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Thursday Review: “History in a Crisis — Lessons for Covid-19”

There’s an everyday meaning and a technical meaning to the word “crisis”. There’s the usual meaning of a difficult or intense moment. On the other hand, the “crisis” in a story is when a climax becomes unavoidable. In other words, if a story reaches a crisis, there’s no walking away: when the story is over, there will be winners, and there will be losers.

In the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. David S. Jones ties together several ways to understand the stories of previous epidemics. Jones never articulates his discussion in quite this way, but the ways he talks about the historical views of epidemics are analogous to the workaday and the critical views of a “crisis”.

One of quickest ways to understand story structure is to divide a story into its absolutely essential elements: a beginning, a middle, and an end. Taking a closer look, the beginning contains some kind of problem, the middle is some obstacle to solving that problem, and the end is some kind of solution or resolution to the problem.

This three-part structure is easy enough to grasp. There’s a big risk in this quick-and-dirty way of interpreting stories, though. It’s easy enough for the beginning, middle, and end to become abstractions, something like a label or category. Once this abstraction is defined, it’s simple to slap it onto any kind of event as a label, and proceed.

Jones cites an article by Charles Rosenberg,1 who used the events in Camus’ novel La Peste (The Plague) to abstract and outline all epidemics, with a focus on AIDS in the 1980s:

Epidemics unfold as social dramas in three acts, according to Rosenberg. The earliest signs are subtle. Whether influenced by a desire for self-reassurance or a need to protect economic interests, citizens ignore clues that something is awry until the acceleration of illness and deaths forces reluctant acknowledgment. Recognition launches the second act, in which people demand and offer explanations, both mechanistic and moral. Explanations, in turn, generate public responses [which is the third act].

This abstractive analysis of epidemics certainly isn’t wrong. It’s hard to refute that any spread of disease big enough to enter public consciousness will have these three elements somewhere in its history. That’s also the big shortcoming of this kind of narration: it’s impossible to find a disease which hasn’t had someone ignore it, someone recognize it, and which hasn’t had some public response.

Jones’ concern is not narrative criticism, but does recognize that this kind of analysis isn’t terribly descriptive:

Given what historians have learned about past epidemics, it’s hard not to be jaded now. This particular coronavirus may be new, but we have seen it all before … People were slow to recognize the threat? That dynamic is what Camus described so well. Officials tried to suppress early warnings? Of course. Governments have reacted with authoritarian interventions? They often do…

Earlier in the article, Jones states how odd it is that historians tell stories about epidemics this way. It’s uncharacteristic that there is something about epidemics that has elicited … a desire to identify universal truths about how societies respond to contagious disease. This runs counter to most historians’ care with specifics; usually historians are quick to assert the importance of context. If you want to understand how or why something happened, you must attend to local circumstances.

Once it’s understood that a story proceeds from a problem, through an obstacle, and towards a resolution, there’s another — and essential — layer to this method. These parts to a story aren’t labels, they’re really antagonisms. That is, when we talk about a problem, there have to be two characters, elements, or forces. David faces Goliath, Jack has to climb his beanstalk, and Alice gets involved chasing the White Rabbit. It’s the same with an obstacle in the middle of the story. If there’s no resistance, some force pushing back, the story is too simple. The end of a story is the end because there’s a winner, or at least the characters come to some arrangement they can live with.

Understanding the forces and antagonisms at each stage is attending to local circumstances, and merely labeling similarities in stories is desiring to identify universal truths. If there is a crisis in the story, the climax can’t be far behind. The tension and strain between the forces competing in the era of COVID tell us multitudes about our own story. This strain, writes Jones, makes visible latent structures that might not otherwise be evident. As a result, epidemics provide a sampling device for social analysis. They reveal what really matters to a population and whom they truly value.


The article reviewed: Jones, David S. 2020. “History in a Crisis — Lessons for Covid-19”. New England Journal of Medicine 382 (18): 1681–1683.

1 Rosenberg, Charles E. 1989. “What Is an Epidemic? AIDS in Historical Perspective.” Daedalus 118 (2): 1–17.

Featured Image: “One of the many signs on the seafront of Bournemouth Beach, Dorest, UK.” photo by Nick Fewings, used under the Unsplash license.