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Blast from the past

Pandemics can alter a society’s fundamental worldview, upend core economic structures and sway power struggles among nations

Blast from the past
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Before March of this year, few probably thought diseases could be a significant driver of human history. Not so anymore. People are beginning to understand that the little changes COVID-19 has already ushered in or accelerated – telemedicine, remote work, social distancing, the death of the handshake, online shopping, the virtual disappearance of cash and so on – have begun to change their way of life. They may not be sure whether these changes will outlive the pandemic. And they may be uncertain whether these changes are for good or ill.

Three previous plagues could yield some clues about the way COVID-19 might bend the arc of history. First, they can profoundly alter a society's fundamental worldview. Second, they can upend core economic structures. And, finally, they can sway power struggles among nations.

Sickness spurs the rise of the Christian West

The Antonine Plague, and its twin, the Cyprian plague – both now widely thought to have been caused by a smallpox strain – ravaged the Roman Empire from A.D. 165 to 262. It's been estimated that the combined pandemics' mortality rate was anywhere from one-quarter to one-third of the empire's population.

While the disease was effectively incurable, rudimentary palliative care – the provision of food and water, for example – could spur the recovery of those too weak to care for themselves. Motivated by Christian charity and an ethic of care for the sick – and enabled by the thick social and charitable networks around which the early church was organized – the empire's Christian communities were willing and able to provide this sort of care. Pagan Romans, on the other hand, opted instead either to flee outbreaks of the plague or to self-isolate in the hope of being spared infection.

This had two effects.

First, Christians survived the ravages of these plagues at higher rates than their pagan neighbours and developed higher levels of immunity more quickly. Seeing that many more of their Christian compatriots were surviving the plague – and attributing this either to divine favour or the benefits of the care being provided by Christians – many pagans were drawn to the Christian community and the belief system that underpinned it.

Second, because these two plagues disproportionately affected young and pregnant women, the lower mortality rate among Christians translated into a higher birth rate. The net effect of all this was that, in roughly a century, an essentially pagan empire found itself well on its way to becoming a majority Christian one.

The plague of Justinian

The plague of Justinian, named after the Roman emperor who reigned from A.S. 527 to 565, arrived in the Roman Empire in A.D. 542 and didn't disappear until A.D. 755. During its two centuries of recurrence, it killed an estimated 25 million to 100 million people. This massive loss of lives crippled the economy, triggering a financial crisis that exhausted the state's coffers and hobbled the empire's once-mighty military.

In the east, Rome's principal geopolitical rival, Sassanid Persia, was also devastated by the plague and was therefore in no position to exploit the Roman Empire's weakness.

The Black Death

The Black Death broke out in Europe in 1347 and subsequently killed between one-third and one-half of the total European population of 80 million people. But it killed more than people. By the time the pandemic had burned out by the early 1350s, a distinctly modern world emerged – one defined by free labour, technological innovation and a growing middle class. Before the 'Yersinia pestis' bacterium arrived in 1347, Western Europe was a feudal society that was overpopulated. Labour was cheap, serfs had little bargaining power, social mobility was stymied and there was little incentive to increase productivity.

But the loss of so much life shook up an ossified society. Labour shortages gave peasants more bargaining power. In the agrarian economy, they also encouraged the widespread adoption of new and existing technologies – the iron plough, the three-field crop rotation system and fertilization with manure, all of which significantly increased productivity. Beyond the countryside, it resulted in the invention of time and labour-saving devices such as the printing press, water pumps for draining mines and gunpowder weapons.

In turn, freedom from feudal obligations and a desire to move up the social ladder encouraged many peasants to move to towns and engage in crafts and trades. The more successful ones became wealthier and constituted a new middle class. The new middle class's increasing wealth also stimulated patronage of the arts, science, literature and philosophy. The result was an explosion of cultural and intellectual creativity – what we now call the Renaissance.

Our present future

None of this is to argue that the still-ongoing COVID-19 pandemic will have similarly earth-shattering outcomes. The mortality rate of COVID-19 is nothing like that of the plagues discussed above, and therefore the consequences may not be as seismic. But there are some indications that they could be.

COVID-19 may be accelerating an already ongoing geopolitical shift in the balance of power between the U.S. and China. During the pandemic, China has taken the global lead in providing medical assistance to other countries as part of its "Health Silk Road" initiative. Some argue that the combination of America's failure to lead and China's relative success at picking up the slack may well be turbocharging China's rise to a position of global leadership.

Finally, COVID-19 seems to be accelerating the unravelling of long-established patterns and practices of work, with repercussions that could affect the future of office towers, big cities and mass transit, to name just a few. The implications of this and related economic developments may prove as profoundly transformative as those triggered by the Black Death in 1347.

Ultimately, the longer-term consequences of this pandemic – like all previous pandemics – are simply unknowable to those who must endure them. But just as past plagues made the world we currently inhabit, so too will this plague likely remake the one populated by our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Views expressed are personal

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