How 3 previous pandemics caused massive societal shifts


Before March of this year, few might have believed that disease could be an important driver of human history.

It’s not like that anymore. People are beginning to understand that Small changes COVID-19 has already started or accelerated – telemedicine, telework, social distancing, death of handshake, online shopping, virtual disappearance of cash and so on – they are starting to change their way of life. They may not be sure if these changes will last after the pandemic. They may be unsure whether these changes are good or bad.

Three previous hits could provide some clues about how COVID-19 may bend the arc of history. Like I know In my “Epidemiology, Epidemiology, and Politics” course, epidemics tend to shape human affairs in three ways.

First, they can profoundly change society’s basic view of the world. Second, they can overturn basic economic structures. Finally, they can influence power struggles between states.

The disease spurs the rise of the Christian West

The Antonine Plague and its twin The Plague of Cyprus – They are now widely believed to have resulted from the smallpox strain Destroy the Roman Empire from 165 to 262 AD. It has been appreciated That the combined epidemic mortality was anywhere from a quarter to a third of the empire’s population.

While the number of deaths is staggering, the number of deaths tells only part of the story. This also led to 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 inhabitants worshiped many gods and spirits and believed that rivers, trees, fields, and buildings had their own souls.

Christianity, a monotheistic religion that does not have much in common with paganism, She only had 40,000 followers, No more than 0.07% of the Empire’s population.

However, within a generation of the end of the Cypriot plague, Christianity became the predominant religion in the empire.

How have these dual epidemics affected this profound religious shift?

Rodney Stark, on his primary job.The rise of ChristianityHe argues that these two epidemics have made Christianity a more attractive belief system.

While the disease was not effectively curable, palliative primary care – providing food and water, for example – can stimulate recovery for those who are unable to care for themselves. Motivated by Christian charity and an ethic of patient care – and motivated by the dense social and charitable networks around which the early church was organized – Christian communities in the empire were ready and able to provide this type of care.

On the other hand, pagan Romans chose to either flee an outbreak of plague or isolate themselves in hopes of avoiding infection.

This had two effects.

First, Christians survived the ravages of these epidemics at higher rates than their pagan neighbors and developed higher levels of immunity more quickly. Given that many of their fellow Christians were survivors of the plague – and attribute this either to divine grace or the welfare benefits provided by Christians – Many pagans were drawn to the Christian community and the belief system on which it was based. At the same time, caring for the sick pagan Christians provided unprecedented opportunities for evangelization.

Second, Stark argues that because these two diseases disproportionately affected young and pregnant women, the lower death rate among Christians led to a higher birth rate.

The ultimate effect of all this was that, within nearly a century, an essentially pagan empire found itself on its way to becoming a Christian majority.

Justinian’s Pandemic and the Fall of Rome

The Plague of Justinian, named after a Roman emperor who ruled from 527 to 565, arrived in the Roman Empire in 542 AD and did not disappear until 755 AD. It is estimated at 25% to 50% of the population Anywhere from 25 million to 100 million people.

These heavy losses of life crippled the economy, leading to a financial crisis that depleted the state’s coffers and crippled the once mighty Empire’s army.

In the east, Rome’s main geopolitical rival, the Persian Sassanids, was ravaged by the plague and thus was not in a position to exploit the weakness of the Roman Empire. But the forces of the Islamic Rashidun Caliphate in the Arabian Peninsula – long occupied by the Romans and Sasanians – were largely unaffected by the plague. The reasons for this are not well understood. But it is possible that they had something to do with the relative isolation of the caliphate from the major urban centers.

Caliph Abu Bakr did not let the opportunity to waste. Seize the moment, His forces quickly invaded the entire Sasanian Empire While the weak Roman Empire dispossessed of its lands in the Levant, the Caucasus, Egypt and North Africa.

Clashes between forces in a 14th-century illustration of the Battle of Yarmouk.
The Muslim forces of the Rashidun Caliphate captured the Levant – a region in the Middle East – from the Byzantine Empire in AD 636.
Wikimedia Commons

Before the pandemic, the Mediterranean world was relatively united by trade, politics, religion and culture. What emerged were three fractured civilizations competing for power and influence: Islamic in the eastern and southern Mediterranean basin. A Greek one in the northeastern Mediterranean; And European between the western Mediterranean and the North Sea.

This last civilization – what we call it now Medieval Europe He was introduced to a new and distinct economic system.

Before the plague, the European economy It was based on slavery. After the plague, the diminishing supply of slaves forced the landowners to begin awarding plots of land to nominally “free” workers – serfs who worked in the lord’s fields, and in return, received military protection and some legal rights from the lord.

The seeds of feudalism were sown.

The Black Death in the Middle Ages

The Black Death broke out in Europe in 1347 And then killed between a third and a half Of the total population of Europe of 80 million. But it killed more than people. By the time the epidemic ended by the early 1850s, a distinct modern world had emerged – a world defined by free labor, technological innovation, and a growing middle class.

Before Yersinia pestis bacteria He arrived in 1347, Western Europe was a feudal society that was densely populated. Labor was cheap, serfs had little bargaining power, social mobility was at bay, and there was little incentive to increase productivity.

But the loss of so many lives shook the petrified community.

Lack of labor It gave the peasants more bargaining power. In the agricultural economy, they also encouraged widespread adoption of new and existing technologies – the iron plow, Three-field crop rotation system And fertilizing with manure, all of which greatly increased productivity. Outside the countryside, this resulted in the invention of time and labor-saving devices such as a printing press, water pumps for mine drainage, and gunpowder weapons.

City dwellers flee the city to the countryside to escape the bubonic plague.
The Black Death created an enormous labor shortage.
World History Archive / World Photo Collection via Getty Images

In contrast, freedom from feudal obligations and the desire to climb the social ladder He encouraged many peasants To move to cities and engage in trades and trades. The more successful they got richer and formed a new middle class. They could now buy more luxury goods that could only be obtained from outside Europe’s borders, and this stimulated both the distant trade and the more efficient three-mast ships needed to engage in this trade.

The growing wealth of the new middle class also stimulated patronage of the arts, sciences, literature and philosophy. The result was an explosion of cultural and intellectual creativity – what we now call it Renaissance.

Our present future

None of this is to say that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic will have the same devastating consequences for the Earth. death rate COVID-19 is not like the epidemics discussed above, so the consequences may not be seismic.

But there are some signs that this might happen.

Will the faltering efforts of open Western societies succeed in controlling the shattered virus? An already wavering faith in liberal democracyCreate a space for other ideologies to develop and spread?

Likewise, COVID-19 may indeed be accelerating Ongoing geopolitical transformation In the balance of power between the United States and China. During the epidemic, China took the lead globally in providing medical assistance to other countries as part of theSilk Road Health” Initiative. Some argue That the combination of America’s failure to lead and the relative success of China in picking up the recession may be a turbo boost for China’s rise to a global leadership position.

Finally, COVID-19 appears to be accelerating Uncover entrenched work patterns and practices, With repercussions that may affect the future of office towers, megacities, and mass transit, to name a few. The implications of this and related economic developments may prove to be as profoundly transformed as those brought about by the Black Death in 1347.

Ultimately, the long-term consequences of this pandemic – like all previous pandemics – are simply unknown to those who must endure them. But just as previous epidemics made the world we currently live in, it is also possible that this plague will remake the world our grandchildren and grandchildren inhabit.

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