Select Page

Spanish flu to social distancing: how history can help us understand how to live through a pandemic

23 minutes


Frank Bongiorno

Professor of History, ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences, Australian National University

View Profile >

Episode Notes

In this launch episode of the Seriously Social podcast, historian Frank Bongiorno shares what history can teach us about living through the current COVID-19 pandemic. Frank is a Australian National University history professor and fellow of both the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia and the Australian Academy of the Humanities, and in this episode he takes us back in time to the Peloponnesian War, the 1918-19 Spanish Flu outbreak, the World Wars and Great Depression to see how other generations have dealt with global catastrophic events (and it’s not all bad news!).

Join the conversation on Twitter with Frank and The Academy of Social Sciences in Australia @fbongiornoanu @AcadSocSci


[Music and intro voiceover 00:00 – 00:18: This is Seriously Social, the podcast where Australia’s best social scientists help us understand the social impacts of the COVID-19 crisis. It’s brought to you by the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia and hosted by Ginger Gorman.]

Ginger Gorman: Hello. Lovely to have you with us for this inaugural episode of Seriously Social. These are very strange times and all of our lives have been impacted by this global pandemic in unexpected and rapidly changing ways. During this podcast, we will use the lens of the social sciences to help us consider how COVID-19 is impacting Australian society, our relationships, human connections and societal structures. We’ll get new insights and think about things in new ways. With me now is Australian National University history professor, Frank Bongiorno. Frank, thank you so much for joining me.

Professor Frank Bongiorno:  It’s a pleasure, Ginger.

Ginger: How has the pandemic affected you personally?

Professor Frank Bongiorno: Well, like millions of people now, I’m working at home. So, I’m here with my wife, who’s also working from home and my daughter, who’s a 14‑year‑old high school student, who’s also taking her classes here at home. So, we’re tripping over one another a bit during the day and sort of struggling to find our little corner of the house that’s quiet and suits our work habits, but we’re getting there, I think.

Ginger: Although you did say to me previously that your daughter, who’s a teenager, has been helping you with all the stay-at-home tech.

Professor Frank Bongiorno: Oh, yeah. We’re finding out who’s really essential in the world at the moment and I can assure you that teenagers are essential because they do it a lot more naturally than the rest of us. So, yeah, she’s been a great advisor on technical matters.

Ginger: And she’s actually helped you, I know, today so that we could record the podcast in a sort of patched-together, stay-at-home, work-from-home manner. Frank, when something global and catastrophic like this happens, what does history have to offer?

Professor Frank Bongiorno: Yes, I’ve been really struck by the ways in which history seems to be almost everywhere at the moment. It’s a period, as we’ve just said, of great uncertainty. And I think, in those circumstances, people often turn to something that seems a little bit more solid, previous crises, previous episodes, things that seem in some way comparable. And obviously, the one that kind of stands out initially is previous pandemics.

And certainly, I know that my colleagues at the moment, historians are looking at all sorts of pandemics and epidemics of the past, some well‑known, some rather obscure, to try and get a sense of what can be learnt from those. In my own case, for the first time I think in well over 30 years, I had a look at Thucydides’ famous accounts of Plague of Athens, which occurred during the Peloponnesian War and which is in his history written those millennia ago. And there’s so much in it that seems modern.

He talks about doctors, for instance, dying of the plague in Athens because they were obviously very much in the frontline and very vulnerable to catching it from their patients. He talks about people wanting to be social and wanting to support others and not being able to do it, or going and doing it anyway and getting the plague themselves.

So, yeah, I think a lot of people are turning to those earlier episodes to see how people coped, what were the kinds of problems, what did people think was useful, what did people think was harmful in those previous circumstances.

Ginger: And of course, we’re seeing huge numbers of medical staff in places, like Iran and Italy and Spain, getting COVID-19 and some of them are tragically dying from it, as you say.

Professor Frank Bongiorno: Yeah, it’s happening again. And it was really eerie in some ways to read that all those centuries ago, a very, very similar sort of thing. And it’s a very famous description of a plague and it’s harrowing when it describes the physical aspects of it.

