Death toll rising, financial crisis brewing, Governments trying to find ways to somehow restore stability, people growing restless with extended periods of social distancing & reports each day brimming with different sets of catastrophes adding to the already infelicitous quagmire.
Makes you think if we’ve finally hit the absolute rock bottom or if there’s ever going to be a way out of this.
But this has always been the case with pandemics; they wreak havoc and out humanity through unimaginable trials. But they have also been the drivers of change. Each time we’ve had a pandemic, humans have adapted, evolved, and come out of it anew.
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Looking back at the past is one way to gain hope and motivate us to look beyond this period of peril. It shows us that humanity has been subjected to worse, and we’ve still managed to get back on our feet.
The ruinous ‘Black Death’ traveled across Europe and Asia on ships via the trade routes when globalization was on the rise in the mid 14th century and devoured millions in its raid. The plague hit humanity at a time when the global population was combating poverty and famine, and hence, it was able to wipe out almost a third of Europe. Hospitals and funeral parlours were overwhelmed and corpses started piling up on the streets. The situation was so appalling that people believed that it was the end of the world.
However, the Black Death also had a lasting positive impact on socio-economic life. The practice of ‘Quarantine’ and ‘Social distancing’ became popular during this period and helped mitigate the spread of the Plague to a great extent. With the decrease in population, it was exceedingly hard to find labour, and this led to a rise in demand for skilled labour. The upper class was generally unskilled in professions that the peasants had mastered, and hence, as the demand for skilled labour increased, the lower-classes started demanding more pay and even organized revolts against the nobles and feudal lords. The feudal system ultimately collapsed as it could no longer function profitably due to the increased economic power of the lower classes. The Black Death perhaps fostered better business practices too as there is evidence to show how businessmen learned to take advantage of the adversity and managed risks effectively.
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Another documented instance when a pandemic ravaged humanity is that of the Spanish Flu in the 19th century. This flu, caused by a virus that was transmitted from person to person through airborne respiratory secretions, was so virulent that it wiped off around 50 million. It hit humanity when it was on a backfoot with WW1, making it one of the worst disasters in modern history. Though the origin of this virus is shrouded in mystery, it is believed that the horrid conditions at military camps and trenches during the war might have helped the virus take hold and eventually spread from city to city along transportation routes. Unlike Covid-19, the Influenza virus targeted healthy people; taking the lives of breadwinners and thereby, severely affecting the lives of people who managed to outlive the pandemic. The virus brought everything to a standstill as hospitals were overrun, businesses and schools were shut, and rules were put in place to make the public follow strict safety measures. The virus eventually died out, but the people who survived had to face the extremes of the recession that followed soon after.
The Spanish Flu revolutionised the way we dealt with pandemics. It not only led to improvements in sanitation, public health care, and other social reforms, but it also led to countries embracing the scientific method to fight pandemics. The world before the flu did not know about viruses, there were no reliable diagnostic tests, no real vaccine or antiviral drugs to help fight the pandemic. But all that changed after the pandemic. It also ushered to the concept of socialized medicine and healthcare, which no country had really got around to doing prior to the Spanish Flu.
Other grim periods in history like the Cholera outbreaks, Smallpox outbreak, and other ghastly epidemics, are a testament of how humanity has outlived and re-established themselves against all odds. They serve as historical reality checks that highlight loopholes in our health systems, societal disparities, economic instability, and thereby, leaving us a strong species.
Arundhati Roy described it best when she said, “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”
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