COVID-19 Chronicles: How epidemics shape societies

Throughout history, global epidemics and widespread illnesses have strained societies, tanked economies and tested faith. As the novel coronavirus brings the vast global machinery to a grinding halt, we go back in time to see what history has to teach us. After all, COVID-19 is only the latest round in an age-old struggle.

COVID-19 is wrecking havoc in our hyperconnected world. It has already affected 1.9 million people around the globe, and the situation is expected to become much worse before it starts to get better. Large swaths of populations across the globe are in lockdowns of varying intensities and the global economy is in free fall. But what might be the impact of COVID-19 on our collective conscience? Let us take a cue from history to see how might this pandemic shape our society.

Inequality — Health & Income

On the face of it, the current crisis looks like an equal opportunity disease. It is affecting the rich and the powerful  actors and politicians are not exempt from its wrath — as much as it is affecting the poor. As stock markets tank, it is affecting both lungs and wallets. Some might say that coronavirus is the harbinger of equality. I beg to differ.

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Source: Princeton University Press article

Inequality has fluctuated quite wildly over the past few centuries or so. Available data suggests that wars, revolutions and sweeping epidemics throughout history have had tremendous equalising effects on ravaged societies. But should we be happy about it?

Catastrophes have the sombre effect of making the rich less rich, but there are no real gains made by the poor. What’s more, this reduction in inequality  brought about by an external event that leads to loss of life and destruction of property — is reversed as quickly as it appears.

At best, equality brought about by catastrophes is ephemeral and perverted.

Inequality in health outcomes

Historical evidence suggests that when a malady is less understood, it cuts across social rank and class. The bubonic plague in the 14th century England killed as many aristocrats as beggars. Similarly, no one, rich or poor, understood how to protect themselves against smallpox.

A key change came with the introduction of the smallpox vaccine in the 18th century. As is obvious, the antidote was first made available to people at the top — the likes of kings, dukes and knights. It took another century for effects to trickle down to the general population.

400 years on, tremendous scientific improvements have been made. We definitely won’t have to wait centuries before a cure is found for COVID-19. But the odds are that once we have an antidote, not everyone will benefit from it equally. It is a sad reality that wellbeing of the rich takes precedence over wellbeing of the masses.

Income inequality

Sure, COVID-19 is affecting all lives. But not all lives are affected equally. With each passing day it becomes evident that the disruptions caused by COVID-19 disproportionately affect those at the bottom of the ladder. According to ILO, 90.8% people in the bottom 25 income percentile in the US cannot potentially work-from-home, and are at risk of losing their jobs (compared to 38.5% for the top 25). Left to their own devices, millions will perish from hunger.

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Xenophobia & Racism

One might expect a collective misfortune of such epic proportions to bring societies together in grief and suffering. On the contrary, new diseases bring out a culture’s deepest phobias. Epidemics uncover seething racism and deep-rooted hatred that threatens to upends society. When people don’t understand a malady and are helpless to protect themselves against it, they resort to finding scapegoats. Outbreak of syphilis in 15th century Italy offers is an example.

The ghastly nature of the disease became secondary as a vicious blame-game ensued about who brought the disease. Various names were given to the disease to put blame on and persecute minorities: the Neapolitan disease outside Naples, the French disease outside France, the Polish disease in Germany, and the German disease in Poland. You get the idea.

Further back in history, during the first wave of the bubonic plague in 14th century Europe, jews were massacred for supposedly poisoning wells and inflicting horrors of black death upon the Christian masses. In Strasbourg alone, some 2000 Jews were grotesquely slaughtered. Across Europe, a witch hunt ensued and thousands of jews were hacked to death or burned at stake.

Fast forward to 2020, the American administration has dubbed COVID-19 as the ‘Chinese virus’, Africans are being ostracised in China for spreading coronavirus and Jamaatis in India are nick-named suicide bombers for failing to respect quarantine instructions. Clearly, more needs to be done to contain harmful stereotypes that surface during testing times. Epidemics must not be made vehicles for spreading racism and xenophobia.

Social relations

Today, as we find ourselves in indeterminate lockdowns and unprecedented restrictions on mobility, we’re faced with a dual tragedy. It’s not just the economy that is going to hell, cities themselves are going bung, deprived of sociability and amiability. Empty roads and desolate boulevards are the new norm. With people trapped inside faceless buildings, cities are losing their vital energy that comes from gatherings.

Historically, friendships have perished during epidemics. The earliest account of plague by Thucydides (an Athenian historian and general) describes “dejection of mind” as its biggest casualty, brought on by severing of friendship. During the plague, visiting the sick meant inviting a death sentence, so many of those who perished died alone, with nobody at their bedside.

In this age of technology, much has changed.

Distrust still looms large and suspicion still hangs in the air. Nobody wants to be in the company of anybody. But our generation of the plagued is more fortunate. We have at our disposal Facebook, Zoom and Skype to provide virtual comfort to the sick in ways denied to our ancestors. In that sense, technology has finally shown its benevolent side and might help in preventing any widespread damage to our societal fabric.

History tells us that epidemics traverse four distinct stages as they evolve  denial, panic, fear and intervention. We’re now at stage 4 of the COVID-19 crisis. Time will tell if we emerge from this crisis a better, more conscious society, or we step back in time and lose moral gains we’ve made over the past half century or so.

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