Ginger: Do you think there’s a kind of shock, Frank, because we like to feel in modern society, with all our modern medicine and science that this couldn’t happen to us when in fact, it is really reminiscent of something like the Spanish Flu, which hit the world, really, but hit Australia in 1918, around that time.

Professor Frank Bongiorno: I was surprised when I first read about the Spanish Flu again many years ago by the ways in which a lot of the assumptions of the Federation of Australia as a federal country seemed to collapse almost immediately. States closing borders and all sorts of restrictions on the movement of people, camps being set up on borders because people were being placed in quarantine. And I thought, “Gee. How odd that that’s what happened back in 1919 and here we are, a century on, very similar sorts of policies being pursued by State and Territory Governments today as a way of managing the crisis.”

So, there’s a lot to be learnt. If you look at the way in which governments managed the Spanish Influenza in Australia in 1919, many of the issues that we faced again were there. The problem, the challenge of managing relationships between governments, between State and Federal Government. Also, Local Government was hugely important in 1919. In many instances, local authorities were given primary responsibility, really, for managing the flu in their particular localities.

Ginger: This morning, I was looking at news from the United States and, really, the catastrophe is just unfolding there. And a question popped into my mind that I think you might be the best person to answer, which is, is the fact that federalism is a lot weaker in the United States actually hampering their ability to deal with this because, obviously, they do have a Federal Government, but they do not have the strength of Federal Government because of the political system that we have here. Their states have a lot more power and a lot more rights. And I just wondered how that was playing into the way that the tragedy was unfolding there.

Professor Frank Bongiorno: Yeah. I think that sounds reasonable to me as an explanation. It’s obviously a lot more complex in the US too, given that we’re talking about 50 State Governments. So, in the Australian case, we’re really only talking about six State Governments and two Territory Governments. It’s no doubt much easier to manage. But I’m also, I guess, struck by the fact that we have had for many decades now, machinery that effectively facilitates cooperation between different levels of government around particular issues.

We’ve had COAG since the early-1990s, for instance and effectively what we’re seeing is a building of that for the purposes of dealing with this crisis. And I think that when you already have a kind of path dependence, that is you have certain habits of operating and certain institutions already sitting there, I think it makes it much easier to actually manage those in a crisis, such as this one.

Ginger: How is what is happening in the United States going to impact us in Australia in the long run, in terms of this COVID-19 crisis?

Professor Frank Bongiorno: Well, the United States remains, I think, the biggest economy in the world. It’s being rivalled by China these days, but it’s still an enormous economy and an enormously important economy. And clearly, if the United States were to go into a major economic crisis, and it does appear that that’s one of the consequences of COVID-19 for the US at the moment, you would expect that to have implications for Australia. We live in a very interconnected global economy. And it would be very difficult, certainly thinking historically, when you had major economic problems in the United States that they usually flow onto Australia.

Now, the global financial crisis of 2008 revealed that there were aspects of Australia’s economy and of its place in the world that did give it some degree of insulation. And in that case, I think it was the relationship with China in particular that was incredibly important. But a major economic catastrophe in the US would surely have all sorts of flow-on effects for Australia. And that would certainly be very much consistent with precedent over a very long run, basically, in terms of Australia’s economic history.

Ginger: And, talking of economic history, I have to say that those photographs and news shorts of Australians lining up outside Centrelink probably about a couple of weeks ago now, but they’ve brought it more online now so people can do a lot of that online. But just the queues around the block in some of the major cities really reminded me of Australian photographs, but also American photographs from the Depression in the early-30s of men really lining up outside soup kitchens and lining up for the dole. This is part of your expertise in labour and the labour market. How do you see this playing out in terms of unemployment and the way that that’s going to impact us socially, but also economically?

Professor Frank Bongiorno: Yeah, it’s not surprising that we would think back to that economic disaster of the ’30s. And we do associate it particularly with mass unemployment. Also, we associated with the mass unemployment of men, don’t we? It was a very different sort of economy in Australia in 1930. It was still much more rurally based. We relied much more on rural production and particularly rural exports than today. It was a much more industrialised economy than we have today. And it was an economy dominated by male paid workers in a way that our economy isn’t today.

