Lessons for today's crisis from the humanities

While this crisis might seem unprecedented, it is not new in the long view of history. Academics across Oxford Humanities are giving us vital context on all aspects of the current pandemic.

Dr Helen Lacey, Lecturer in Late Medieval History in the History Faculty, explains what the Black Death can tell us about the global consequences of a pandemic. In an article in The Conversation, co-written with Professor Andrew Prescott (Glasgow) and Professor Adrian Bell (Reading), she warns: "While the plague that caused the Black Death was very different to the coronavirus that is spreading today, there are some important lessons here for future economic growth. First, governments must take great care to manage the economic fallout. Maintaining the status quo for vested interests can spark unrest and political volatility.

"Second, restricting freedom of movement can cause a violent reaction. How far will our modern, mobile society consent to quarantine, even when it is for the greater good? Plus, we should not underestimate the knee-jerk, psychological reaction. The Black Death saw an increase in xenophobic and antisemitic attacks. Fear and suspicion of non-natives changed trading patterns." The full article is here.

Emma Smith, Professor of Shakespeare Studies and author of This Is Shakespeare, points out that "Shakespeare's life was marked by plague". He may have been working on King Lear while in quarantine. Professor Smith writes: "Shakespeare is not interested in the statistics — what in his time were called the bills of mortality. His fictions reimagine the macro-narrative of epidemic as the micro-narrative of tragedy, setting humane uniqueness against the disease’s obliterating ravages. His work is a cultural prophylactic against understanding disease solely in quantitative terms, a narrative vaccine."

Writing in the New York Times, she concludes: "Maybe, like Shakespeare, we should focus not on statistics but on the wonderfully, weirdly, cussedly, irredeemably individual." You can read her full article here.

Mark Harrison, Professor of the History of Medicine, stresses the importance of today's international leaders looking for an ‘exit strategy’ or an end in sight from the current lockdown approach. In an interview with the University's Arts Blog, he says: "Governments will need to ask, how do we de-escalate? What measures do we put in place and can we re-escalate at a later point?"

A blog post on the Voltaire Foundation's website also offers lessons from the Great Plague of Marseille in 1720. Dr Cindy Ermus of the University of Texas at San Antonio writes: "In those first crucial weeks after the start of the outbreak, Marseillais authorities prioritized economic interests over public health. As a result, what began as a few dead aboard a ship became a virulent epidemic that raged in southeastern France for two years."

Chelsea Haith, a DPhil candidate in contemporary English Literature, writes in The Conversation about literature's "vital role to play in framing our responses to the COVID-19 pandemic". She says stories about pandemics, from Homer's Iliad to Stephen King's The Stand, have "offered much in the way of catharsis, ways of processing strong emotion, and political commentary on how human beings respond to public health crises."