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Past the Virus - How Pandemics Change the Way We See the World

Analyses - 23 June 2021

What could history teach us about how humans change and adapt to pandemics and severe health crises? The Past the Virus series will give a four-part answer to this question. Our Special Advisor for Geopolitics, Dominique Moïsi kicks off with an introductory take on virus outbreaks and shifting paradigms.

Can we learn from the history of pandemics in order to better understand the possible, if not probable, impacts of Covid-19 on the (geo)political evolution of our societies? Three historical precedents deserve our attention: the plague that struck Athens between 430 and 426 BC; the bubonic plague or Black Death which raged in Europe and beyond from 1345 to 1730, and particularly from 1347 to 1351; and finally, much more recently, the Spanish flu of 1918-1919.

The plague of Athens entered history through Thucydides’ detailed description of it in The History of the Peloponnesian War. By the way: it was probably typhus that ravaged Athens, and not the plague. Be that as it may, the pandemic was responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people, including Pericles. It is estimated that a quarter to a third of Athens’ population perished, ushering in the end of the city’s golden age. "We civilizations now know ourselves mortal," French poet and philosopher Paul Valéry once wrote of the Athenian Republic.

The best illustration of the Black Death, which caused the loss of at least 30% of Europe’s population between 1347 and 1351, is a famous 1562 painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder entitled The Triumph of Death, which can be viewed in Madrid’s Prado Museum. During the Thirty Years’ War of 1618-1648, the population of Germany - which was nothing more than a geographical description at the time - was halved due to the combination of war, plague and famine.

Will we see an equivalent of this 17th-century shift in center of gravity from southern to northern Europe today, but at the global level?

Historians now consider that the recurrence of bubonic plague outbreaks, particularly in the Mediterranean Basin, very probably benefited the development of cities in northern Europe, from Flanders to the Hanseatic League. Will we see an equivalent of this 17th-century shift in center of gravity from southern to northern Europe today, but at the global level, through the acceleration of the current power shift happening from the west towards Asia?

Paradoxically, the Spanish flu of 1918-1919, which resulted in 50 million deaths (compared to the First World War’s 20-60 million) is much closer to us in time, but its lessons may feel more distant in our collective memory. As it occurred at the end of the First World War, it did not dominate the news cycle as Covid-19 has done. Moreover, the economic and geopolitical consequences of the Spanish flu were ultimately rather minor. Its most lasting impact was on public health. It made people aware of the need for global management when it comes to infectious disease risks, even if it took until 1948 for the World Health Organization (WHO) to be established. 

Of course, in an era of globalization and artificial intelligence, our hyper-connected society is very different from that of Athens, medieval Europe or even the world of a century ago - (hopefully) at the very least because the level of mortality between past pandemics and Covid-19 will be very different. 

The level of mortality between past pandemics and Covid-19 will be very different. 

Yet the crisis we have faced - and on a global level, it is far from over - is the biggest of our generation. Plainly, what’s at stake is the future of freedom and the need to strike the right balance between keeping our bodies safe and our minds protected. The challenge is ethical as well as economic and geopolitical. With that in mind, diving into the parallels and examples that the history of pandemics can teach could offer valuable insight. When faced with such major health crises, society oscillates in ways that are not too different from one another, be that in terms of the restriction of liberties, economic transformation, the displacement and movement of people, or ultimately, culture.

What image will we leave behind: one of a new dark century reminiscent of Bruegel the Elder’s painting or, as in a painting by Pierre Soulages, one of darkness from which Light emerges?



Copyright: Johannes EISELE / AFP


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