Before embarking on my diplomatic career, I was a student of history. I loved my studies so much that I continued past my initial degree and ultimately graduated with a PhD in Contemporary History.
To this day, reading history books remains my hobby. Even in my current capacity as Ambassador, I try to understand national politics and global affairs by going back into history.
In other words, I put my glasses as a historian on my nose and have a look at today’s news through a historical perspective.
Today, faced as we are with a health and economic crisis which everyone pronounces as “unprecedented”, I ask myself what frame of reference we can use to understand and grasp the rapidly unfolding coronavirus crisis. Has anything comparable happened in the past?
In my opinion, what we are witnessing today is the incredible combination of the beginning of World War I in 1914, and the pandemic of the so-called Spanish Flu of 1918.
Each of these was a terrible crisis in itself: combined, they are overwhelming.
Allow me to explain: About six years ago, I studied the history of my family. My family originally comes from Germany.
Towards the end of the 19th century, my ancestors settled in the city of Cologne which had more and better job opportunities.
Cologne is about 80 kilometres from the Belgian and the Dutch border. It had a busy river port connecting the city to the Northern Sea with the important transatlantic trade routes. My great grandfather was a high-ranking official of the city of Cologne.
In November last year, I read a book about the history of the city of Cologne during World War I. I was curious to find out what my great grandfather and his family had lived through.
As it happened, I couldn’t have guessed that reading that book would give me some insights about today’s coronavirus crisis.
I was struck by the fact that all existing and functioning commercial and people-to-people ties between the European countries fighting each other, were demolished abruptly, the moment war was declared.
Cologne for example, depended almost entirely on the import of pigs from neighbouring countries for its meat market. Suddenly, no more pigs. Tourism collapsed. The civilian airport was converted for use by military airplanes.
As if that was not enough, the domestic economy collapsed too, because almost all adult men had to join the army. They were sent to the battle fields in France.
Some months after the beginning of the war, my great grandfather was called back from his military service to work again for the city administration.
The administration had to undergo a huge reorganisation to cope with the challenges that came with trying to feed Cologne’s population, under wartime conditions.
Schools had to be transformed into field hospitals; but all the same, children had to be allowed to continue learning. Then security had to be maintained in a city with thousands of soldiers being transported to or from the front lines.
I should add that since there was a war going on, the citizens from states with which Germany was at war, had to leave Cologne immediately.
Does this sound familiar? This sudden interruption of commercial and people-to-people relations? Collapse of tourism? Total reorganisation and a new focus of whole administrations and businesses? Loved ones who can’t see each other and fear for their lives? Security and food security challenges? A breakdown of international logistical capacity?
That’s what I mean when I say that we are today witnessing a historic event, of the magnitude of the beginning of World War I in Europe, in 1914.
In both cases, in just a matter of days, what people had long grown used to changed completely, and they suddenly found themselves living in what seemed like a strange new world.
And what about the Spanish flu?
Well, in 1918, the Spanish flu hit the world. Because of the interconnectivity of military supply chains which had been made necessary by the war, the flu virus could travel all over the world very easily, and so it ravaged both soldiers and civilian populations alike. It all happened incredibly quickly. During those dark days, the parents of my great grandfather both died the very same day. I have no proof, but I can only assume that they both died of the same illness — the Spanish flu.
This is the same kind of pattern we see now. Within a few months the coronavirus has reached all continents, threatening billions of human beings.
So, yes, our challenges are huge. They are frightening. But there are some historic lessons that should give us hope and energy. In the period immediately after the tragedies of World War I and the Spanish flu, there were the so-called Golden Twenties. The Golden Twenties were an economic boom time. As director for housing, my great grandfather oversaw the incredible expansion and modernisation of the city of Cologne. He worked directly for Konrad Adenauer, at that time Mayor of Cologne, but now known to history as the architect of the German post-World War II political and economic miracle, who raised Germany from the ashes of that devastating war, when he served as Federal Chancellor.
I have a picture of my great grandfather standing proudly in front of his official car. My point here is that after rain, there is often a rainbow.
Today, thousands of scientists are working to find a vaccine against the coronavirus. This is a global effort by a global scientific community. Universities, government institutions and private businesses are working together. They all share the same objective.
Furthermore, I see more and more solidarity. While at the beginning every state was looking after its own people, today French and Swiss hospitals, for example, are helping each other out.
Private citizens are donating health materials. Companies worldwide, and also here in Kenya, are reorienting their production lines to fight the coronavirus. Instead of producing cars, they aim for the production of ventilators. Instead of producing clothes, they now produce face masks.
A Swiss business is donating money for the refugees in Kakuma. The diplomatic community in Kenya is actively trying to redirect aid and investments to help Kenya cope with this crisis.
INEVITABLE BLUNDERS AND SETBACKS
What we need, once this crisis is over, is a new international consensus and structures that are able to maintain global peace and sustainable development— as the world community tried (and failed) after 1918 with the attempts to establish the League of Nations in Geneva; and again after 1945 with the successful creation of the United Nations in New York.
The world has always responded to these devastating global crises by working to create institutions which could prevent such tragedies from being repeated. Despite the inevitable blunders and setbacks, we have eventually been able to put aside our differences and focus on building a better future for the next generation, so that our children will not have to face the same horrors as we did.
Not only have we done this in the past; but my sense of history tells me that we will do so this time as well.
The coronavirus crisis teaches us that we are one global community and we should take better care of all human beings, especially the poor.
The crisis teaches us that we should urgently look after our planet.
If this crisis is the beginning of a joint effort to tackle our other global challenges together in solidarity, inclusivity and peace, our future might be much brighter than we now can imagine.
Dr Heckner is the Ambassador of Switzerland to Kenya