History of Pandemics and Post-Corona world


Pallavi Sareen

From stopping Napolean’s all-world expansion plans to ushering into the era of Renaissance, pandemics and epidemics have changed the course of history drastically. Witnessing the beginning of this new pandemic which engulfs us right now, one can easily wonder if such a drastic change in society awaits us too.

A true scale Epidemic was first seen in 541-542 AD (which later recurred until 750 AD) which affected the Byzantine Roman Empire and ultimately led to the downfall of the Roman Empire as we know it. It was named after the then ruler and called the “Plague of Justinian”. According to historians, it is believed to have wiped out half of the world’s population at the time by killing 30-50 million people.

The plague had come at a critical point in history when the Justinian armies had nearly conquered all of Italy. As Constantinople weakened, trade ceased and his plans for a unified Roman empire failed. The Western Roman Empire collapsed and the world entered the dark ages soon after. The peoples of Europe struggled to define new forms of society, and all the metrics associated with development, whether science or culture were at its lowest.  From 7th century to 14th century, before the renaissance, everything hit rock bottom.

Before Renaissance, which literally translates to “rebirth”, an estimated 25 million people died due to one of the most dreadful pandemics known as Black Death. It originated in China during the 1300s and spread across Europe during 1346-53 killing almost a third of the continent’s population. It remained for centuries and killed one-fifth of London’s population during 1665-66. After the Black Death, many socio-economic changes occurred in the society which later contributed towards the Renaissance. After the epidemics, human society gets affected in many ways. The Black Death made people question man’s association with God.

There was also an economic crisis as trade was halted and later, due to a shortage of the labour force because of the plague, wages of the workers rose. The survivors of the Black Death had a higher living standard. Religious fervour increased but the survivors also questioned authority since the experience had changed their mental outlook dramatically.

After the initial horrors, many socio-economic, cultural and religious reformations occurred in Italian society that made the Renaissance possible.

The Yellow Fever which originated in Africa and later spread to the New World in the 1500s contributed to the formation of Haitian Republic. It struck the Napolean forces and destroyed his expansion plans at a critical time. One-third of his brother-in-law LeClerc’s original force which had been sent to take over Haiti succumbed to yellow fever. Napolean not only gave up on the Island but also sold Louisiana to U.S.A. His France’s New World Empire dreams remained a dream and with the Louisiana Purchase, U.S.A nearly doubled in size. The Yellow fever impacted South America mainly due to the slave trade and was one of the most dangerous diseases during the 18th and 19th century.

Chronologically, the next pandemic which is much similar to the current Coronavirus Pandemic is the Spanish Flu. However, the name itself is a misnomer since it didn’t originate in Spain. It came in three waves, starting from 1918 during the First World war and killed 2.5 % of the global population according to current estimates, infecting 500 million people which was about one-third of the world population. It transformed the public health perspective. Even though the poor and the immigrants died more due to plagues and pandemics, the Spanish Flu made it known that no one was immune and thus, many countries embraced a new health policy – free healthcare for all. This differed from the earlier approach wherein public health meant taking measures to protect the elite.

Coronavirus Pandemic, though not as deadly as Spanish Flu or Black death has locked up the world population in their homes and has already taken the lives of 388,354 people across the globe. Despite better healthcare, more awareness and a specialised agency such as the World Health Organisation in place, United States of America which is a developed country has already recorded 109,146 deaths so far. Many other developed countries like Russia, Spain, Italy, France, UK and Germany have also been worst hit by this Pandemic with the highest death toll and number of infected patients.

We learn from history so we do not repeat it but throughout history, a pattern has emerged regarding human behaviour and how societies respond to plagues, pandemics and other uncontrollable catastrophes which impact the global population.

No doubt with the curbing of COVID-19 with passing time and hopefully eradicating it as early as possible, there is a certainty in changes in the global and local scenario as history has repeatedly suggested. Some of the changes that are on the cards would be Universal Basic Income, Digital workspace and remote working, Globalisation and better public health set-up among others. But while ‘change’ is often associated with betterment, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be the path followed by the Post-Corona world. On the flip side of it is graver unemployment issues especially in third world countries, wider wealth inequality, racial demonization and establishment of a police state in countries with authoritarian regimes.

While Chief Economist of International Monetary Fund Gita Gopinath compared the current economic crisis with the Great Recession and Great Depression, Spain became the first European Country to think about introducing Universal Basic income. The changes are already occurring amidst the Coronavirus Lockdown but the severity of Covid-19 would determine whether the rest of the world follows. Among the countries that are exemplary in their response to Coronavirus is Taiwan which was among the worst-hit regions during the SARS outbreak. It learnt its lesson the hard way about the importance of public healthcare and immediate response to epidemics.

This may set the precedent as to how countries should better equip themselves for such crisis in future. A humanitarian argument is to strengthen the weakest section of society which is worst hit during such Pandemics through concepts like Universal Basic Income. The idea of Universal Basic Income has been gaining traction in the West. But UBI as a notion is resisted at ideological and political levels. Amid the Pandemic, Spain is introducing UBI and even considering making it a permanent feature of its economy but the rest of the world is yet to follow.

In India, compared to a farmer-centric scheme, universal basic income holds greater appeal. Since it does not discriminate based on occupation or land ownership and with Direct Benefit Transfer, the chance of middleman taking its cut is reduced, it is an idea to experiment with.

Another change which the world is forced to accept now is Automation and Remote Working. The concept of Work from Home is not a new one but while nearly two-thirds of the planet’s population is in some kind of lockdown, already working remotely, it makes one reconsider our pace of automation. This also impacts understanding of human-to-human engagement and will have further implications on “the market”.

The market itself will also go through a seismic shift but its exact consequences cannot be predicted. There are two sides of the coin as can be seen from the existing situation. The economy is so down with most of the work suspended that the lower-middle-class strata has to tap into its savings for running day-to-day operations and is thus cautious of each penny spent from its pockets. On the other hand, the Hashtag culture has made sheep out of the middle classes who have to jump onto the next trend even if it means temporary pleasure for long-term woes. The instances of Dalgona Coffee craze which took social media by the storm as compared to the people spending their extra income delivering ration to the poor shows that the priorities of the civil society, as well as their perception might also see a sudden change.

The final factor is globalisation. Globalisation has allowed for a much quicker spread of such infectious viruses across the globe as compared to earlier eras. But it has also allowed for the smoother and quicker flow of information, stronger pressure upon world leaders to make quick decisions during a crisis and a general awareness which sensitizes people regarding mass suffering instead of selective consciousness.


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