(Tracey Howerton is a Local History Librarian at Boone County Public Library)
In the past three long weeks, during this challenging and unsettling COVID-19 crisis, we have heard frequent, daily references to historical events to help us make sense of things. First and foremost, we have heard many references to the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918. We have heard medical professionals, politicians, historians, military leaders and journalists describe the current crisis as “the worst the world has seen in 100 years,” meaning since 1918.
Medical experts like Dr. Amy Acton of the Ohio Dept. of Health, Dr. Anthony Fauci of the NIH, and others, have used the “St. Louis vs. Philadelphia” comparison in their news briefings. They have explained that a historical data analysis revealed that the response to the 1918 influenza epidemic varied in these two cities, and that one community (St. Louis) fared much better than the other (Philadelphia) due to their quick and collective response.
More symbolically, Queen Elizabeth’s recent speech to her nation invoked history, reminding modern day Britons, and the larger world, of their resolve during the Nazi air raids of World War II. And with each day also comes uncomfortable references to the Great Depression and the New Deal of the 1930s and 1940s.
Put simply, these are all examples of “history in action.” They are just a few examples of leaders utilizing history as a tool – both as a communications and an educational tool – to help frame the discussion, and help explain the potential gravity of this current health care crisis, and its related economic fallout.
In the midst of this crisis, of course, we also have seen how critical investments in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine) education and research will be to our future. But as we look to, and rely heavily upon, experts in science and medicine as we move forward through the coming days and weeks, those of us in humanities-related fields such as history hope that it won’t be forgotten. This crisis is evidence that to get a fuller understanding of a complex situation, to get a fuller picture, we need input from experts in both the sciences and the humanities.
History can inform our thinking, decision-making, and problem-solving, but only if we value it and allow it a seat at the table and a place in the discussion. Please let us not forget this as we move forward. As the saying goes, “The Past is the Present and the Future.”
-Tracey Howerton, BCPL Local History Librarian