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Learning the Lessons of the Pandemic

Many fear that the pandemic invites national withdrawal, but the world's scientists are showing us a better way forward. They are not only putting their research at everyone’s disposal, but also modeling a cooperative way of working that enables them to produce more and better output.

MADRID – Among its many other effects, the COVID-19 crisis has intensified the pre-existing geopolitical rivalry between China and the United States. This tension has led many to warn of the “Thucydides trap,” a term coined by Harvard’s Graham T. Allison to refer to the heightened risk of conflict when an emerging power threatens to displace an established one. Allison’s theory takes its name from the ancient Greek historian Thucydides’ chronicle of the Peloponnesian War, in which Sparta defeated the rising city-state of Athens.

One important detail of this historical touchstone has passed largely unnoticed, however, even amid the ongoing pandemic: the determining factor in Sparta’s victory was a plague that killed about one-third of Athens’s population, including Pericles, the city’s leader.

Yale’s Frank M. Snowden argues that while military and political events may prevail in public memory, pandemics have played a preponderant role in great historical changes. For example, it was typhus that cut short Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia, while the 1918-19 flu is thought to have diminished US President Woodrow Wilson’s abilities during the Treaty of Versailles negotiations.

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