How Covid-19 Will Change Us: Seven Lessons from the Most Consequential Pandemics in History

Most civilizations have suffered deadly pandemics; some have been destroyed by them. From the Plague of Athens, which denied that city-state an early victory in their war with Sparta, to the Black Death, which killed some 40 percent of Europeans in the mid-fourteenth century, history suggests deadly communicable diseases impact societies in consistent ways.

Here are seven historical lessons from the pandemics of the past. Each of them offers important lessons for how we should expect Covid-19 to affect us in 2020 and beyond.

Lesson One: Militarism Stalls

Past pandemics have subdued warfare, and by reducing manpower and complicating battle plans that require massed formations, plagues have usually had a greater impact on offensive operations than defensive ones. The Russian Plague of 1771, for example, forced Empress Catherine the Great to reduce conscription quotas and eventually accept a negotiated settlement over Poland, a territory she was fighting Prussia for at the time. The Plague of Athens in 430 BCE caused a pause in their offensive against Sparta and meant the Peloponnesian Wars would drag on much longer than they would have without the pandemic. The Spanish Flu of 1918 undermined militaristic sentiment in the Central Powers of the World War I, while the Antonine and Justinian plagues, four centuries apart, both stopped the Roman Empire from stamping out its enemies at the time. During Europe’s Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), localized outbreaks of plague in parts of modern-day Germany caused people to flee, meaning they couldn’t grow the crops needed to support an army, depleting its fighting prowess.

If this pattern repeats with Covid-19, we may see less belligerence from Tehran, which has already suffered greatly from the disease, and Pyongyang, which is probably lying when it claims so far to be relatively clear of the disease. Already, there are signs that the pandemic is leading to—or being used as a cover for—cease-fires in several long-running conflicts around the world, such as in Yemen. But the novel coronavirus may also prompt adversaries to change, rather than end, their activities. Russia and China, for example, have so far scaled up considerably their disinformation campaigns against NATO countries this year.

Lesson Two: Government Authority Is Doubted

Pandemics have usually raised political questions, either at the time of the outbreak or as society works through the aftermath. During the Black Death, for example, many Europeans literally “lost faith” in Christianity after their belief in an all-powerful God failed to protect them in the way they had expected. Three decades after that plague, peasants in England revolted in mass protest against King Richard II’s harsh measures—policies he had enacted in response to that disease. The Athenian leader Pericles had his leadership questioned when there was a lethal outbreak of typhus in his ancient city-state, to which Pericles himself succumbed. Typhus also killed Saladin, the charismatic sultan who had fought off the Third Crusade. Saladin’s death resulted in the de facto caliphate under his control being split, prompting fratricidal feuds between his successors. More parochially, outbreaks have led to more specific political changes: the Groningen epidemic in 1826, for example, in which malaria killed some 10 percent of people in parts of the Netherlands, was blamed on poor administration of the dikes and led to major changes in how the floodplains were protected from the sea.

Today, political questions are already being asked of leaders and other public authorities leading responses to the virus. Modern communications mean it is now much easier to compare these performances: relative failure is more obvious than in earlier centuries. Societies led by elderly men—the demographic most at risk for Covid-19—and countries that enjoyed plentiful revenue from oil exports before the virus, face a particular risk of instability. Coupled with generally poor health care systems, the political impact of the virus may be greatest in the least developed countries, a fact not yet apparent because the coronavirus spread to richer countries first.

Lesson Three: Superstition and Fake News Prosper

Quarantine and isolation, as well as the failure of previously respected models of thinking to anticipate a pandemic, have often given rise to superstition. Some of this has manifested as spurious notions on what might prevent or cure a disease. Woolen cholera belts, for example, were thought to ward off the waterborne disease, which killed millions in the nineteenth century. Around the same time, tuberculosis was commonly blamed on dead relatives “rising from graves,” a superstition reported to have inspired the idea that the disease could only be stopped if victims were impaled by a stake. Historical records of earlier pandemics have reported desperation, fervor, and psychosis accompanying physical symptoms, as desperate victims have sought explanations or salvation from diseases. Several chroniclers have reported on the fatalism of people upon discovering they were infected, and even those who escaped often changed their behavior in recognition that they may have a very short time to live.

In 2020, Covid-19 has provided fresh opportunities for the spread of systematic disinformation and accidental misinformation. While the internet and other media mean we are less detached from each other than the populations that went through previous pandemics, we should still expect a rise in non-conventional beliefs—one of the most bizarre so far is the entirely spurious suggestion that 5G technology somehow causes the coronavirus. How much these views can be confined to the fringe remains uncertain.

Lesson Four: Xenophobia and Scapegoating Abound

Scapegoating is a common feature of many pandemics: while solidarity can increase within a community, those deemed to be outside it are often blamed for spreading the disease. The Black Death in the 1340s, for example, resulted in renewed anti-Semitism, much of it murderous, and hostility toward Romani, pilgrims, and beggars. Lepers, some of whom had skin lesions that looked like plague buboes, were particularly ostracized. Almost all pandemics, from ancient times to the present, bring a suspicion of foreigners, and people in quarantine have often been the victims of violence, such as the riots in New York in 1892 against a tranche of immigrants thought to be bringing cholera into the city. But several pandemics—including waves of syphilis, typhus, and smallpox in Europe—stand out for not having given rise to widely recorded scapegoating. Also, scapegoating can be reversed: HIV and AIDS initially prompted antipathy toward homosexuals, who suffered most from the disease, but the decades since the 1980s have seen a growing acceptance of LGBT rights around the world.

