2020 - A year of pandemic | Sunday Observer

2020 - A year of pandemic

27 December, 2020

“That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach.”?– Aldous Huxley

This usually is the time when people tend to look back at the memorable and/or important events that took place during the year and perhaps even try to use the lessons learnt in their individual attempts of self-improvement. The importance and memorability are relative terms that depend mainly on the individual. It is safe to assume that the memories of most people around the world will this year be filled mainly with sights and sounds of the atrocities of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Citizens of some countries will be looking back at electing members of their governments as a fond memory while others try to recuperate from their losses. People in some parts of the world may be attempting to rebuild their lives out of the ruins of natural disasters while others are navigating their lives out of refugee camps.

While some families grieve the loss of their loved ones, others celebrate the arrival of newborns to theirs. Some businesses are closing down, terminating their employees and filing for bankruptcy, while others may be celebrating their expansions and increased profits.

Whatever the path one is forced into in their travel through the past year, it will be helpful to find out why this year of their life unfolded the way it did.


Even though diseases and illnesses have plagued humanity for thousands of years the frequency has been rising with the increased population, mobility and agricultural activities since the early days.

Widespread trade created new opportunities for human interactions as well as human-animal co-existence in different parts of the world. Densely populated cities, more exotic lifestyles and increased contacts with different populations of people, animal and ecosystems have certainly increased the probability of pandemics/epidemics/endemics over the years.

In the mid 1300s a pandemic called ‘Black Death’ killed about 200 million people worldwide and the spread of smallpox in the 1500s killed about 56 million. More recently in the late 1800s the ‘Third Plague’ killed about 12 million, mostly in China and India.

With nearly 1.8 million deaths out of 78 million confirmed cases around the world up to now and also with several vaccines already being approved to be used as promising preventive measures, Covid-19 appears to be less damaging than most of those pandemics the world has experienced so far, including HIV/AIDS and the Spanish Flu in the 1900s.

Of course, the comparison should not just be the number of deaths but the number of deaths with the living standards and the levels of development of science and technology at the time. Therefore, putting the efficiency and the genuineness of the efforts of fighting the pandemic by the world community to test may not be a bad way to learn from it. One may ask: why couldn’t we save more lives and reduce the spread of the disease better than this, especially with all the advancements of medical, engineering and data sciences, bioinformatics, information and communication technologies the world is enjoying at the moment?

Why were some countries able to minimise the damage much better than even more powerful countries such as the United States of America?

The great thinkers and/or the great historians of the world always asked the question ‘Why?’ One may accept the explanation that the Second World War happened because Hitler wanted the war.

Though it is a true statement it doesn’t say anything about why Hitler was driven to that and also why there were a lot of other Germans who supported Hitler. Certain reports in history show that the Treaty of Versailles that the allied countries signed with Germany after World War One persuaded Germany to accept the ‘War Guilt’ clause.

This clause indicated that the responsibility for the loss and damages lied with Germany, forcing the guilty nation to agree to territorial concessions and other ways of compensating.

This was one of the main reasons for the Germans to re-organise against the allied countries. Leading economists such as John Maynard Keynes even predicted that the Treaty was too harsh on Germany and will be counterproductive. It certainly was.

Treaty of Versailles

The connection between the Treaty of Versailles and negative effects of pandemics is described in history as a contributing factor behind the causes of WW II. The Spanish Flu was spreading fast during WW I with large movements of troops from the US to other countries.

While the soldiers of the allied forces and even civilians were dying in large numbers the President of the US at the time, Woodrow Wilson, downplayed the severity of the pandemic since his first priority was winning the war. President Wilson wanted to keep Germany under control by getting the other three big players in the discussion, Italy, France and the UK to agree to a ‘Peace without a winner’ agreement during the discussions leading to the Treaty of Versailles.

But the other countries insisted that they want territorial compensation. During the discussions President Wilson himself was infected with the Spanish Flu and had to withdraw from the negotiations for a few days.

Reports show that he was not the same strong-willed authoritative negotiator when he returned after the illness and gave in to the pressures of the three European nations who were determined to punish Germany. The rest, as people say, is history.

Who knows what would have happened had President Wilson succeeded in convincing the others to agree to a ‘Peace without a winner’ treaty? If the reason for President Wilson’s change of mind was the effects of the Flu and if the pandemic had anything to do with ending WW I the way it did then, the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918 had played a major role in shaping the world to become what it is today.

“Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it”?- Winston Churchill.

The writer has served in the higher education sector as an academic over twenty years in the USA and thirteen years in Sri Lanka and can be contacted at [email protected]