By Andrew Latham, professor of political Science at Macalaster College Consortium News
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. As I teach in my course “Plagues, Pandemics and Politics,” pandemics tend to shape human affairs in three ways.
First, they can profoundly alter a society’s fundamental worldview. Second, they can upend core economic structures. And, finally, they can sway power struggles among nations.
Sickness Spurs Rise of Christian West
The Antonine plague, and its twin, the Cyprian plague – both now widely thought to have been caused by a smallpox strain – ravaged the Roman Empire from A.D. 165 to 262. It’s been estimated that the combined pandemics’ 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 worshiped 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 percent 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.
How did these twin pandemics effect this profound religious transformation?
Rodney Stark, in his seminal work The Rise of Christianity, argues that these two pandemics made Christianity a much more attractive belief system.
While the disease was effectively incurable, rudimentary palliative care – the provision of food and water, for example – could spur recovery of those too weak to care for themselves. Motivated by Christian charity and an ethic of care for the sick – and enabled by the thick social and charitable networks around which the early church was organized – the empire’s Christian communities were willing and able to provide this sort of care.
Pagan Romans, on the other hand, opted instead either to flee outbreaks of the plague or to self-isolate in the hope of being spared infection.
This had two effects.
First, Christians survived the ravages of these plagues at higher rates than their pagan neighbors and developed higher levels of immunity more quickly. Seeing that many more of their Christian compatriots were surviving the plague – and attributing this either to divine favor or the benefits of the care being provided by Christians – many pagans were drawn to the Christian community and the belief system that underpinned it. At the same time, tending to sick pagans afforded Christians unprecedented opportunities to evangelize.
Second, Stark argues that, because these two plagues disproportionately affected young and pregnant women, the lower mortality rate among Christians translated into a higher birth rate.
The net effect of all this was that, in roughly the span of a century, an essentially pagan empire found itself well on its way to becoming a majority Christian one…
Finally, Covid-19 seems to be accelerating the unraveling of long-established patterns and practices of work, with repercussions that could affet 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 plague likely remake the one populated by our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
“As infectious disease epidemiologists and public health scientists we have grave concerns about the damaging physical and mental health impacts of the prevailing COVID-19 policies, and recommend an approach we call Focused Protection.
Coming from both the left and right, and around the world, we have devoted our careers to protecting people. Current lockdown policies are producing devastating effects on short and long-term public health. The results (to name a few) include lower childhood vaccination rates, worsening cardiovascular disease outcomes, fewer cancer screenings and deteriorating mental health – leading to greater excess mortality in years to come, with the working class and younger members of society carrying the heaviest burden. Keeping students out of school is a grave injustice.
Keeping these measures in place until a vaccine is available will cause irreparable damage, with the underprivileged disproportionately harmed.
Fortunately, our understanding of the virus is growing. We know that vulnerability to death from COVID-19 is more than a thousand-fold higher in the old and infirm than the young. Indeed, for children, COVID-19 is less dangerous than many other harms, including influenza.
As immunity builds in the population, the risk of infection to all – including the vulnerable – falls. We know that all populations will eventually reach herd immunity – i.e. the point at which the rate of new infections is stable – and that this can be assisted by (but is not dependent upon) a vaccine. Our goal should therefore be to minimize mortality and social harm until we reach herd immunity.
The most compassionate approach that balances the risks and benefits of reaching herd immunity, is to allow those who are at minimal risk of death to live their lives normally to build up immunity to the virus through natural infection, while better protecting those who are at highest risk. We call this Focused Protection.
Adopting measures to protect the vulnerable should be the central aim of public health responses to COVID-19. By way of example, nursing homes should use staff with acquired immunity and perform frequent PCR testing of other staff and all visitors. Staff rotation should be minimized. Retired people living at home should have groceries and other essentials delivered to their home. When possible, they should meet family members outside rather than inside. A comprehensive and detailed list of measures, including approaches to multi-generational households, can be implemented, and is well within the scope and capability of public health professionals.
Those who are not vulnerable should immediately be allowed to resume life as normal. Simple hygiene measures, such as hand washing and staying home when sick should be practiced by everyone to reduce the herd immunity threshold. Schools and universities should be open for in-person teaching. Extracurricular activities, such as sports, should be resumed. Young low-risk adults should work normally, rather than from home. Restaurants and other businesses should open. Arts, music, sport and other cultural activities should resume. People who are more at risk may participate if they wish, while society as a whole enjoys the protection conferred upon the vulnerable by those who have built up herd immunity.”
Comments made by a high ranking German official, who wishes to remain anonymous, about the current power grab.
