Recently, a new strain of coronavirus has been detected in eight European countries. Hans Kluge, WHO's Regional Director for Europe has stressed on the need to boost the protective measures and stated that the new strain seems to be spreading among younger age groups, unlike the previous strains. The outbreak of the coronavirus disease in the later part of 2019 from China’s Hubei province has adversely impacted the global scenario. Several experts feel that there is almost nothing surprising about the pandemic. An article titled, “COVID-19 and the anti-lessons of history” by Robert Peckham, Department of History and Centre for Humanities and Medicine, Centennial Campus, University of Hong Kong published on thelancet.com stated, “The history-as-lessons approach pivots on the assumption that epidemics are structurally comparable events, wherever and whenever they take place.”
Experts have drawn comparison of the Covid-19 pandemic to the outbreak of the severe respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003. Furthermore, based on the analysis of the first 425 confirmed cases in Wuhan, there were comparisons to the 1918-19 influenza pandemic as well. An approach to the past that usually comes from outside the discipline of history creates an idea of the past as a series of interlinked crisis offering insights into the cause and effect. However, historians need to set aside these easy analogies and instead examine the specific contexts of the outbreak, for instance, attempting to find out the ways in which SARS and Covid-19 can be compared. The International Committee of Taxonomy Viruses has recognised the designation of Covid-19 virus as severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) and its genetic relation to acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoVs) but it has also recognised the differences.
Little is commented on the differences between the historical moments of the emergence of SARS and Covid-19. Peckham wrote, “The SARS outbreak occurred in late 2002 and 2003, not long after China had resumed sovereignty over Hong Kong in 1997.” The Sino-British Joint Declaration terms in December, 1984 granted Hong Kong the status of special administrative region. Peckham further stated that over the last seven years, Xi Jingping, China’s President has sought to extend Chinese influence abroad while tightening its grip at home. “Some would argue that this enhanced authority has enabled him to put in place draconian, Mao-style infectious disease containment measures including the lockdown of cities,” he wrote.
Peckham also referred to the protests in Hong Kong from June, 2019 which was a reaction to a perceived erosion of the territory’s quasi-autonomy as a special administrative region. He stated, “While ostensibly an anti-government protest against the introduction of an extradition bill, the Hong Kong protests could be viewed as an attempt to push back Xi’s expansion of central power.” Further, the Covid-19 outbreak compounded the economic situation with USA where President Donald Trump’s imposition of tariffs on China in 2018 was a hard hit on the Chinese economy.
In an interaction with Ming Pao, a Hong Kong newspaper, Joseph Sung, the physician who played a leading role in containing the SARS in 2003 highlighted the striking differences between the Hong Kong society at that time and now. He said, “At that time, society was more united. Whereas now people feel they have to rely on themselves for protection. They have less trust in the government.”
Peckham feels that for the historians, an anti-lesson approach to history might prevent trained incapacity. They need to challenge false analogies. Such an approach could help in ensuring a strategic open-mindedness to the emergent threats of present time.