Learn with me.
I joke that my history classroom is one big time machine that allows my students and I to go back and forth in time. We jump in our time machines to learn from the past, carrying these insights with us to develop a better future.
While on my Fulbright in the Netherlands, I’d continue to joke that I was a time traveler, and family and friends would ask me what life was like “in the future,” given the nine-hour time difference between Los Angeles and the Netherlands.
When COVID-19 started spreading in the United States, my time traveling identity stopped being a joke. I could now help my friends and family prepare for this pandemic because I’d had a glimpse into the future. In the Netherlands, I shared a house with Andrea, who had arrived from northern Italy in late February. The virus had already started sweeping through northern Italy, and he was immediately quarantined upon his entry to the Netherlands - his university and civic appointments, cancelled. In the coming weeks, he received daily updates about an overwhelmed healthcare industry, sickness among the families of his friends, and frustration among young people in lockdown. Early on, he warned me that this virus would be with us through the summer.
Meanwhile, the Netherlands and the United States were barely starting to grapple with the effects of the virus. In the Netherlands, the public was told that it could prevent spread of the virus by avoiding hand-shaking and practicing frequent handwashing. Primary schools initially stayed open in the Netherlands, with the rationale that students were a low-risk category and needed a place to go while their parents were at work. In Los Angeles, students and teachers were told to prepare for two weeks of closure, and people hoped that their travel and recreation plans in the spring and summer would be able to continue.
It was strange to live with an Italian who was receiving news of death every three days, while others back home questioned the seriousness of this virus. It was as if we were all living in alternate realities, as if information at the tip of our fingertips did not exist.
As a history teacher, I decided that I wanted to travel to the past, to learn more about the pandemic of 1918 and bring my learning to 2020. I began reading Pale Rider, by Laura Spinney. The book served as a guide to living through a pandemic. It showed how second and third waves affected countries who ended their lockdowns early. It also detailed how the fight against the virus lasted two years, but the ramifications lasted for entire lifetimes. Mental health issues spiked in the years following the pandemic, and the babies born during this time faced various physical, social, and economic problems decades later.
It is common to hear this referred to as an “unprecedented time,” in public statements and media reports. How unprecedented is it, though, if we have examples from both 1918 and 2020 to serve as our guide?
It is now May, and the Netherlands has begun to reopen schools and places of work. Each day, we read reports about new COVID-19 cases in schools and meat processing plants. In the United States, some schools and universities are hoping to reopen in-person instruction in the fall. School leaders acknowledge that it is difficult to know what to do, and I want to scream, “look to the past!”
Listen to the time travelers, the historians who bring us insights from 1918, and the countries that have been battling this virus for longer than us. Read about second waves in China and South Korea. Awareness of the past, and awareness of the global effects of this virus can help places like the United States make good decisions that protect public health.
This blog is not an official Department of State website. The views and information presented are the DA Participant's own and do not represent the Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching Semester Research Program, the U.S. Department of State, or IREX.