Why are politicians using historical sentiment to talk about COVID-19?
There’s room to learn from history, but looking into the past won’t alter the course of the next six months.
On Saturday, Victorian Health Minister Jenny Mikakos took some time away from the ghastly grind of death numbers and infection curves to tweet about ancient Greece.
Buried in a thread that touched on Pericles (whose bust adorns her office), and the plague of Athens, was a plea for people to leave her alone about the state government’s failures, and let the hotel quarantine inquiry run its course.
“History like the plague in ancient Athens shows us that civil disorder puts a society facing a pandemic at greater risk,” Mikakos wrote.
Mikakos wasn’t the only one looking backwards.
In his Australian Financial Review column (featuring a frankly unnecessary large picture of Hitler), former foreign minister-turned-Twitter punchline Alexander Downer became the millionth person to compare our current era to the 1930s.
And former NSW premier Mike Baird closed out his gushing, bipartisan ode to Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews by quoting Teddy Roosevelt.
The same quote, about “the man in the arena whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood” was used by Nixon in his resignation speech — perhaps not the association Baird was going for, but nice words nonetheless.
What is it about our current moment that makes politicians and pundits look to the past for a dash of inspiration? For one thing, it’s about certainty.
What makes the virus maddening is the way the unknown has infected our everyday lives.
We spend mornings anxiously watching the infection curve. Millions are out of work, and millions more are nervously looking over their shoulder at the recession closing in.
We don’t know when the things that bring us joy and solace will return. A vaccine still feels very far away. We’ve forgotten what “normal” even means.
The past, messy and contested as it is, offers us the comfort of certainty. Thanks in part to a mass culture that reduces history to a palatable narrative, we always know how the story ends.
We know that while the Spanish Flu ravaged the world for two years, it sputtered out and was forgotten. With any luck, COVID-19 will do the same. Hand-wringing references to a return of the 1930s, an ongoing feature of the discourse since Trump was first elected, fill us not with fear, but hope: we know that at the end of that story, the good guys won, and all was well.
It’s no accident that in the early days of the pandemic, Britain, and to a lesser extent Australia leaned in to Blitz-era mythology. The Queen quoted wartime singer Vera Lynn, health workers were valourised like returning soldiers.
But such narratives offer little more than rhetorical flourish and distraction. Mikakos’ references to Ancient Greece were all window-dressing, an elaborate pseudo-apology for her stubborn refusal to answer questions about hotel quarantine. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, for all his posh pomposity, was never going to be a Churchill.
And while there is always room to learn from history, such references to past glories give us merely a fleeting sense of certainty, nothing more. They they won’t alter the course of the next six months. They won’t undo failures from at all levels of governments. They won’t put people into stable, secure work.
Stories alone won’t beat the virus.