“The highest representatives of the Bundestag have now announced that they will follow the plans of the corporations to further centralize political power. So they want to transfer the economic policy of all EU member states to the European Union “because of Corona”, as Bundestag President Schäuble recently announced…
An economic policy at EU level would only serve the interests of transnational corporations.
This orientation of the EU can already be seen, for example, in the facto tax exemption of digital companies and the privileging of the financial sector. Parallel to the shift in power to Brussels, the European governments are taking Corona measures to ensure that large parts of the small & medium-size enterprises (SME) sector can be bought up by corporations and financial investors as a result of the crisis. This approach corresponds to the agenda of the “Great Reset”. I therefore appeal in particular to all SME entrepreneurs to defend themselves against these efforts…
In addition to the political aspects, the financial sector is abusing the crisis in order to push ahead with the long-awaited global cash abolition. Unfortunately, many people are not aware of the effects the switch to digital currencies would have and the enormous potential for abuse associated with it. At this point, I encourage everyone to deal with the actual consequences of a cashless society and, in particular, to internalize the power that the operators of a global, digital payment infrastructure could exercise over the entire population.
In view of the coronavirus situation, I consider such massive coercive measures to be disproportionate and therefore join Edward Snowden, who warned against a worldwide architecture of suppression using digital technology that will outlast the crisis. If we allow digital systems to determine our freedom of movement and our access to public life, then at the same time we are handing over control of our most elementary fundamental rights to the private operators of the digital infrastructure…”
The following explains two previous paradigm shifts:
“There was the first great depression, which lasted for 26 years during the 19th century. That event was named the “Long Depression”. After the 1930s crash, that depression became known as the “Great Depression.” Both involved a paradigm shift where the first followed the introduction of the railroads, which then displaced many jobs involving horses and carts. The next Great Depression saw the collapse in agriculture, which had employed 40% of the civil workforce at the turn of the 20th century. With the invention of the combustion engine and tractors, this reduced the need for manual labor. Then the Dust Bowl hit, driving unemployment to 25%. It took World War II to restore the economy by absorbing the excess agricultural labor and forcing them to become qualified.”
On top of the current paradigm shift favoring e-commerce and home based work, there is a paradigm shift in the world global finances. For instance, the concentration of wealth held by transnational corporations is matched by high levels of debt held by governments, corporations and consumers. Corporate buybacks and the products and services that people purchase is bought on credit. Both buybacks and things consumers buy increase stock market valuations and results in a disproportionately high levels of debt shared by most.
High stock valuations have been kept alive by central banks and pension funds who don’t have a better place to invest their money except in equities as interest rates are close to zero percent. Pension funds need interest rates of at least 8% or higher in order to stay afloat and pay remittances and benefits to retirees.
This concentration of wealth and expansion of debt is at the core of a dynamic polarity between greed and fear. It is reflected in the anxiety that erupted during the repo crisis on September 2019 when the invisible hand of the market shook the confidence of financial institutions. Market players were demanding higher interest rates to match the increasing risk involved in equities’ high valuations stemming from low interest rates concurrent with high debt levels. An increase in interest rates would cause a monetary crisis and the economy to contract.
The US dollar is the reserve currency of the world as a result the Fed’s interest rates policy does not only effect the domestic economy but the world’s financial systems. Many foreign countries have borrowed in US dollars. This resulted in a debt trap as interest rates could not be raised in the US without destabilizing foreign monetary systems, especially the European banking system stuck with a negative interest rates policy.
To manage an eventual unraveling of a debt trap, governments and related institutions were compelled to prepare for an orderly transition to a new financial order. And also to deflect the responsibility for the consequences of low interest rates policies.
The current environment triggered a replay of the Y2K scare. This time, fear of a deadly virus was used instead. Corporate mass media and online sources of information, jumped on the occasion to exploit fear to increase ratings to generate advertising money. While governments used emergency orders at the beset of special interests to implement lockdowns and the suspension of individual rights that are typically used only in times of war.
Y2K was named after a programming glitch expected to cause a global application crash on 01/01/2000. The oversight was the result of programmers trying to save valuable memory space by setting the year with two digits as in 01/01/99 instead of four, 01/01/1999.
The scare started a few years prior the turn of the millennium when news that computer programs would not convert seamlessly into 01/01/2000. Fears of malfunction on planes and elevators and other essential applications began to spread. Reports of power grids and financial systems were predicted to crash dominated the headlines. Fear turned into full blown hysteria that peaked until the dreaded day.
Most of my relatives live in Italy. At the time I read Italian and French newspapers. I noticed the lack of concern about the threat posed by Y2K overseas. European country’s reaction was in stark contrast with the end of the world scenario that was publicized in the US. The main reason for their composure was that governments, institutions and businesses in Europe took a reasonable approach to the situation and hired programmers to do the tedious job of changing the codes/date to avoid a problem without the need to alert the public.