So, we’re operating in a different economic and social environment. The welfare state was very rudimentary in 1930 in Australia. There was no unemployment benefit outside of Queensland. Queensland did have a system, a very recently established system of unemployment insurance, but basically, you didn’t have the dole. You didn’t have unemployment benefits.

And so, very quickly, State Governments, Local Government, what we’d now call NGOs, voluntary organisations of one kind or another basically got into the process of offering relief of one kind or another. Governments offered relief work, but it was very male-orientated relief work reflecting the fact that Australia was a male breadwinner state.

Now, we have a much more complex economy today. We obviously have one in which men and women work. We do have a much more developed welfare state, although I think most of us would probably agree that aspects of it have experienced underinvestment in recent years, that the system probably isn’t very well designed to deal with the possibility of mass unemployment and there’s obviously a lot of very quick adaptation going on.

But I think there are buffers, actually, that exist in 2020 that weren’t there in 1930 around issues like unemployment, around eviction and homelessness, which was a major problem again in the Depression of the 1930s. I think more people were renting, more families were renting in those days. It was standard, really, for working-class families to rent their homes and they were very vulnerable to being evicted. Now, that is a problem again, but I think we’re seeing governments playing a much more active role around these sorts of issues than they did back in 1930.

Ginger: Frank, is it because of what we’ve seen perhaps in the Depression that we are seeing governments, State, Territory and Federal moving very fast to stop evictions, moving very fast to bring onboard lots of different kinds of payments for businesses and individuals who might be suffering? They’re actually doing it rapidly whereas in the ’30s, we didn’t see it. Is it a lesson learned, do you think?

Professor Frank Bongiorno: Yeah, very much so. The 1930s, the Depression was an absolutely formative experience in terms of recalibrating, redesigning policy in Australia. The major renovation and extension of the welfare state that occurred in the 1940s was very much a product of the memory of the Depression and all of the gaps that the Depression had exposed in social protection in Australia that there wasn’t a proper system of unemployment benefits, that there weren’t protections for tenants and a whole range of problems of that kind.

So, yeah, when governments of both stripes, actually, from about 1941 onwards started acting, they did introduce various forms of welfare that hadn’t been there during the Depression. And, of course, other reforms as well. Reforms to banking, for instance, which gave the Government a much stronger role in macroeconomic management of, which our government today, our Federal Government is an heir to.

Its primary role in something like the current stimulus that we’re seeing is very much a product of the problems that were exposed during the Depression when the Scullin Government simply didn’t have the power over things like money supply, to be able to deal with the crisis. And so, it found it had very few instruments for actually managing a problem of national solvency, basically.

And a lot of the policy reforms of the later-’30s, 1940s, 1950s were really designed to give the Federal Government much more capacity to deal with a crisis. So, in that sense, we’re still, if you like, heirs of that crisis of the Depression of the 1930s.

Ginger: How is this going to play out though, do you think, given that society doesn’t actually look the same as it did back then?

Professor Frank Bongiorno: Well, it’s a much more complex society. Services have always been a large part of the Australian economy, going right back to colonial times. But we now have a very complex services economy and a complex services workforce that seems to me very vulnerable to the kind of disruption that we’re seeing.

If you go through the kinds of industries one by one, if we’re talking about the café or the restaurant or the masseuse and there are a whole range of them that are clearly being immensely disrupted by the crisis that we’re seeing. And it was a less complex economy 80, 90 years ago. And I think that especially our dependence on services, we’re also much more dependent on the export of services. It’s how we also earn our income in the world.

And education, tertiary education is an aspect of that. So is tourism. And again, they weren’t a significant part of the economy back in the 1930s or ’40s. So, that does leave us with all sorts of vulnerabilities that perhaps weren’t so evident back then.

