifies certain events as extraordinary departures from regular life. In doing so, what I elsewhere call “the disaster idea” affirms the notion that these processes can be distinguished from the normal course of events. The longing for a return to normalcy, too, is a product of this kind of thinking. The desire to put things back the way they were before not only assumes that the disaster was an aberration, it belies the fact that the way things were before is precisely what caused the disaster in the first place.3Andy Horowitz, Katrina: A History, 1915–2015 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2020), 15. Put another way, just as people’s so-called “pre-existing conditions” shape their individual vulnerability to Covid-19, social pre-existing conditions shape the course of the pandemic broadly.
For historians, who write stories in order to account for change over time, the problem of assigning these causes and consequences arrives as a problem of narrative. Therefore, often the most important analytical decision a historian has to make is where to begin. Consider the stakes of this seemingly simple question: When did the history of the Covid-19 pandemic start?“It might seem obvious to begin an account of the pandemic in November 2019 in a market in Wuhan, China.”
It might seem obvious to begin an account of the pandemic in November 2019 in a market in Wuhan, China. A novel coronavirus, which first developed in a bat, was transmitted to some other animal, perhaps a pangolin, which was sold in the market, and then jumped from the animal to a human.4Susanna K.P. Lau et al., “Possible Bat Origin of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2,” Emerging Infectious Diseases 26, no. 7 (July 2020): 1542-1547. That person soon became sick, but not before transmitting the virus to several others. By the end of December 2019, dozens of people suffering from the same virus had been admitted to hospitals. On January 7, doctors in China identified the new strain of coronavirus. Four days later, on January 11, China reported the death of a 61-year-old man who had visited the market in Wuhan. It was the first death attributed to the disease we now call Covid-19. By January 20, there were confirmed cases in China, Thailand, Japan, and Korea.5World Health Organization, “Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) Situation Report – 1,” January 21, 2020.
The trouble is, starting the story this way—foregrounding a cunning virus and a Chinese public health apparatus unable to contain it—does nothing to account for the virus’s unequal impacts. Six months later, in June 2020, fewer than 5,000 Chinese people had died from Covid-19, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), compared to more than 100,000 Americans.6World Health Organization, “Coronavirus Disease (Covid-19) Situation Report – 132,” May 31, 2020. This evidence suggests that a more salient place to start could be with US politics.“Even as cases appeared in the United States, the White House proved unable or uninterested in providing the materials necessary to trace and contain the virus’s spread.”
So, consider an alternate beginning: In November 2016, Donald Trump was elected president. Once in office, he disregarded pandemic response plans developed by the previous administration and alienated or dismissed technical experts across the executive branch. In May 2018, for example, he disbanded the National Security Council’s Global Health Security and Biodefense Unit.7Lena H. Sun, “Top White House Official in Charge of Pandemic Response Exits Abruptly,” Washington Post, May 10, 2018. That is one reason why, in late 2019, as evidence mounted that a dangerous new virus was spreading across Asia, the White House ignored the threat. Even as cases appeared in the United States, the White House proved unable or uninterested in providing the materials necessary to trace and contain the virus’s spread. On March 10, with more than 700 confirmed cases in the United States, Trump continued to tell Americans, “it will go away.”8Donald Trump, “Remarks Following a Meeting With Republican Senators and an Exchange With Reporters,” March 10, 2020, Daily Compilation of Presidential Documents no. DCPC202000144 (Office of the Federal Register, National Archives and Records Administration), 3. For 700 cases, see “Covid-19 Dashboard by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University,” (accessed June 1, 2020). By the end of that month, the WHO reported the conservative estimate that nearly 3,000 Americans had died from the coronavirus. And the toll continued to rise.9World Health Organization, “Coronavirus Disease (Covid-19) Situation Report – 72,” April 1, 2020.
