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‘How ‘3 prior pandemics’ triggered massive societal shifts?’

Published: 5th Oct, 2020

Pandemics can alter a society’s fundamental worldview, upend core economic structures and sway power struggles among nations


Pandemics can alter a society’s fundamental worldview, upend core economic structures and sway power struggles among nations


  • Before March of this year, few probably thought disease could be a significant driver of human history.
  • Not so anymore. People are beginning to understand that the little changes COVID-19 has already ushered in or accelerated – telemedicine, remote work, social distancing, the death of the handshake, online shopping, the virtual disappearance of cash and so on – have begun to change `their way of life.
    • They may not be sure whether these changes will outlive the pandemic.
    • And they may be uncertain whether these changes are for good or ill.
  • Three previous plagues could yield some clues about the way COVID-19 might bend the arc of history.
  • Pandemics tend to shape human affairs in three ways.
    • They can profoundly alter a society’s fundamental worldview
    • They can upend core economic structures
    • They can sway power struggles among nations

Sickness spurs the rise of the Christian West

  • Where: Roman Empire
  • When: D. 165 to A.D. 262
  • Impact: It’s been estimated that the combined pandemics’ (Antonine plague, and its twin, the Cyprian plague) mortality rate was anywhere from one-quarter to one-third of the empire’s population.
  • While staggering, the number of deaths tells only part of the story. This also triggered a profound transformation in the religious culture of the Roman Empire.
  • On the eve of the Antonine plague, the empire was pagan. The vast majority of the population worshipped multiple gods and spirits and believed that rivers, trees, fields and buildings each had their own spirit.
  • Christianity, a monotheistic religion that had little in common with paganism, had only 40,000 adherents, no more than 0.07% of the empire’s population.
  • Yet within a generation of the end of the Cyprian plague, Christianity had become the dominant religion in the empire.

The plague of Justinian and the fall of Rome

  • Where: Roman Empire
  • When:D. 542 – A.D. 755
  • Impact: During its two centuries of recurrence, it killed an estimated 25% to 50% of the population – anywhere from 25 million to 100 million people.
  • This massive loss of lives crippled the economy, triggering a financial crisis that exhausted the state’s coffers and hobbled the empire’s once mighty military.
  • In the east, Rome’s principal geopolitical rival, Sassanid Persia, was also devastated by the plague and was therefore in no position to exploit the Roman Empire’s weakness.
  • But the forces of the Islamic Rashidun Caliphate in Arabia – which had long been contained by the Romans and Sasanians – were largely unaffected by the plague.
  • Caliph Abu Bakr didn’t let the opportunity go to waste. Seizing the moment, his forces swiftly conquered the entire Sasanian Empire while stripping the weakened Roman Empire of its territories in the Levant, the Caucasus, Egypt and North Africa.
  • Pre-pandemic, the Mediterranean world had been relatively unified by commerce, politics, religion and culture.
  • What emerged was a fractured trio of civilizations jockeying for power and influence:
    • an Islam ic one in the eastern and southern Mediterranean basin
    • a Greek one in the northeastern Mediterranean
    • a European one between the western Mediterranean and the North Sea.
  • This last civilization – what we now call medieval Europe – was defined by a new, distinctive economic system.
  • Before the plague, the European economy had been based on slavery.
  • After the plague, the significantly diminished supply of slaves forced landowners to begin granting plots to nominally “free” laborers – serfs who worked the lord’s fields and, in return, received military protection and certain legal rights from the lord.
  • The seeds of feudalism were planted.

The Black Death of the Middle Ages

  • Where: Europe
  • When: 1347
  • Impact: It subsequently killed between one-third and one-half of the total European population of 80 million people.
  • But it killed more than people. By the time the pandemic had burned out by the early 1350s, a distinctly modern world emerged – one defined by free labor, technological innovation and a growing middle class.
  • Before the Yersinia pestis bacterium arrived in 1347, Western Europe was a feudal society that was overpopulated.
  • Labor was cheap, serfs had little bargaining power, social mobility was stymied and there was little incentive to increase productivity.
  • But the loss of so much life shook up an ossified society.
  • Labor shortages gave peasants more bargaining power. In the agrarian economy, they also encouraged the widespread adoption of new and existing technologies – the iron plow, the three-field crop rotation system and fertilization with manure, all of which significantly increased productivity.
  • Beyond the countryside, it resulted in the invention of time and labor-saving devices such as the printing press, water pumps for draining mines and gunpowder weapons.
  • In turn, freedom from feudal obligations and a desire to move up the social ladder encouraged many peasants to move to towns and engage in crafts and trades.
  • The more successful ones became wealthier and constituted a new middle class.
  • They could now afford more of the luxury goods that could be obtained only from beyond Europe’s frontiers, and this stimulated both long-distance trade and the more efficient three-masted ships needed to engage in that trade.
  • The new middle class’s increasing wealth also stimulated patronage of the arts, science, literature and philosophy.
  • The result was an explosion of cultural and intellectual creativity – what we now call the

Our present future

  • None of this is to argue that the still-ongoing COVID-19 pandemic will have similarly earth-shattering outcomes.
  • The mortality rate of COVID-19 is nothing like that of the plagues discussed above, and therefore the consequences may not be as seismic.
  • In a similar fashion, COVID-19 may be accelerating an already ongoing geopolitical shift in the balance of power between the U.S. and China.
  • During the pandemic, China has taken the global lead in providing medical assistance to other countries as part of its “Health Silk Road” initiative.
  • Some argue that the combination of America’s failure to lead and China’s relative success at picking up the slack may well be turbo charging China’s rise to a position of global leadership.
  • Finally, COVID-19 seems to be accelerating the unraveling of long-established patterns and practices of work, with repercussions that could affect the future of office towers, big cities and mass transit, to name just a few.
  • The implications of this and related economic developments may prove as profoundly transformative as those triggered by the Black Death in 1347.


Ultimately, the longer-term consequences of this pandemic – like all previous pandemics – are simply unknowable to those who must endure them. But just as past plagues made the world we currently inhabit, so too will this pandemic likely remake the one populated by our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

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