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Past, Present and Future

April 24, 2020
Hilary Pearson

I am the granddaughter of a historian and I grew up in a family that valued history for what it can tell us about our present and possibly our future. So, I am intrigued by what history might have to say about our responses to the current pandemic. More specifically, I am interested in what history might tell us about the implications for philanthropy and foundations as they struggle to make sense of today.   

As a Canadian historian, Prof. Mark Humphries of Wilfrid Laurier University, has noted, “what history teaches us is that in the moment, we don’t always get it right.” Ian Austen of the New York Times interviewed Prof Humphries for a reflective piece on the parallels between the so-called Spanish flu of 1918 (which actually originated in China) and the pandemic of 2020.  Dr Humphries wrote a 2012 book “The Last Plague: Spanish Influenza and the Politics of Public Health in Canada.”  In 1918, people had a hard time seeing clearly what the implications of the pandemic were for the societies that they lived in. This is true in 2020. None of us have crystal balls. However, it was quickly obvious in 1918 in Canada that in the absence of national data and standards of healthcare, the virus was hard to fight. Provincial responsibility for health care led to fragmented and localized governmental responses and a lack of information which individual philanthropy could do little to fix in the moment. Philanthropy limited itself to providing local relief. The 1918-1920 pandemic led directly to the creation in Canada of the federal Department of Health and the Dominion Bureau of Statistics. Over time, government built a stronger public health system, although it took another epidemic, the SARS crisis of 2003, to create the Public Health Agency of Canada. And we still have gaps in our data that limit effective response. Using hindsight, philanthropy could have focused more over the past century on advocacy for stronger public systems of data, care and prevention.

On a global scale, history tells us that pandemics can lead to huge civilizational changes. According to Parag Khanna and Karan Khemka, in an article on the possible implications of the COVID 19 pandemic for the world, “the 14th-century Black Death caused millions of deaths across Eurasia, splintered the largest territorial empire ever known (the Mongols), forced significant wage growth in Europe, and promoted wider maritime exploration that led to European colonialism.” History helps us see these changes, although we must have some great distance sometimes to see clearly. But even if we can’t begin to see yet all the ramifications of the COVID 19 pandemic over time and around the planet, we can see the vulnerabilities and inequalities in our own society which the virus exposes.

Rhodri Davies of the Charities Aid Foundation in the UK has written a thought-provoking recent article on the lessons of pandemics for philanthropy in British and European history. One key lesson is that government focuses more on its relationship with civil society. According to Davies, past epidemics of plague, cholera and other infectious diseases have led to state efforts to rationalize and centralize charitable relief for the suffering, just as they have led to efforts to build stronger public health systems. The plague years of the late 16th century led to parliamentary criteria for poverty relief (the first stages of a legal definition of charity in 1604 in England).

Plagues highlight inequality and lead (in some cases) to public policy changes that address these inequalities. Davies quotes an English historian, W.K. Jordan: “these frightful visitations of epidemic taught the nation much regarding its own resources and disciplined it in the understanding that the poverty bred by plague must be instantly relieved lest even more terrible social consequences should ensue. Indeed it is not too much to say that men had come to understand that poverty itself was a kind of plague, epidemic in the industrial society.” This is drawn from a history of philanthropy in England, 1480-1660.  But it is certainly applicable to today as well. While we have a welfare state that far surpasses that of Tudor England, we still have glaring gaps and inequalities. In many Indigenous communities for example, the gaps are there for all to see. Will this crisis lead to a renewed interest by government in how nonprofits and charities serve a purpose as agents against inequality? What might that mean for the web of rules and regulations that snare these organizations in outmoded ways of operation? Should we be thinking about what we want to change?

While governments cope now with what has been exposed by the crisis, what should philanthropy do? Philanthropy can be a tool for softening the worst impacts within the system as it is. Or/and it can be a tool for more fundamental change. As Davies notes, “philanthropy can be both a tool for maintaining and protecting existing social dynamics and hierarchies and also a means to break down societal divisions and establish new norms.” 

What can history tell us about how react to this pandemic, even in its early days? It seems to me that we draw at least these lessons:

  • There is no return to what was before; we must expect change
  • There is an opening for structural or societal reform; we should seize it
  • There are gaps in our public policies; we could describe them and advocate for solutions
  • There is a chance for power to shift towards those with less; we can support it.

What will history say about what happened in 2020? Perhaps philanthropy has a chance to shape what comes next.

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