The current coronavirus pandemic, buzzwords and phrases like flattening the curve and death rates per country’ or per million, debates over the availability of medical devices, the likely impact on the national and global economy dominate the news headlines. We’ve probably seen the word ‘unprecedented’ used more in the past two months than it has in the past decade.
But is this health crisis really unprecedented? And, if history is indeed a playbook for the future, what comes next?
The Athenian Plague (429 BC)
Athens was under siege by the Spartans. Its population had been swollen by farmers and merchants seeking shelter within the city walls. And when plague arrived through the seaport and trade hub of Piraeus, it spread like wildfire, claiming between 75,000 and 100,000 victims.
Second and third waves of the plague came after the initial outbreak, eventually bringing Athenian Democracy to its knees. Beyond the devastating loss of life, the Athenian Plague had wide-ranging social and economic consequences, such as:
- Draconian laws were implemented from the newly founded democracy. The Metics, as non-Athenian immigrants were known, saw their status reduced to that of slaves when captured with forged documentation.
- It was the tipping point that sparked the fall of Athens as a superpower, though it took another disastrous decision that followed the plague to fully diminish the influence of the city-state.
The Black Death (1347 AC)
The Black Plague, as the bubonic plague that originated in Asia, was dubbed, followed the Silk Road, and entered Europe by its seaports. It spread rapidly, killing 30-60% of the continent’s population. Among the cities to fall was the greatest metropolis of the time, Constantinople, where thousands had their lives ripped away, including the Emperor’s son. In this plague as well, the first outbreak which lasted a year, was succeeded by at least ten more before 1400 AC.
The social, economic, and religious effects were enormous:
- Fanaticism bloomed among the religious throughout Europe and ethnic minorities such as Jews were treated as scapegoats for the crisis. In response, Jewish communities in Germanic cities such as Strasbourg, Mainz, and Cologne relocated en masse to friendlier parts in Poland. Any similarity with more contemporary events are anything but coincidental.
- The Byzantine Empire was gradually reduced to a mere shadow of its previous prestige and power while the feudal economic system steadily collapsed across Europe after the plague.
The Spanish Flu (1918)
Parallels between the Spanish Flu and the coronavirus pandemic are easier to draw due to time proximity. The spread of the 1918 pandemic was facilitated by colonialism and rapidly developing transportation systems, built to serve trading empires that blossomed with the Industrial Revolution. And the close encounters of troops in the trenches of the First World War furthered its spread in Europe which suffered the greatest death toll. Then, like now, some communities responded by imposing quarantines, shutting down public places, and imposing safety measures such as wearing masks and discouraging physical contact.
- Although no obvious religious or social upsets were documented in the aftermath of this influenza, the inward-looking protectionist mindset brought about fed nationalist sentiment that eventually led to the rise of Hitler and World War II.
- The shift in power was more subtle than before. It was neither immediate nor automatic. It took another catastrophic World War which ravaged Europe, after which the United States and the Soviet Union emerged as superpowers.
- As the 1918 pandemic is more recent, we have greater historical documents to learn from. Records from the US show that States which acted fast and firmly, by introducing quarantines, suffered less, even though the second wave of the Spanish Flu proved much more lethal. Dr. Wilmer Krusen, Director of Public Health of the City of Philadelphia, believed the fatalities were only due to the normal flu and, as a result, permitted thousands to attend the Liberty Loan Parade. The result was catastrophic: a death toll of 15,000.
Looking at the human history of pandemics, some correlations are clear:
- Each disease came in multiple waves. Each successive outbreak was easier to tackle if the first was dealt with effectively.
- With nationalist and populist sentiment again gaining traction across Europe and the United States, it looks likely that some will put the blame on religious and ethnic minorities in this pandemic too. History shows that societies need scapegoats during and after a crisis, perhaps as an easier alternative to self-examination. Blaming minorities is humanity’s oldest and most effective trick.
- Although history is not an exact science, it can teach valuable lessons for the present and near economic future. Superpowers had been among the victims of past pandemics, with the health crisis and its aftermaths signaling their decline.
Without wishing to raise an alarmist note amid the already dampened pandemic mood and if history indeed repeats itself, the questions in doubt should be:
Will Asian, Muslim, Hispanic and other minorities in Europe and the US be among the long-term victims of the current crisis? Could the Western economies suffer more in the aftermath of the crisis due to the delay of imposing early containment measures giving space to newcomers such as China to prevail? We will be finding out soon enough.
Written by Thomas Katakis; editing and curating by Amanda Millen. Have you read?
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