How Three Prior Pandemics Triggered Massive Societal Shifts

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Yves here. Note the author takes pains to stress that the death rates in the three social-order-changing pandemics he analyzes were vastly higher than anyone expects to see from Covid-19. However, many of our systems are much more tightly coupled than before, so it’s possible to see more durable changes than, say, the Spanish flu wrought.

By Andrew Latham, Professor of Political Science, Macalester College. Originally published at The Conversation

Before March of this year, few probably thought disease 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. As I teach in my course “Plagues, Pandemics and Politics,” pandemics tend to shape human affairs in three ways.

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 staggering, the number of deaths tells only part of the story. This also triggered a profound transformation in the religious culture of the Roman Empire.

On the eve of the Antonine plague, the empire was pagan. The vast majority of the population worshipped multiple gods and spirits and believed that rivers, trees, fields and buildings each had their own spirit.

Christianity, a monotheistic religion that had little in common with paganism, had only 40,000 adherents, no more than 0.07% of the empire’s population.

Yet within a generation of the end of the Cyprian plague, Christianity had become the dominant religion in the empire.

How did these twin pandemics effect this profound religious transformation?

Rodney Stark, in his seminal work “The Rise of Christianity,” argues that these two pandemics made Christianity a much more attractive belief system.

While the disease was effectively incurable, rudimentary palliative care – the provision of food and water, for example – could spur 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 neighbors 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 favor 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. At the same time, tending to sick pagans afforded Christians unprecedented opportunities to evangelize.

Second, Stark argues that, 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 the span of a century, an essentially pagan empire found itself well on its way to becoming a majority Christian one.

The Plague of Justinian and the Fall of Rome

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% to 50% of the population – anywhere from 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. But the forces of the Islamic Rashidun Caliphate in Arabia – which had long been contained by the Romans and Sasanians – were largely unaffected by the plague. The reasons for this are not well understood, but they probably have to do with the caliphate’s relative isolation from major urban centers.

Caliph Abu Bakr didn’t let the opportunity go to waste. Seizing the moment, his forces swiftly conquered the entire Sasanian Empire while stripping the weakened Roman Empire of its territories in the Levant, the Caucasus, Egypt and North Africa.

Muslim forces of the Rashidun Caliphate captured the Levant – a region of the Middle East – from the Byzantine Empire in A.D. 636. Wikimedia Commons

Pre-pandemic, the Mediterranean world had been relatively unified by commerce, politics, religion and culture. What emerged was a fractured trio of civilizations jockeying for power and influence: an Islamic one in the eastern and southern Mediterranean basin; a Greek one in the northeastern Mediterranean; and a European one between the western Mediterranean and the North Sea.

This last civilization – what we now call medieval Europe – was defined by a new, distinctive economic system.

Before the plague, the European economy had been based on slavery. After the plague, the significantly diminished supply of slaves forced landowners to begin granting plots to nominally “free” laborers – serfs who worked the lord’s fields and, in return, received military protection and certain legal rights from the lord.

The seeds of feudalism were planted.

The Black Death of the Middle Ages

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 labor, technological innovation and a growing middle class.

Before the Yersinia pestis bacterium arrived in 1347, Western Europe was a feudal society that was overpopulated. Labor 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.

Labor shortages gave peasants more bargaining power. In the agrarian economy, they also encouraged the widespread adoption of new and existing technologies – the iron plow, 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 labor-saving devices such as the printing press, water pumps for draining mines and gunpowder weapons.

The Black Death created massive labor shortages. Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

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. They could now afford more of the luxury goods that could be obtained only from beyond Europe’s frontiers, and this stimulated both long-distance trade and the more efficient three-masted ships needed to engage in that trade.

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.

Will the bumbling efforts of the open societies of the West to come to grips with the virus shattering already-wavering faith in liberal democracy, creating a space for other ideologies to evolve and metastasize?

In a similar fashion, 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 unraveling of long-established patterns and practices of work, with repercussions that could affet 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.

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  1. Henry Moon Pie

    Thanks for this fascinating bit of history.

