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How History Has Favored The Economy Over Public Health

Historians in the News
tags: inequality, pandemics



GILGER: So often as an historian, I'm sure you think about things this way, right? But the trope is in your head that history repeats itself. Have we learned any lessons from history or how would you hope that the lessons of our own country's history — these really hard ones, right? of slavery, indentured servitude — would inform the way that we look at this issue today?

MANCALL: Well, I think, I think we have learned certain lessons from history. Sometimes it takes a very long time to learn lessons. It the American Civil War to finally make slavery illegal in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. That is 250 years after bound laborers and then eventually enslaved laborers are working first in the Chesapeake, then in other places, it takes a long time. We don't have an exact equivalent for legalized slavery. We don't have an exact equivalent for indentured servitude now. Those are good things. But sometimes what history does is it gives us the perspectives. It lets us take the step back. And so, since the article came out, various people have said to me, "Well, you know, these workers had a choice," which is true. Not the enslaved who come later, but the free workers. They did make a choice. And so what I think historians can sort of do is say, "Yes, they made a choice." And with the distance of time, we can look at the range of options that is, that was in front of them. And the range of options was was bleak and limited. And so their choice was to risk their lives in order to make a livelihood. That is a very tough choice. And I think we need to really think about that. And so ... when, as a historian, I listen to, you know, "We have to get the economy up and going again," of course we all want to get the economy up and going again. But history can teach us that we have to really think about what are the risks that we're facing? What are the conditions that we're putting people in? And is it always worth it to do it? And I think we need to take that step. And I hope history offers some, at least moments of pause and reflection so we can go forward in a more informed way.

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