Ginger: Frank, this period of the Depression obviously happened between the two World Wars. And after both those wars was a kind of period of reconstruction, if you like. And we’re hearing people increasingly in the media and commentators sort of talking about this need to reconstruct society in similar ways after this pandemic. What do you make of that idea?

Professor Frank Bongiorno: Yeah, post-war reconstruction as a kind of concept is usually associated with the Second World War. But in a lot of ways, what happened during and after the Second World War was a reaction against the disappointments coming out of the First World War.

I think one of the reasons we don’t have much of a collective memory of the Spanish Influenza is it kind of just shades into a series of disappointments coming out of the First World War. The idea of creating a land fit for heroes, which is not a specifically Australian term. It was probably more commonly used in Britain after the First World War, but it seemed like a pretty sick joke, once you got into the ’20s and particularly the ’30s and you had mass unemployment. It just seemed that the opportunities that had been there for a better world coming out of the First World War associated with the League of Nations and all the rest of it just didn’t come to pass.

So, there was a much stronger determination in the 1940s to build something better. And in Australia, governments are already talking about post-war reconstruction as early as 1940. The war had barely begun and there’s already discussion of what it’s going to look like on the other side of that war and just a realisation that politically, it would be absolutely impossible to do what had happened after the First World War to create a world where, within a few years, you had mass unemployment.

And a lot of what governments do in Australia during and after the Second World War is basically designed to ensure that you don’t get another depression, that you have layers of social protection that simply hadn’t been there in the Depression that that opportunity that a major crisis, such as a war offers, wouldn’t go to waste.

And you do also have this argument coming out of the Second World War, well, we suddenly had to fight a war and governments found themselves increasing their spending. In Australia’s case, within five years, government spending increased seven-fold. It was just such a massive expansion of government. If you could do that in a war, why couldn’t you do it in an economic crisis to deal with things like poverty and unemployment?

Ginger: It’s kind of strange in a way to be comparing a pandemic to a war, but this is the kind of language that I’m hearing around me. Are we going to see the same kind of reconstruction post-pandemic that we saw post-World War II?

Professor Frank Bongiorno: The one thing historians are not very good at is predicting the future, Ginger. We tend to be pretty much as good or as bad as anyone else at that. I don’t know, to be honest.

I think that there were political and I think kind of also ideological factors that made post-war reconstruction more generous and more feasible in the ’40s than the situation we’re moving into now. Obviously, there have been a series of emergency measures that to some extent have been dealing with problems that we already knew were there. An obvious one was increasing Newstart, wasn’t it?

I think there was a recognition that the particular payments for people who were unemployed were simply not enough to live on, that they’ve been stagnant for two decades, I think. And that was unsatisfactory, but no one seemed to be able to do the politics to actually fix the situation until we entered this crisis. And, overnight, the payment was doubled, something that would have been unthinkable three months ago.

So, that kind of thing is inevitably prompting people to imagine that there are all sorts of possibilities for actually righting some of the problems with our current policy, the policy gridlock that I think so many what members of the Academy of Social Science, for instance, constantly talk about at our gatherings. Perhaps is this the opportunity to break it?

But I worry about the more optimistic versions of that because I’m unconvinced that the politics are there. We’re still in a situation where there are a lot of people who have a lot to lose if there are major policy changes. One thinks of even issues like negative gearing, for instance, issues that were prominent at the last election, such as franking credits, all these kinds of things that you might say, “Well, you know, can we afford that? Can we afford major tax cuts for those at the upper end of incomes?” Well, probably not, but actually, moving away from that politically is still going to be very difficult.

And one of the differences, I think with the Depression and war generation is they carried enormous moral authority to the whole issue of reconstruction. The fact that you’d had this mass suffering of the Depression, the austerity and suffering of the war, it gave those demanding change incredible moral authority. Now, whether that kind of, if you like, moral capital, if that’s the word for it, exists at present, I’m not so sure.

Ginger: Thank you so much for your time.

Professor Frank Bongiorno: It’s been a pleasure, Ginger. Thanks.

Useful Links

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website may contain images, voices and names of deceased persons.