    In addition to the author’s three areas of change, I’d add another: hastening the decline of Christianity, especially fundamentalist Christianity that has allied itself so closely with the Republican Party. Tens of millions of Americans woke up yesterday to see their world coming apart. A President they admired, who told them that the virus was “just the sniffles,” was hauled off to Walter Reed in Marine 1 in order to save him from those “sniffles.”

    These same folks have been told for four years by their preachers that this President was anointed by the Christian god to rescue them from the secularists, the devil-worshiping pederasts and, less explicitly, scary black men. They had been “informed” for months by the favorite news sources that the virus was no big deal and that the wearing of masks was cowardly, un-American and a denial of their Christian faith.

    That’s a lot of cognitive dissonance for one day.

    Christianity has been declining in its old haunts for decades, and each new generation is less churched than the previous one. That process will be accelerated greatly by Covid and the revealing of the many lies with which much of the church chose to associate itself. For the old believers, it will be a disorienting and perhaps faith-destroying experience. For the young, it makes it much less likely that they will ever become believers.

    All this is made more striking by the irony revealed in this post re: the emergence of Christianity as the dominant religion in the Roman Empire because of another plague.

    1. Sutter Cane

      Unfortunately, when confronted with cognitive dissonance, most people double down rather than change their beliefs. Should Trump succumb, I imagine that the reaction will be a further retreat into conspiracy theory rather than a reevaluation of any previously held views

      1. Henry Moon Pie

        “most people double down rather than change their beliefs”

        We’ve been witnessing that in real time as people’s objections to wearing masks become more and more bizarre. At a certain point, though, doubling down leaves one fully in the embrace of madness. It’s not that people will change their beliefs but that they will be left either in this double-downed madness or navigating without any compass at all.

        There are going to be a lot of people in acute need of mental health care. Now many may think that Fundamentalist Christians supporting Trump may be in need already, but up until now, they’ve been able to function day-to-day without significant impairment. What’s taking place now threatens to leave many of them unable to do that successfully.

    2. eg

      A possible outcome. But Christianity is a desert weed — it flourishes in hard times and struggles among the comfortable.

      1. Henry Moon Pie

        This is the Rod Dreher thesis, right? Faithful Christians retreat somewhere–the desert would work–and repristinate their Christian theology and practice. But even he cedes that the period of Christian influence on mainstream culture and politics will diminish significantly.

  2. Noone from Nowheresville

    Good to know that we only need a mass die for real change. I’m only being a little facetious.

    As far as China’s rise, the US made that choice back in the 90s (perhaps earlier?) and hasn’t waivered from it. If China chooses to make its move / take advantage of the Covid opportunity, there’s not a lot the average USian can do if the US leadership is more considered with looting its own and the global pantry.

    Interesting tidbit about the rise of Christianity. I’d never heard that before so will need to find out more.

    1. frank

      From the article: “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.”
      Was a similar movement toward Christianity seen in Sassanid Persia.?

      1. Massinissa

        Uh… the Sassanids were destroyed shortly after this by…

        The very first Muslims, during the Muslim Conquest, in 633-651. The article says the plague was between the mid 500s to the early 700s, so that would be within this timeframe.

        So uh… The Zoroastrians of the Sassanid Persian empire were essentially replaced by a new religion, partly as a result of the Sassanids collapsing both militarily and economically compared to the new Arabian Rashidun Caliphate to their south. Just not Christianity per se, though Islam is a Abrahamic faith like Christianity is, and was even newer than Christianity had been. Muhammed himself had just died the year before the war started.

        1. 1 Kings

          Of course non stop war between ‘Roman’ Byzantium and Persia(with Arabs often used as troops) for a few hundred years did help exhaust both Empires. And Justinian’s ridiculous spending on the Hagua Sophia and his even more insane ‘reconquest’ attempt of the ‘West’ and N. Africa led to the inevitable. The plague just finished the job.

  3. Michael

    Thank you. That is a very interesting history. The history of plagues throughout the rest of the world see still unknown to me, however.

    I wonder what gave rise to the teachings of Confucius and the Far Eastern collectivist sociological evolution. I’m thinking that approach, along with their more recent experience with pandemics have given them the edge in the current circumstance.

