|The coronavirus outbreak has governments and health officials around the world searching for lessons from history. Past pandemics had far-reaching economic and social effects on the societies they swept through—which means we should prepare for all the possibilities as we look ahead. (The Washington Post)|
NH: I first became fascinated by this topic after reading University of Chicago historian William McNeill's masterful Plagues and Peoples (1976). Many younger readers were first introduced to it by Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel (1999). A new (if painfully progressive) primer, Epidemics and Society, was just released last year by emeritus Howard professor Frank M. Snowdon, who was just interviewed in The New Yorker.
These authors deny that disease and epidemics are mere random accidents of history having no long-term significance. Instead, they argue, humanity has developed from the very beginning in the context of an intimate symbiosis with microscopic pathogens. That symbiosis has systematically determined the geography, growth, number, politics, and institutions of societies worldwide. And the symbiosis is still at work today. The argument should cheer any radical environmentalist who today bemoans modernity's ruthless despoliation of the earth's flora and fauna. Ready for battle, the protozoa, bacteria, viruses, and viroids remain capable of exacting revenge against homo sapiens. What could more delight the authors of the Green New Deal than a satellite photo of China in late February, showing pristine clear skies for the first time since the Great Famine under Mao?
Clearly, epidemics have triggered most (if not nearly all) of the great die-offs that have steered the course of civilizations. The great Antonine Plague of the late 2nd century AD in Italy, probably smallpox or measles, initiated the steady depopulation of the western Roman empire which would eventually prove terminal in the late 5th century. The horrendous Plague of Justinian in the 6th century (probably Yersinia Pestis or bubonic plague) foiled Constantinople's bid to reassert Roman authority over the west and nearly caused Byzantium to succumb to the growing Islamic Caliphate two centuries later.
Everyone is familiar with the Black or Bubonic Plague that killed one-third to one-half of Europe in the mid-14th century. Europe's population didn't recover its earlier 1346 population peak until two centuries later, in the mid-1500s. That plague led directly to the end of serfdom, the rise of the small yeoman landowner, the decline of regional nobility, and the rising power of nation states. It certainly spelled finis to medieval Christendom.
Or what about the arrival in the New World of conquistadors and other European adventurers? They introduced the lethal diseases that ultimately killed off at least 90% of the indigenous Amerindian population by the mid-17th century. Some scientists think this die-off may have promoted such rapid re-forestation in the New World that it significantly reduced atmospheric CO2, helping to trigger the well-known "Little Age Ice" of the late 17th and 18th centuries.
The timing of these disasters is not random. Typically, these great epidemics occur after eras of rapid population growth, of rising mobility and long-distance travel, and of growing urbanization and population density.
Population growth tends to bring inferior land into cultivation, which in turn lowers the marginal product of agriculture, undermines living standards, depletes diets (of protein, especially), weakens people's immunity, and renders them ready for a "Malthusian shock." That was certainly the case for famine-ridden western Europe in the early 14th century.
Rising long-distance travel matters because it transmits regional pathogens to new and unprotected populations and increases the odds of more "effective" mutations. At the height of the imperial Pax Romana, traders could safely travel from Londinium to Arabia Petra and thereafter (by sea) to India. By the late-13th century, after the Mongols had pacified the Asian steppes, traders like Marco Polo could for the first time travel safely back and forth from Venice to Cathay. These eras of flourishing "globalization" were followed by great plagues. The Black Death very specifically moved from marmots indigenous to the steppes to the rats and fleas that moved with traders west via the silk road. Eventually they ended up in galleys heading for Genoa in 1347.
As for urbanization and population density, well, that matters because it raises the transmissibility (or R0) of any disease. Historically, death rates are nearly always higher in cities, where "social distancing" is often not possible. An insightful Fed study on "The Economic Effects of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic" pointed out that, comparing 1918 to 2007 (when the study was published) the advantages of today's superior health technology have to be balanced against the disadvantages of much greater urbanization. The authors were unsure which way the balance would tip.
Disease helps explain the geographic pattern behind the spread of civilization itself since the neolithic revolution--that is, the location of affluent city-centered societies . McNeill points out that the greater number, diversity, and virulence of diseases in tropical climates (which are still a scourge in sub-Saharan Africa) tilted the playing field in favor of societies in the temperate latitudes. Diamond emphasizes the importance, in regions like the fertile crescent, of the ability to domesticate large numbers of draft animals. These animals both helped to improve agricultural productivity and also, as pathogen repositories, gradually acclimated regional populations to diseases that would later wipe out other populations.
