Four lessons from history

By Calissa Man and Louise Cheng

Futurists from Singapore’s Centre for Strategic Futures offer four lessons on human behaviour learnt from past shocks.

As the COVID-19 crisis continues, we have looked to past security, health and environmental shocks for ideas about how societies, economies, and governance may change as a result. While the past does not wholly determine our present, the study of other major shocks offers key insights on how human behaviour may change (or not) over time. Here, we offer four lessons from the past.

Lesson 1: Old Divides, New Vulnerables

Past crises deepened or accentuated existing divides around race, age, and class. For instance, the nomenclature for new infectious diseases (for instance the Spanish flu, the Asian flu, Hong Kong flu, and COVID-19 (“the Wuhan virus”) can normalise racial prejudice. [i] Reforms mandated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in response to the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis cut public spending on health and education, increasing the rich-poor divide in affected countries. [ii] In Cape Town, the 1918 influenza pandemic justified the enforcement of racial segregation under the pretence of public health concerns. The forcible displacement of black communities later served as the urban planning blueprint for 20th century apartheid in South Africa. [iii]

Past shocks also created new vulnerable groups. As with the current pandemic, workers in the travel, tourism and retail industries experienced heightened unemployment and job disruption during past pandemics and 9/11. [iv] In the long term, survivors, first responders and frontline medical staff faced devastating psychological aftereffects, suffering from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse, and suicide ideation 5–10 years after the 9/11 attacks, SARS outbreak and 3/11 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. [v] [vi] [vii] [viii]

Lesson 2: Political Upheaval

Past shocks created openings for new political leaders and movements. The 1918 influenza pandemic catalysed India’s independence movement, as high death tolls and inadequate healthcare fuelled widespread anger against the colonial administration. Grassroots activists won locals over by filling the public health vacuum, gaining hitherto-lacking support for the independence movement. [ix] Following the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, political leaders used the economic crisis to appeal to urban and rural poor with more inward-oriented development regimes. [x]

Past shocks also caused shifts in international politics, by fomenting mistrust in global superpowers and Western international institutions. During the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, the United States outbid developing countries for vaccine doses and delayed its promise to provide vaccines for developing countries, tarnishing its international image. [xi] Moreover, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the H1N1 a pandemic based only on the new virus’ transmissibility without considering the severity of the strain. Governments later blamed the WHO for creating an unnecessary surplus of vaccines that strained national coffers. [xii] The IMF’s role in responding to the 1997 Asian Financial crisis generated distrust in Asian economies towards the Bretton Woods institutions, initiating their move to seek alternatives to the IMF and World Bank. [xiii]

Past shocks have also revealed signs of “medical nationalism”. During the 2009 swine flu pandemic, wealthy countries dominated the procurement of the swine flu vaccine. As a result, developing countries had delayed access to the swine flu vaccine, in much smaller doses. [xiv] This shares parallels with the COVID-19 pandemic, as the world’s biggest economies pursue nationalistic “sweetheart deals” for preferential access to COVID-19 vaccines. [xv]

Lesson 3: Bigger Government, Bigger Business

Government interventions have played a large part in any crisis management scenario. Privacy protections were often the first to be eroded. Following 9/11, the “War on Terror” led to a state of permanent war which gave way to a new normal of increased surveillance. [xvi] In the wake of SARS, new national public health agencies were created and disease surveillance programs were strengthened, often with easy access to citizen data. [xvii] The expansion of government oversight at the expense of privacy became accepted as the price of continued vigilance.

The scale of past natural disasters also expanded government responsibilities. Hurricane Katrina set a precedent that the federal government would fund disaster recovery efforts. [xviii] Similarly, the 3/11 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster drove the launch of Japan’s Reconstruction Agency as citizens called for greater prioritisation of disaster preparedness and recovery. [xix] Economic downturns exposed weaknesses in welfare systems, forcing governments to rethink their policy measures. The Asian Financial Crisis exposed the inadequacies of relying solely on economic growth for social protection, justifying the implementation and expansion of previously unpopular unemployment insurance and social safety nets. Post-crisis, many of these measures proved difficult to roll back. [xx] However, support for welfare conflicted with fiscal constraints during recessions. As government deficits and debt increased after the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, cuts on social welfare became commonplace. This sparked social unrest and a political vacuum exploited by movements such as the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. [xxi]

Past shocks also enabled the consolidation of economic power by large businesses. The 2008 Financial Crisis led to an unprecedented wave of consolidation, as floundering institutions such as Bear Stearns and Merrill Lynch were bought by giants such as Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase. Similarly, SARS created new e-commerce hegemons, Alibaba and as more consumers stayed home. [xxii] Surging stock prices, healthcare expenditure and panic-buying for health-related products during health shocks led to the further consolidation of Big Pharma. [xxiii]

Lesson 4: Greater Fragility

While big businesses benefited, past crises exacerbated issues faced by vulnerable groups. There was a disproportionate rise in youth unemployment following the Asian Financial Crisis and Global Financial Crisis, causing a higher likelihood of long-term ‘scarring’. [xxiv] Austerity measures during past recessions also cut public spending on education and healthcare. This disproportionately lowered school enrolment rates among the poor, exacerbating societal inequality and dampening future productivity. [xxv]


While every shock has its unique tail risks, there are some common effects that we can watch for in future shocks. We should consider how past shifts in society, governance and the economy as a result of previous crises can inform our understanding of COVID-19 and future shocks.

Calissa Man and Louise Cheng are Research Assistants at the Centre for Strategic Futures.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the Centre for Strategic Futures or any agency of the Government of Singapore.

This post was first published on Centre for Strategic Futures Singapore‘s Medium page.

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