    I’ve run into some Americans who have criticized Japanese willingness to wear masks, and have claimed our superiority. To me this may be akin to the abolishment of the teachings of Confucius in Japanese schools following WWII and may be reconsidered.

    It seems to me that the spread of plagues has always been directly proportionate to population density, and the earlier civilizations that had to deal with these situations without modern medicine forced them to develop some sociological benefit, similar to the Christians.

    I would like to know more, also.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      The linkage between population density and plagues is not straightforward. Most plagues hit cities worse, but this has the benefit of building up disease resistance in urban populations. The evidence suggests that densely populated areas get more plagues and outbreaks than low density areas, but when a plague does hit a low density rural community, the overall mortality can be much worse.

  4. PlutoniumKun

    Plagues have been fundamental to human society and history for millennia – it’s a little out of date now in its science, but William McNeills ‘Plagues and Peoples’ is a classic text on the subject.

    Its obviously way too early to make judgements, but its fun to speculate on the deep geopolitical changes wrought by Covid. Many of these were underlying processes anyway, Covid has just been the stress test that accelerated the changes.

    I think it has definitely accelerated the shift in global power from the west to Asia, but I don’t think its as simple as US vs China. I think the most striking feature thats immediately apparent is that their successful fights against Covid have given a huge boost, both in terms of domestic confidence, and international exposure, to the ‘secondary’ Asian powers, particularly South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam. Japan also hasn’t come out of it too badly, and may use a belated Olympics to catch up. For all sorts of reasons I don’t see them becoming an anti-China alliance, but its clear that China is no longer the only game in town in Asia. Its also very clear that all those countries are seeing a post-US western Pacific world, and are preparing accordingly, not least in massive boosts to their military capacities.

    Domestically, China is trumpeting its successes against Covid, but judging from the comments from Chinese people I know, the general public there isn’t buying it. China is clearly planning a reset of its foreign policy (no more Mr Nice Guy to HK and Taiwan) and its domestic economy. Unfortunately, its economic reset does not seem to be anywhere near radical enough – there is a very obvious need to shift wealth to the ordinary consumer and away from pouring concrete, but it seems to be an addiction China can’t beat.

    As for Europe, I think everything depends no how the next financial crisis (and there will certainly be a mother of a crisis eventually with all the poison on balance books around Europe) is handled. The mishandling of Covid early in the crisis did a lot of harm to the leadership of the EU and most individual countries and I think has probably strengthened the far right. But its not too late for the austerians to be routed. The frustrating thing about Europe is that everyone seems to see what needs to be done to get the economy on a stronger, fairer trajectory, but nobody seems to know how to get there.

    I think the damage to the US’s status in the world is incalculable (along with the UK). But rather than seeing a shift in power from the US to China, I think we are seeing a shift to a more multipolar world, with many mid sized countries seeing no gain from hanging their futures on one or other of the major powers. Thats probably a good thing.

    1. eg

      I came to reference McNeill’s “Plagues and Peoples” which I read in the early ‘80s — I have never forgotten it, and also very much enjoyed his other works where I was introduced to ideas like “the steppe gradient” and so much more.

      Great to see that you beat me to it, PK!

    2. JBird4049

      there is a very obvious need to shift wealth to the ordinary consumer and away from pouring concrete, but it seems to be an addiction China can’t beat.

      I think it is not an addiction, but an attempt, much like the Fed’s efforts, to stimulate the economy without giving more money to the little people, but giving it to the already wealthy.

      Wealth equals power, which includes greater prestige, and political control; the authoritarian, almost totalitarian, Chinese leadership do not want to transfer part of the economy to the ordinary people even if it means long term survival for they, like the American elites, are only looking at short term survival, helped along by greed. There are strong incentives to ignore the reality that the current methods of stimulus no longer work.

      In a way, it is comforting to know that the Chinese elites can be just as foolish as the American elites.

      1. Clem

        And the birth of the Mafias which took advantage of prohibition, led to the formation of the CIA and Castro taking over Cuba after the excesses of Meyer Lansky etc.

  5. Wukchumni

    How far & fast could an individual have spread the much deadlier plagues of past (ours is for the time-a piker in the scheme of things) compared to now? Not very.

