What can the history of pandemics teach us about coronavirus? First, that perhaps we shouldn’t worry so much about the apparent trade off, discussed last week
, between protecting public health and the economy. According to this new paper
, during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 the areas where government cracked down more aggressively not only had fewer deaths, but also recovered faster economically.
But, as usual, I’m interested in a longer time horizon. This thoughtful piece
by Ben Gummer
- a former UK Cabinet minister and author of a book on the Black Death - looks at what 14th century bubonic plague changed in the long run - and concludes that the answer is “not very much”. Gummer argues that the plague accelerated changes, but didn’t affect the most important arcs of history (try to detect its impact, for example, in this chart
What the Black Death does show us, though, is the consistency of humans’ desire to narrativise events beyond our control. For every 14th century flagellant blaming sin or impiety, there is a 21st century counterpart pointing the finger at climate change
or globalisation. As Gummer says:
“Whether you are a member of the global metropolitan elite or a credulous boomer rube, there is a meta-explanation for this pandemic to suit your taste.”
The culture wars know no bounds.