David Olusoga high res web
David Olusoga

David Olusoga is a British-Nigerian historian, broadcaster and film-maker. His most recent TV series include Empire (BBC 2), Black and British: A Forgotten History (BBC 2), The World’s War (BBC 2), 3 seasons of A House Through Time (BBC 2) and the BAFTA winning Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners (BBC 2). David is also the author of Black & British: A Forgotten History, which was awarded both the Longman-History Today Trustees Award and the PEN Hessell-Tiltman Prize. His other books include The World’s War, which won First World War Book of the Year in 2015, The Kaiser’s Holocaust: Germany’s Forgotten Genocide and the Colonial Roots of Nazism and Civilizations: Encounters and the Cult of Progress. David was also a contributor to the Oxford Companion to Black British History and writes for The Guardian and is a columnist for The Observer and BBC History Magazine. He is also one of the three presenters on the BBC's landmark Arts series Civilizations.

Everything has changed. Nothing has changed. Change is coming

In the last weeks of the last decade articles in magazines and items on social media encouraged us to write lists of everything that had changed in our lives during the preceding ten years. The passing of one decade and the impending arrival of another was presented as a moment to take stock and catalogue our achievements. We were urged to take note of which of life's landmarks we had reached and which had passed us by. The purpose of all this was to enable us to enter the new decade with a clearer perspective and a renewed sense of purpose. We were also encouraged to write new lists of objectives, things we hoped to achieve over the coming ten years. The start of the 2020s was to be the beginning of a new era in our own lives. Within weeks of being drafted those lists of ambitions and objectives were rendered redundant. By the summer of 2020 looking back and reading our lists had become an act of self-mockery. Instead of planning new beginnings or ticking off our life aims in 2020 we consigned ourselves to home arrest and learnt a new lexicon - 'lockdown', 'tracing apps', 'N95 masks', 'furlough', 'hydro-alcoholic gel' and 'social distancing'. Everything had changed.

The force that brought such profound change was one that would not yield to our society’s wealth and inventiveness. Unlike climate change or global poverty we could not simply choose to ignore it. Nor could it be reasoned with or propagandised against. Stirring speeches and talk of the Blitz had no impact upon the exponential arithmetics of infection and contagion. The only weapon we have had against this agent of great change was even greater change - the utter and instant transformation of our lives and our society.

We called the new virus 'novel', but the only novelty is this particular strain. Our war against viruses is primordial

Everything changed and yet change was brought about by a force that is not new but ancient. We called the new virus 'novel', but the only novelty is this particular strain. Our war against viruses is primordial. Yet our response to its arrival into the world of 2020 would astonish our ancestors. For in truth all that has happened is that we have been returned to the same state of nature from which they never dreamed of deliverance. No society until the 20th century had conceived that it might one day break free from the animal reality of epidemic and endemic disease. Every generation that had ever existed, up until that great transition, lived under the shadow of contagion. During the darkest centuries whole generations lived interrupted lives during the interregnums between the reigns of great epidemics. Periods of quarantine and isolation were accepted and expected aspects of life. Only the generations alive today thought themselves liberated from the empire of the bacillus and the virus. Our liberation was fleeting.

Our lives have been transformed and yet little substantive in the structure of our society has changed. Everything was as it was, but suddenly everything is visible. Suddenly we can see how skin colour and social class determine not just who thrives and succeeds but now, who lives and who dies. Nothing has changed for Black women who, now as before the crisis, are five times more likely to die in childbirth than white women. Young Black men were stopped and searched at nine times the rate of their white friends and when lockdown came that in-built bias was transposed onto a new system and black people found themselves twice as likely to be fined for breaking the social distancing rules. Knowledge might be power but our expanded knowledge of our society’s inequalities has not in itself led to change. All that has changed is that we have now acquired the capacity to see that for decades nothing has changed.

Suddenly we can see how skin colour and social class determine not just who thrives and succeeds but now, who lives and who dies

But change is coming because we have been changed. While we might pretend to be the same people we were, back when things were 'normal', we are not the same. Change is coming because the new virus is in reality the first in a new age of new viruses. It has encroached into our world because we have encroached into the natural world. Our invasion of that kingdom will lead to the destruction of billions of our fellow creatures, whose territories we have stolen or intend to steal, but also to the liberation of yet more viruses whose virulence we can only imagine. Change is coming because - as we have now seen - the great upheavals of the new age of pandemics exposes the fractures that cut across our societies. Old inequalities are brought into sharp relief by new diseases and old ideas are repudiated by a new generation. Change is coming because although we have already begun to frame our thoughts in the past tense we are still at the beginning.

Most of what is to happen is yet to happen. The profound changes still lie ahead of us.