    There has to be a delta factor of all the strains criss crossing so as to eventually be as effective of a spreader of invisible inflamation as the internet.

    And you know, there was just no way we could shut down the airlines-par avian for the course.

  6. Alex

    Thanks for posting this. I knew many factoids and individual theories but now I want to read up on it.
    @PlutoniumKun, thanks for the recommendation of a book

  7. The Rev Kev

    Some changes take a while to filter through and are not immediately obvious. I will use the example of the United States here though the same could be said of many countries. This pandemic for most people has been very clarifying. The message from the elite was very clear. They said that we do not care about you. We will give trillions to the billionaires, corporations and some of our helpers but for you nothing but crumbs. So excuse us now but we are off on holidays.

    The Republicans have run a botched pandemic response and as far as I can see, the Democrats are promising voters nothing at all if they get in. Not even health care in a once in a century pandemic. Both parties have been willing to have their supporters crowd together and even vote for momentary political gains, even though a lot of those voters will no longer be around for them next month.

    It’s almost like they are saying ‘You know what? We could lose 100 million of you plebs and it would not make much difference. That would bring the American population back to where it was when Reagan left office. We could just open up the borders and bring in more replacements. So we lost 200,000 people. There are 3.8 million babies born here each year. Three weeks and we have replaced those losses.’ It probably not what they are thinking but their actions sure sound like it.

    How does this play out going forward? I have no idea but you cannot tell some three hundred million people in a country that they will be sacrificed in order to keep an old, unsustainable economy going for a few more cycles. That they have no value. And I see the same type of elite thinking in countries like the US, Brazil, India, Australia and others. There is going to be forces set in motion from this so I hope that one day that we do not get all nostalgic for the stability of 2020.

    1. J7915

      IIRC Chairman Mao was quoted in Stern newsmagazine from Germany in the early sixties during their nuclear build up, when China had ‘only’ 600million citizens before the Oficial MAD strategy etc: “China could lose 300million ie. half the population and still have 300 million people left”. Autocratic minds all think alike.

    2. GM

      It’s worse than that though.

      The dead are dead, and they are indeed mostly old people. They see that as a benefit — no need to pay for Social Security and Medicare.

      But the real tragedy is that a lot of young people will be left permanently disabled by COVID. We’re talking tens of millions. Who is going to be paying disability for all those people for decades to come? And note that it is far from certain that all of those people will even be able to document that they had COVID, which will make it possible to just dismiss them as “lazy” and/or having mental issues.

      On top of it all, we are not moving towards a Medicare-for-all type of system, we are moving towards completely dismantling even the sorry excuse for one that was Obamacare, i.e. expect “pre-existing conditions” to make a comeback, and COVID will be the mother of all pre-existing conditions…

      Then there is the elephant in the room, which is that everyone is working under the assumption that even a mild case of COVID will confer lifelong immunity. If true, this will be the first coronavirus that behaves like that — for all of the ones for which this has been studied, immunity is short lasting and people get reinfected again and again and again, and they do not even get a milder disease the next time.

      Indeed, large numbers of reinfections are already being reported by the Iranians, who got hit really hard and really early, and are thus the place where reinfections should show up in significant numbers first. Expect that to become a common occurrence in the West too in the coming months.

      This is indeed not the flu — having the flu does provide a lifelong immunity against the particular strain you got infected with. The problem there is that there are hundreds of strains already in existence and new ones appear constantly due to rapid mutation and recombination. But at least flu pandemics, once they have gone through the population, are self-limiting.

      This will not be liked that at all — unless we do our best to eliminate it, it will be with us forever, and people will get it again and again and again, and they will get progressively more damaged each time. Eventually even young people will be dying in significant numbers after having COVID three, four, five, etc. times.

      Up the numbers of disabled accordingly too.

      That must have been told to the powers that be by the scientists that advise them, because it was well known long before COVID, and it is probably one of the major reasons why China reacted the way it did and still does every time there is an outbreak. Yet they absolutely refused to do anything to stop it, even though it essentially dooms their countries’ future…

      P.S. We desperately need to lose 90+% of the world’s population as soon as possible, the world is vastly overpopulated and long ago passed all sorts of tipping points with respect to ecological sustainability. But that absolutely must not happen by increasing the death rate through the forces of the four horsemen — that is how civilization collapses, and that is what we are trying to prevent from happening.