Epidemics typically transform the social mood in a predictable direction. They tend to favor an expansion--sometimes a sudden expansion--in the power of political authorities, that is, whoever is "supposed to be in charge." That may be what happens in any crisis that triggers popular anxiety, interrupts trade and economic activity, and threatens public order. But also, in the case of epidemics, it often becomes obvious that public compliance with top-down directives is essential to any effective response.
Today, the sweeping and centralized mobilization of citizens in Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea is being compared favorably to the slower and less coordinated response of governments in western Europe and the United States. Confucian societies respond well to epidemics because citizens sign on quickly and fully to top-down authoritarian policies. Western cultures have many strengths, but this isn't one of them. For example, it took repeated cholera epidemics in London in the 1850s to persuade Britain to institute even the most rudimentary public health regulation.
Growing authoritarianism of course was already a prevailing trend of the late 2010s well before COVID-19 came along. So this trend will be reinforced. Isolationism, xenophobia, and ethnocentrism were also prevailing trends. And these too will be reinforced. National leaders all over the world are today in a race to "close borders." Even within nations, regions are growing suspicious of each other and rules discouraging transit from one community to another are common. Sometimes such shifts can help launch whole eras--as the Spanish Flu of 1918 (which of course wasn't "Spanish" at all) helped inspire, in America, a sudden shutdown of U.S. immigration in the early 1920s and the anti-foreign and isolationist mood of the rest of that decade.
Finally, epidemics throughout history bring people face to face with mortality. The typical reaction, as in Albert Camus' The Plague, is first denial and then panic, but finally acceptance. Epidemics help feed populist movements insofar as they "democratize" death, showing everyone that the rich and powerful are as mortal as the poor and lowly. Microbes know no rank. Today, the news that national leaders, business titans, and Hollywood celebrities can catch the infection just like anyone else has the potential to bring people together.
So along with xenophobia and fear, epidemics can also teach charity and compassion. The 2nd-century physician Galen (whose accounts of the Antonine Plague still survive) observed that pagans typically fled when encountering sick neighbors.
But many accounts testify that the early Christians were more likely to stay with their sick friends and care for them. Some historians believe this sort of behavior enabled more Christians to survive and gave them a demographic edge over time. In 313 AD, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. The church father Augustine wrote that there were few greater Christian miracles than the fact that such a despised religion, with so few initial followers, ever triumphed. Maybe epidemics, and the lessons they taught, had something to do with it.
FWIW, speaking of the great and powerful, the emperors Marcus Aurelius and Justinian both fell ill to a plague epidemic. Marcus died from it while campaigning on the Danube. Justinian survive it, though maybe he wished he hadn't --since he lived to witness all his victories reversed, his treasury bankrupted, and himself as emperor hated by his people.
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ABOUT NEIL HOWE
Neil Howe is a renowned authority on generations and social change in America. An acclaimed bestselling author and speaker, he is the nation's leading thinker on today's generations—who they are, what motivates them, and how they will shape America's future.
A historian, economist, and demographer, Howe is also a recognized authority on global aging, long-term fiscal policy, and migration. He is a senior associate to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., where he helps direct the CSIS Global Aging Initiative.
Howe has written over a dozen books on generations, demographic change, and fiscal policy, many of them with William Strauss. Howe and Strauss' first book, Generations is a history of America told as a sequence of generational biographies. Vice President Al Gore called it "the most stimulating book on American history that I have ever read" and sent a copy to every member of Congress. Newt Gingrich called it "an intellectual tour de force." Of their book, The Fourth Turning, The Boston Globe wrote, "If Howe and Strauss are right, they will take their place among the great American prophets."
Howe and Strauss originally coined the term "Millennial Generation" in 1991, and wrote the pioneering book on this generation, Millennials Rising. His work has been featured frequently in the media, including USA Today, CNN, the New York Times, and CBS' 60 Minutes.
Previously, with Peter G. Peterson, Howe co-authored On Borrowed Time, a pioneering call for budgetary reform and The Graying of the Great Powers with Richard Jackson.
Howe received his B.A. at U.C. Berkeley and later earned graduate degrees in economics and history from Yale University.