On 01/01/2000, a systemic crash did not occur. The world did not end. In the US, programmers were celebrated by the media has having saved the day. In retrospect, a debunked assessment the period reveals that the hysteria benefited media ratings and advertising revenues. It enriched shady programmers who made tons of money exploiting people’s fear of a systemic collapse.
But a crash did occur that year.
On March 10, 2000, the dotcom bubble burst. It was the result of unsustainable amounts of money that fueled the Nasdaq mania between 1995 and 2000. The index rose five-fold during that period, reaching a high of 5,048. A year and half later the index was down 77% form its high. Venture capitalists and speculators were willing to gamble their money that the Internet and Web start-ups would be the leading industries in the future and be very profitable investments.
It took twenty years for speculators to be right. The FANGs did crawl out of their grave and reassert themselves as a turbulent paradigm shift.
In times of crisis, there are always individuals and special interests ready to exploit the situation to their own advantage. A crisis is an opportune time to make tons of money and impose views on how the world should be run or who should run it.
Fear is a normal response to a perceived threat or danger, like moving away from a swarm of bees in order not to get stung or veering away from an incoming car that ran a red light to avoid an accident. This normal reaction is called flight-or-fight. It is common to all humans and animals alike.
Most of us react the same way during the flu season. We stay away from people who are sick to avoid catching the virus. We frown on people who sneeze or cough who do not use a paper tissue. We behave in a normal way by keeping our distance for fear of being infected.
What has been propagated since the outbreak of covid-19 does not reflect a definition of fear. What the outbreak resembles instead is a type of social phobia; a fear that is disproportionate to the true danger that a thing, event or disease poses to our survival.
Phobia alters the way we react and behave. It changes the normal way we think and act as rational human beings. This type of fear leaves people vulnerable to indoctrination and manipulation, making them vulnerable to subservience. It entices people to surrender their freewill and freedom to cult leaders, group-think, institutional powers or the State in return for a promise of safety and protection.
As a greater number of people become immune from the source of fear they will realize that the phobia has been more damaging to the economy than the biological infection of casualties that have mostly contributed to the death of people of over 65 years of age.
The casualties are nothing close to the predictions made by officials. Based on statistics provided by the CDC the number of deaths in the US so far, is similar to causalities caused by an acute flu season.
Covid 19 ~ 165,000 – 200,000 deaths out of a US population of 328 million: Most of these deaths are not directly caused by the virus but are a contributing factor to an already existing condition like high blood pressure, cancer, diabetes and obesity.
What will become evident once the dust settles is the extent of the damage done to many sectors of the economy. It is estimated that approximately 30% of world economy has been affected by the lock-downs. The greatest damage was done to commercial real-estate investments, the tourist, the aviation, the service economies, restaurants, small businesses, bars and pubs and the gig economy that hire young people.
The lock-downs and social distancing have contributed to an ongoing paradigm shift to an e-commerce business model introduced by Amazon and copied by other retailers, accelerating a move away from shopping in brick and mortar stores, promoting online buying by a captive buyer at home. The shift benefited several additional sectors like; the delivery businesses, the media and web sites that provide the news, opinions and entertainment that generates advertising money.
To what extent are the media and online sources of information responsible for exploiting people’s fear of catching the virus? A fear instigated by one’s health concerns and propagated by a search for news about the disease. This in turn generated high ratings, higher page views/rank and advertising revenues.
To find some answers on how this vicious circle went viral one needs to look at the language used at the origin of the contagion: How it originated, how it evolved and how it was disseminated, because as Emile Benveniste explained: “language re-produces reality”.
One can retrace the origin of covid-19 to words/images used by news sources. Terms like; lab, experiment, bats, pandemic and death are graphic images that make great headlines. Wuhan, China and eating bats, inspires a natural tendency in people to discriminate against an ethnic group. Discrimination that goes back to the way the Chinese were treated during the rail-road construction boom in the nineteen century.
Words like coronavirus was used instead of flu, even though the flu is a coronavirus. Label like covid-19 made it sound alien giving it a nice science-fiction ring to it. The virus was described as a pandemic sounding like epidemic.
Reports of cases rather than deaths from all over the world provided unlimited and continuous sources of information on the subject to an audience glued to their TVs and devices.
News outlets were not inclined to report accurate facts about the virus as it would discredit authorities that ordered lock-downs that generated advertising money and contributed to a paradigm shift beneficial to FANGs type businesses and their stock market valuations.
The fear pandemic is slowly abating as a result people will realize that the damage done to the economy is the real symptom of the disease…