  8. shinola

    I found the 1st sentence of this article a bit puzzling/disturbing:

    “Before March of this year, few probably thought disease could be a significant driver of human history.”

    Not even the Black Death?

    The “Black Death led to the demise of feudalism and beginning of the Renaissance” angle was taught as a standard part of history when I was in Jr. High. Is this not the case anymore?

    1. Basil Pesto

      History curricula are presumably fluid – there’s a lot to choose from. I don’t think it’s important so much ‘when’ is taught (as in which historical period – again, much to choose from) as how it’s taught, how to evaluate sources, build arguments etc.

      Different country for me so different curriculum, and I was unaware of the ‘black death leading to the renaissance’ thesis

  9. DJG

    Sorry, but I’m highly skeptical of the idea that Christianity arose because of better handling of illness and plague by Christians. The argument seems to depend on a single book, which I’ve seen quoted elsewhere. It is one source, and it is starting to smack of an academic urban legend.

    It doesn’t take much research to find out that Greek and Roman doctors were highly accomplished. They even were good surgeons, which takes some doing in a time with ineffective anesthesia. They were good diagnosticians–although, among pagans, there was a parallel medical system in the temples, where one often remained and slept till the god revealed a cure in a dream. Yet there were also functioning hospitals. And doctors, midwives, and druggists weren’t a rarity.

    Further, in a city like Rome, the citizens lived in organized neighborhoods called vici, which had influential neighborhood committees that looked after public order, basic needs, and the occasional festival. Likewise, there were pagan “eating clubs” and other voluntary societies.

    In fact, Christianity modeled itself after existing institutions, not the other way around.

    So I’d look for another cause for the big religious change. After all, the Mysteries of Eleusis and the Delphic Oracle were still functioning in the late 400s of this era and had be be forcibly shut down the the emperor on the advice of, errrr, Christians.

    1. skk

      Now causality is a dicey thing to prove, I’d look at Hume’s “On causation” or modern day data science to understand how complicated it is to prove A causes B.

      Given that, totally I too am sceptical about this article’s assertion about the rise of Christianity. I’ve read a bit and there was Constantine who legalized it, stopped persecuting Christians, converted to it, supported it financially, took part in the Councils, notably the one where they “dealt” with Arianism.

      There’s always Prof Richard Bulliet’s quantitative model of diffusion used to model the pace and intensity of the spread of Islam ( and also Christianity ). And the model fits the data reasonably well. So.. does diffusion “cause” the spread ? Maybe one should just give up on the idea of causation and stick to data and model fits….but I have had poor results in getting people to buy into that in the business world. People insist on explanations.. want an answer ( any bloody answer ) to WHY.

    2. Big River Bandido

      better handling of illness and plague by Christians

      That’s a very elastic interpretation of what the author clearly wrote. The piece states that contemporary medicine (including Greek and Roman) had no available cure for such plagues, and that they wouldn’t treat such patients. Those aren’t farfeched claims at all. Surgery doesn’t address epidemiological diseases. The piece is also clear that the appeal of the early Christians was not that they provided *medical* care, but *palliative* care. Making the patient as comfortable and comforted as possible. That’s not science, requires no special knowledge, just the human touch of compassion. All that for people who received no care at all from the established practitioners.

  10. JWP

    I’ve resolved to believing Facebook should be eliminated in it’s entirety. It serves no net positive effect for society and clearly the negative effect on the psyche and happiness of people is massive to the point of destruction. As written here before, it is turning into a ponzi scheme financially, and it’s only hope is to acquire companies that give it a physical presence in people’s lives; as to give the impression the company is needed. The advertising component is seen as giving small businesses help in getting their product out, but I do not believe that impact is large enough to merit continuation as well as providing a service equally repeated and/or improved in other ways. A company valued at $761 billion that produces no physical product and is entirely dependent on other companies, not consumers to stay afloat is a zombie and given its sovereign tendencies, see restricting free speech, currency creation, is a threat to all.

