Opinion: History's pandemics lost on young

The Black Death plague peaked in Europe in the mid-1300s.

by Dr John Moremon

I stood in front of one my classes at Massey University this week and for the first time I could see the fear in my students' eyes.

In late February, at the start of semester, we held an introductory session. Most of the class are recent school leavers. We chatted about the university study experience, motivations, what they are expecting, challenges they might anticipate, and careers they hoped would follow.

At some point in the conversation, I raised the subject of the coronavirus [COVID-19]. I felt it was important to discuss what might happen with our class should the coronavirus take off. My thinking was that we might get through the first half of the semester unaffected but that by mid-semester break in April the situation could be different.

To be honest, like most of us at the time I underestimated the threat and impact.

Back then, my students labelled me a pessimist. One young man accused me of being alarmist! I wasn't surprised by their response. The young don't read the news like many of us do — I'm 52 — and they haven't been through hard times (yet).

Critically, the young haven't been exposed to history. They don't study history at school and so they don't understand that pandemics have occurred down the ages. The coronavirus has taken them by surprise.

We can't blame the young for their apparent ignorance. Neoliberalist reforms of education saw history largely stripped out of the high school curriculum. What's the use of looking at the past when we need to focus on future prosperity? Not having sufficient insight into the past, they have not been able to learn from previous times when there was community fear and uncertainty.

Pandemics and other testing events, such as wars and disasters, are stories of hardship and tribulation but also of determination and resilience. History shows us that such times can bring out the worst in people (panic buying and hoarding, for example) as well as the best in us (cooperation, caring for the vulnerable). 

Only recently has there been serious discussion about reinserting history into the curriculum. But it is too late for the university students of today.

The lethal 1918 Spanish flu epidemic after World War I was New Zealand's worst disease outbreak.

Awareness of the past helps us to prepare for better future

Young people don't know about pandemics. They have no comprehension or only the vaguest knowledge of the Antonine Plague in the second century, the Black Death of the 14th century, Spanish influenza after World War I, polio in the late 1940s and 1950s (with other outbreaks from the 1910s to early 1960s), or the Asian flu of the 1950s — let alone the more recent Sars outbreak in 2002-04. Many don't understand that Aotearoa New Zealand and the South Pacific have witnessed the likes of this before: Indigenous societies decimated by European diseases introduced in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Spanish flu during 1918-20, or polio particularly during the 1940s and 1950s.

Perhaps oral tradition means Māori and Pasifika students can understand something of the impact, but others do not.

My students are different now. They understand that the coronavirus is serious. And they are fearful. But their fear is not necessarily about the coronavirus itself. They have read up on the virus and are reassured by statistics. They appear to be among the least likely to die in the pandemic. They are worried about their elders and family members.

Young people fear the impact on their future economic and social wellbeing. They are witnessing an economy crashing and don't know what this means.

Some have part-time jobs that they rely on to help pay the rent and those jobs might not exist this time next week or next month. Most are also focused on securing full-time positions in one, two or three years and worry that the hoped-for jobs won't be available.

They do not understand the cycles of economic growth and depression. They have not heard of New Zealand's Long Depression of the 1880s and 1890s. They have only passing knowledge of the Great Depression of the early 1930s. They don't know how people endured, or how many thrived when recovery began; indeed, some thrived even during recession and depression, as some will do this time.

Even the global financial crisis of 2007-08 is an event the young are not likely to remember or grasp — after all, most university students were 10 or under at the time. My students were surprised when I told them I understand their fears.

I was a student at the University of New England, Armidale, New South Wales, in 1987-89. The rural economy was struggling, as the economic collapse of Europe's Communist countries was hurting the rural economy. I worried about my future, but by a stroke of good fortune secured a job in 1990, just as we entered Australia's worst recession since the Great Depression. The Treasurer and future Prime Minister, Paul Keating, famously declared it "a recession that Australia had to have".

We cannot tell young people what their future post-coronavirus might be, but we can — and should — start reassuring them.

The past shows us that we can use this recession to prepare young people for a prosperous future. One initiative could be to extend fees-free university study to at least a second year — and perhaps reintroduce StudyLink for postgraduate study, even as a temporary measure to shield some from the worst of the recession as well as of course being an investment in their future.

And after this pandemic and recession have passed, we might reflect on the fact neoliberalist reform of education robbed young people of the chance to study the human condition of the past, leaving them less well-equipped for the challenge of the present.

Dr John Moremon is a senior lecturer of history in the School of People, Environment and Culture at Massey University.

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