As with AIDS, Covid-19 has engendered some xenophobia and scapegoating—some ethnically-Chinese people in Western countries have been assaulted, and attitudes to foreigners, such as those on cruise ships, has at times been uncharitable. Most recently, President Trump has sought to scapegoat the World Health Organization. But, so far, scapegoating of demographic groups has been minimal. In the coming months, most democracies are likely to initiate thorough investigations into all aspects of the disease. We should hope their reports assign blame and responsibility in a responsible and fair way.

Lesson Five: New Economic Winners and Losers

Historical pandemics had profound economic effects, especially those that killed substantial numbers of people. When the Black Death killed almost half the population in Europe, laborers were able to demand much higher wages, and the rental value of agricultural land declined. Food prices also fell, although the cost of some imported goods rose. Several plagues and pandemics have seen the destruction of wealth and redistribution of assets, usually with a larger impact on richer people, and thus reduced inequality. Governments, meanwhile, have been forced to contend with a diminished tax base. The Antonine Plague (165-180 CE) coincided with the debasement of Roman coinage, while Emperor Justinian regarded death from plague in the 540s as tax evasion and insisted on raising levies from the families of the deceased on their behalf. In 1381, King Richard II sought to remedy his declining coffers with a poll tax, which demanded everyone pay the same amount, regardless of their income, the exact opposite of a universal basic income (UBI), which has come to the fore in the contemporary debate about Covid-19.

While Covid-19 is not expected to kill nearly as high a proportion of people as historical pandemics, profound economic effects are expected, nonetheless. Already, global supply chains are being questioned, “just-in-time” delivery systems are amplifying economic shockwaves, and migrant labor is being turned away. Globalization seems to be going into reverse. Some key workers, especially in the health and care sectors, may end up with higher wages, potentially regarded as hazard pay, while certain sectors may suffer long-term problems, including restaurants, airlines, and some mass-spectator sports. It is naive to expect a vaccine rolled out in 2021 could bring back the economic ecosystem lost to the virus this year. Meanwhile, the unprecedented levels of government debt and monetary stimulus taken on to shore up the private sector could well lead to higher inflation for goods and services in the 2020s, just as the stimulus after the 2008 stoked asset-price inflation.

Lesson Six: Some Groups Suffer Much More than Others

Although pandemics can have a leveling impact economically, socially they often impact some groups much more than others. Generally, those who have benefited from good nutrition have fared much better than others: the 736-737 smallpox epidemic in Japan, for example, seems to have killed a disproportionate number of rice farmers, while fatalities within the royal court were regarded as exceptional. The well-fed French premier, Louis-Napoleon, was able to exploit the public relations benefit of a visit to cholera victims in 1849 without contracting the disease himself. In contrast, those who have treated victims of a pandemic have always been at greater risk—undertakers and gravediggers throughout the centuries, monks and nuns who offered respite during the Black Death, and medical workers in contemporary times. Sometimes, the genetics of an illness has been skewed toward particular demographics: some 80 percent of indigenous people in parts of North America were killed by the cocoliztli (possibly salmonella) epidemic in the 1540s, while European settlers were affected much less. The Spanish Flu of 1918 hit adults aged 20-40 years old particularly hard; older people were relatively unscathed and may have acquired some immunity from a similar pandemic three decades earlier. Cohorts in utero during that flu also went on to suffer relatively higher rates of physical disability and lower levels of educational attainment.

It has already been widely documented that Covid-19 is most lethal to elderly people: the median age of death in some countries is around 80. Men may be dying from the illness twice as much as women, and those with some underlying conditions, such as cancer, diabetes, and hypertension, are also more vulnerable, as are people who smoke. Markedly higher death rates among African Americans has also been reported, although why this is has not yet been completely explained.

Lesson Seven: Collective Shock Expressed through New Culture

Plagues and pandemics have often been the most profound and shocking events for the people who experienced them, and the collective expression of this shock has often been through culture. Several renowned books, from Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales to Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, were written as reflections on the Black Death. English diarist Samuel Pepys and the Roman chronicler Livy both offered shocking non-fiction accounts of the plagues in their respective eras. Pandemics have also played a role in prompting grand new city plans, from wider boulevards to strategic plans for new cemeteries away from population centers, such as the ring of new Russian burial grounds establish around Moscow in 1771. Whether pandemics promote or repress culture overall is hard to judge: the Black Death was one of several factors that sparked the Renaissance, while plagues in earlier times contributed to an extended the Dark Ages, widely regarded as a cultural nadir for Europe.

Although the lockdowns that began in many countries in March were celebrated by some as an opportunity for people to undertake new cultural or arts projects, the quality of these efforts may well be varied. As with the Spanish Flu, which was followed by the “Roaring Twenties,” people may prefer to consign the past away rather than dwell on it: after weeks of relentless media coverage on Covid-19, books about the pandemic may miss their audience, for the time being at least. We should expect the full cultural impact of the pandemic to be delayed. Just as it took U.S. cinema at least a decade to offer reflections on the Vietnam war, it may take several years for the abnormality of a current pandemic to be reflected in art and culture.

Iain King is a visiting fellow with the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Iain King