    1. Clem

      I measure my potential friends by several factors:
      -Do they smoke? = Self destructive loser who makes bad choices.

      -Obvious tattoos? = Lack of inhibitions and camp follower mentality.

      -Do they have a Facebook account? = Uncomfortable in their own skin.

      1. CanCyn

        Addicts aren’t losers, they’re sick. I’ve come to see smoking – long term smoking not the rebellious youthful kind – as a symptom of mental illness. It is a disgusting habit for sure but I try not to judge. We would be so much better off as a society if we didn’t view people through the winner/loser lens.
        Otherwise, I get where you’re coming from, we can’t be friends with everyone. My questions include: are you religious? are you conservative politically/socially? I don’t disdain these people but I sure as heck don’t understand them and would be unlikely to form a close friendship.

  11. Tom Bradford

    What an astonishingly myopic and US-centred piece. No wonder I’ve never before heard of Macalester College.

    It might be the case in the US with its 250-year-old history, but I’d suggest most Europeans are very aware of the impact the Plagues and Black Death had on the history of their countries and the region.

    To claim that when the Plague arrived in the 14th Century Europe was ‘overpopulated’ is nonsense. Had that been the case the population reduction brought about by the Plague would merely have re-established the status quo ante. And yes, the reduction of the agricultural labour-force did weaken the grip of the landowners on labour but there was a corresponding lowering of demand, too, and a lot of agricultural land went out of production. The social changes the author alludes to were certainly accelerated by the Plague but they were already in train at the time. There was no such social upheaval or redesign after the Black Death.

    Crop rotation is as old as agriculture and while the disruption of the Plague might have encouraged its refinement it, again, likely did nothing more than accelerate its adoption by a generation or two. Ditto the steel plough – tho’ the development of the heavy horse able to carry an armoured knight was likely as much if not more behind this.

    But to suggest that the development of the printing press and of gunpowder and its use in war was in any way attributable to the Plague seems nonsense to me.

    Certainly the utter incompetence of the leadership in the US and the UK has been highlighted by the inadequacy of their response to the pandemic but to claim this is a failure of ‘liberal democracy’, faith in which was ‘already wavering’, is to over-egg the pudding. Many if not most other liberal democracies after a fumbling start got their act together and still have the general support of populations willing to accept the trade-off between the disadvantages of the lack of coercion inherent in liberal democracy when set against the efficiencies of government by draconian rule, while a few ‘liberal democracies’ such as New Zealand have shown that a well-led democracy supported by the population as a whole can be as efficient as any dictatorship in dealing with a pandemic.

    1. Tom Bradford

      To challenge another point I don’t accept that the pre-plague European economy was ‘based on slavery’. Yes, the medieval serf was tied to the land and hence the landowner but the concept that the serf was ‘owned’ by the landowner, which is surely the essential attribute of slavery, is false. The serf was free to leave at any time, but usually had nowhere to go. The ‘over-population’ to which the author alludes I assume means that the landworking requirements were full forcing a surplus into the towns which were developing their own internal economies as a result, which in turn provided an alternative to the land-bound serf. The Plague, which actually hit the towns worse than the countryside, did create more opportunities for the serf to walk away which forced the landlord into making concessions to keep his workers but as I’d argue, this merely accelerated a trend already gathering pace at the time and which was inevitable, rather than initiating a fundamental revolution in the social order.

      1. JC2

        I don’t see where he said anything about serf slavery, He said the pre Roman plague economies were slave based and I can certainly agree with that. Rome’s military was an enlistment of 20 years after which you were given citizenship and a piece of land. This required Rome to obtain the land as reneging on things to military veterans can be hazardous to the well being of the state. The land that Rome was obtaining was occupied. You either kill everyone or you only kill some and enslave even more as an object lesson to others. Slave based economy for a fact not speculation.

