Covid-19 is far from the first pandemic the world has faced.
The bubonic plague first emerged in history during the sixth century CE. Called the Plague of Justinian, it spread rapidly around the Mediterranean, the Eastern Roman Empire and the Sassanian Empire, killing off an estimated one-third of the population. Some estimates put the death toll at 5,000 per day in the capital, Constantinople. Even the Roman Emperor, Justinian, was infected, although he recovered.
So how did people react then? With fear, panic, irrationality and a fervent turn to religiousity.
Today’s pandemic has some disturbing parallels.
Doctors and workers in hospitals (which were mostly run by the Church then) risked their own lives to provide what care and comfort they could for the afflicted and dying. Many of them died from the same disease they were treating.
So many people died, so quickly, there was not room in the cemeteries to bury them. Soon, there were not enough left alive to carry away the dead, and bodies littered the streets.
In the countryside, there were not enough farmers left alive to tend and harvest crops. The prices of grain rose.
Tax receipts fell, weakening the Empire and ending Justinian’s dream of reconquering the lost Western Empire.
The Eastern Roman Empire had actually reconquered large parts of Italy, Africa and the Iberian peninsula (modern Spain). But the plague killed too many Romans to let them hang onto those gains.
Back in the 14th
Plague returned to medieval Europe in the 14th century as the Black Death. It killed a third to half of Europe, as well as great numbers in Asia and the Middle East.
Again, the extent of the calamity overwhelmed society’s ability to handle it. Bodies were dumped into mass graves and ditches. Huge areas of farmland lay fallow because there was no one to tend or harvest the crops.
The after-effects were transformative. Because of the huge loss of life, particularly in the working and lower classes, the cost of labour rose. Because of the lower demand, the cost of food and land fell. More people inherited land, and this destabilized feudalism.
The upheaval, combined with the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire and the influx of Greek scholars to Italy, sparked the Renaissance—a turning away from the focus on religion and the afterlife, to humanism.
It was a horrifying price to pay, but it was another turning point in the history of our civilization.
Will this pandemic be another turning point?
What will it change?
We are not in the same position as those who faced infectious pandemics in centuries past. We understand germs and viruses. We have the benefit of science. We can communicate and track the progress.
We can make productive decisions, if we choose to.
We can choose to save lives.
Maybe we can direct the coming transformation of our world in a way that’s sustainable, that’s better for the majority and not just an elite.
What do you think?