In this second version of the story, the protagonist and causal agent is Donald Trump. The virus appears as a problem that could have been solved within the United States, had the White House taken appropriate action. But, if this beginning answers some questions about distinctions among national experiences with the coronavirus, it raises others: Why was Donald Trump elected? What gave legitimacy to his disregard for an obvious public health crisis? How could a nation often regarded as the strongest in world history prove so impotent?
To answer these questions, a historian is tempted to venture ever further back in time. The history of the pandemic might reasonably begin in 2001, when President George W. Bush prioritized antiterrorism efforts at the expense of other kinds of national security and emergency response. It could begin in the 1860s, when the Union Army’s pursuit of emancipation for enslaved African Americans delegitimized the federal government in the minds of many white people. It could begin in 1492, with the imperial encounter between the Americas and Europe, at the start of the biological process described as the Columbian Exchange. Or the history of this pandemic might begin with the fourteenth-century outbreak of bubonic plague and the strategy of isolating infected people for 40 days that bequeathed us the word “quarantine.”
Of course, all of these contexts matter, as do many others. The exercise can quickly become bewildering, but the point remains: we must stay attuned to how the past shapes the present on multiple scales. The pandemic exists in history and is itself a historical process. Its causes and consequences are not intrinsic to the virus itself; they are contingent on the world around it. The history that scholars will come to name “the Covid-19 pandemic” ultimately will have as much to do with the social world the virus encountered as it does with the virus itself.“Good historical analysis offers a map of roads not taken and shows where they could have led.”
Looking backward, these overlapping histories can seem to lead inexorably to the present as it is. It is important to recognize, therefore, that even though circumstances inherited from the past create possibilities and limits for change, they do not determine what those changes will be.10Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, trans. Saul K Padover (1869). Uncovering the structural inequalities, national distinctions, and other historical contexts that gave the pandemic its shape does not suggest that it was inevitable. In fact, doing so suggests the opposite. History reveals contingency. A swing of fewer than two percent of the votes cast in four US states in 2016 would have delivered the presidency to Hillary Clinton rather than Donald Trump, for example, and changed the course of the pandemic. Good historical analysis offers a map of roads not taken and shows where they could have led.
Thinking historically about the pandemic also serves as a reminder that its history will not end with the arrival of a vaccine. The narrow time frame the disaster idea imposes often cuts the story short on both ends, blinding observers at once to a disaster’s endemic causes as well as its enduring consequences. But historians know that even death is not final. Each person who dies of Covid-19 will reshape the world that survives them by means of the grief their loss inspires, the work they leave unfinished, and the accommodations that have to be made to their absence. The question of where to conclude the history of the pandemic will be as difficult as the question of where to begin.“When politicians, pundits, and emergency managers consider disasters, their impulse often is to try to discern the ‘lessons learned.’”
Finally, like all stories we tell, accounts of disasters have morals. And here, too, the legacy of seeing disasters as events without histories endures in insidious ways. When politicians, pundits, and emergency managers consider disasters, their impulse often is to try to discern the “lessons learned.” That goal is a noble one: nobody wishes for catastrophes, and it would be good to learn something about how to avoid them. But the technocratic squint that often frames the search for these lessons too often obscures the recognition that what was wrong usually had less to do with acute error than chronic injustice. The lesson we ought to learn from most disasters is that the problems we face as a society rarely can be fixed with small changes.
“The construction of our future is a problem of memory,” the author Kalamu ya Salaam observes, “a problem of accurately identifying and understanding how we came to be whomever we are as we stand at whatever moment we are in, seeking to make decisions about which way to go.”11Kalamu ya Salaam, “Know the Beginning Well and the End Will Not Trouble You,” in A Problem of Memory: Stories to End the Racial Nightmare, ed. Taylor Sparrow (Portland, OR: Eberhardt Press, 2007), 18. Especially in times that can seem unprecedented, scholars can best help chart a course forward by connecting the past to the present, and from there to the future—showing how things might have been different, and might yet still.