    2. Keith Newman

      I agree the assertion that the Covid response illustrates the failure of liberal democracy is a US-based observation. Here in Canada, our governments “after a fumbling start got their act together”. Our federal government implemented a series of programs to help anyone who lost income due to Covid to the tune of $2,000 per month for 7 or 8 months. They have recently been replaced by generous unemployment benefits. The programs were designed and implemented within weeks and people received their money quickly. I personally know some who received it within 3 days of applying. Our Prime minister said daily that we were all in this together and the federal government would support everyone who needed it. And it delivered. The government has recently announced it will implement a national childcare program, complete public healthcare with a national prescription drug plan, and vastly expand intercity train service. We’ll see if those things happen or not.
      In addition Covid numbers came way down. It seems now we’re going through a 2nd wave so we’ll see how that develops.
      This comment is from someone who has been very critical of the federal government’s stinginess on social programs and been involved for many years with a Canada-wide coalition to expand them. But fair is fair. It has done a very good job on Covid.

    3. Keith Newman

      I agree the assertion that the Covid response illustrates the failure of liberal democracy is a US-based observation. Here in Canada, our governments “after a fumbling start got their act together”. Our federal government implemented a series of programs to help anyone who lost income due to Covid to the tune of $2,000 per month for 7 or 8 months. They have recently been replaced by generous unemployment benefits. The programs were designed and implemented within weeks and people received their money quickly. I personally know some who received it within 3 days of applying. Our Prime minister said daily that we were all in this together and the federal government would support everyone who needed it. And it delivered. The government has recently announced it will implement a national childcare program, complete public healthcare with a national prescription drug plan, and vastly expand intercity train service. We’ll see if those things happen or not.
      Importantly Covid numbers came way down. It seems now we’re going through a 2nd wave so we’ll see how that develops.

      This comment is from someone who has been very critical of the federal government’s stinginess on social programs and been involved for many years with a Canada-wide coalition to expand them. But fair is fair. It has done a very good job on Covid.

  12. Jeremy Grimm

    I am still worried about the CARES Act and its pending impacts on the structure of the U.S. economy. After such largess to Big Money the continued lack of action by Congress — to help State and local governments, small and medium business, small landlords, home owners, renters, and the likely long-term lack of employment for entire sectors of the labor force — impresses me as more than mere incompetence. I cannot regard the U.S. public health response to the Corona Pandemic as incompetence so much as symptom of and evidence for the deep declines in the basic infrastructure of the U.S. Government, Medical Care, Science, and Industry.

    The Corona Pandemic is a disruption … but not that great a disruption that it should have had the impacts it has had and will have on the U.S. The Corona Pandemic revealed and places a spotlight on the remarkable fragility of the U.S. along so many axes.

    The decline of the U.S. Empire was evident before the Corona Pandemic. China’s ascension was evident before the Corona Pandemic. The democratic election processes made a full mockery of any remaining faith in ‘liberal democracy”. The unraveling patterns and practices of work may have been accelerated by the Corona Pandemic but they too were already in process as a fitting follow-on to the dismantling of U.S. industry and manufacturing jobs accomplished in past decades. [If it can be done from home … home can be in Bangalore.]

    “… this plague likely [will] remake the one[world] populated by our grandchildren and great-grandchildren”. No, the world of our children and children’s children was being remade long before the Corona Pandemic. The longer-term consequences of this pandemic — in the U.S. — remain unknowable but unless something remarkable happens in the next several months the longer-term consequences of this pandemic and its exploitation by Big Money — in the U.S. — will be dire.

  13. VietnamVet

    Interesting comments. There is no doubt that pandemics affect societies as will COVID-19. What is stark is that how “fake” beliefs continue to propagate in articles like this one. The USA has not been a liberal democracy since before the Clinton Presidency. It is an oligarchy with purchased elections.

    The powerful set up a belief system that “greed is good” that is absolutely contrary to the reality that humans live and die on a finite planet filled with diseases, parasites and evil. The only effective method of dealing with life is with science, education, preparedness, a public health system, working government, and strong borders.

    In a uniquely human fashion, the existence of the plague and the necessity of functional public health system is denied until it caused a super-spreader event right in the Rose Garden at Saturday’s White House announcement of the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett.

    1. paul

      In a uniquely human fashion, the existence of the plague and the necessity of functional public health system is denied until it caused a super-spreader event right in the Rose Garden at Saturday’s White House announcement of the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett.

      It will be continued to be denied.
      We are living in a double down theology.

      The dangers of financial and functional obesity are obscured by their malignant shadow.

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