The world is suffering gravely from the COVID-19 crisis. Its impact on our lives is so great that we now use the term “the new era” to describe the post-COVID 19 lifestyle. As we are facing inevitable changes, it is natural for us to have questions such as “What kind of changes will COVID-19 bring?” or “Will it change our future?”
To answer these questions, looking at past cases of virus-induced “new eras” may present us with valuable insights. Our association with viruses started early on in history, therefore, there are a good number of historical health crises for which economic and social consequences provide us good models.
In this article. we will cover a total of eight major infectious diseases in world history in chronological order. First, let’s review three infectious diseases that appeared during the period from the Byzantine Empire to the Early Modern period of Europe (500AD-1700AD): the Plague of Justinian, Black Death, and smallpox. Later on, we will cover five additional infectious diseases that shook recent world history.
The Plague of Justinian which began in AD 541 and swept three continents, is believed to be the first widespread, recorded contagious disease in history. The plague is named after Justinian I of the Byzantine Empire, who ruled the empire from 565 to 527 BC. One surmises that the plague was named after the emperor as it happened during his ruling period.
Researchers speculate that the disease may have been transmitted through fleas. It most likely originated from China or India and travelled through the trade-route and arrived in Egypt. The first recorded case was in the port town of Pelusium, Egypt. Mice with infected fleas came onboard merchant ships that had arrived at Pelusium. The disease travelled, following the trading route and eventually made its way to Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine empire. It is reported that the epidemic killed 300,00 people in the first year once it spread in Constantinople.
Trade throughout the empire was interrupted, contributing to the weakening of the empire. The agricultural industry was severely hit as it reduced the working population. This devastated the empire as it relied heavily upon agriculture and the derivative taxation from the industry for most of its economic activities. Loss of the population of farmers led to lack of food and loss of tax.
Justinian was also a conqueror. He wanted to expand the territory of the empire and build a dynasty with strong governmental influence over the region. However, the epidemic affected the mainstream social members, as well as the soldiers, which resulted in a fatal blow to his military operations and the administrative structure of the empire.
A historical event that reveals the extent of the economical crisis was a royal decree ordered in 544 AD. The decree was meant to curb inflation, including freezing wages and prices to pre-contagion levels. The Armstrong Undergraduate speculates that these legislations represent a volatile economy in the Byzantine Empire at the time.
The Byzantine Empire wasn’t destroyed during the epidemic. Nevertheless, the effects of infectious diseases dampened the growth of the Byzantine Empire. While the disease didn’t knock out the Empire overnight, it sure was a major event that contributed to the eventual fall of the Byzantine Empire.
The Black Death or simply “Plague” is the most well-known and contagious disease in human history. Stories from the plague are so notorious that most people are very familiar with it – it is studied in school. The epidemic struck Europe and killed one-third of the continent’s population, resulting in over 200 million deaths. The Black Death is generally thought to have been spread by tradeship. However, a recent research result suggests otherwise, that the antigen that caused the plague may already have existed in Europe as early as 3000 BC.
London’s monthly history magazine History Today describes the plague as a human tragedy unmatched in human history that became a historical turning point. A Florentine chronicler during the plague left the following record:
“ All the citizens did little else except to carry dead bodies to be buried […] At every church they dug deep pits down to the water-table; and thus those who were poor who died during the night were bundled up quickly and thrown into the pit. In the morning when a large number of bodies were found in the pit, they took some earth and shovelled it down on top of them; and later others were placed on top of them and then another layer of earth, just as one makes lasagne with layers of pasta and cheese.”
The record gives us an idea as to how terrible the situation was back then. The name, Black Death, may be driven from mistranslation of the Latin word “atra mors”, as the word “atra” can be translated either as “terrible” or “black”.
It was none other than a quarantine that stopped the spread of this epidemic. The forward-thinking officials of the port town of Ragusa, Venice, mandated seafarers arriving at the port to 30-40 day quarantine and investigated the result. This attempt was the beginning of the modern day quarantine system.
The spread of the Black Death slowed trading and market activities, causing fatal damage to traders and merchants. This was a natural consequence as people stayed away from highly crowded areas to avoid the plague. In fact, trading as a whole was considered hazardous to one’s health. According to History Crunch, some of the most devastated areas in Europe and Asia were trading ports along the Mediterranean coast, where infected fleas with rats from trading ships spread the disease. As trade slowed down, the prices of local goods and imported goods skyrocketed, and suddenly inflated the economy.
The plague reduced the peasant population, the major labor force in agriculture. This resulted in a scarcity in the labor force. As the supply of laborers dwindled, it became harder for feudal lords to hire enough laborers. In order to secure enough farmers to till the land, feudal lords had to increase the wage or hand out special incentives. When that was not possible, some feudal lords gave up farming entirely. This new dynamic decreased the gap in wealth between those two social classes. What was ironic was that the nobles had to dress more glamorously despite their economic hardship.
Society needed an outlet to express the thought of death and the feeling of fear that overshadowed their lives. Much of the artwork created during the period reflects some degree of fascination toward death and terror. Simultaneously, people needed a scapegoat to target their negative emotions. Live Science records that many Jews were killed as rumors went around that they had poisoned wells. It was a tragic case that showed how the overwhelming fear of illness deepened prejudices.
Smallpox is a disease with a long history. Evidence of the disease has been found in the mummy of the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses V, tracing its history back over 3000 years. Some disagree with this view by suggesting that the first case of smallpox occurred in 1588 CE, regarding the evidence discovered on the mummy as a case of misidentification.
Our focus in this article will be its impact on the New world. As Europeans travelled to the New World, so did the diseases, including smallpox. Unlike Europeans who had already developed antibodies against the disease, the indigenous population without exposure had no immunity built against the smallpox. Therefore, Native Americans, including the Aztecs, had no chance against the virus but remained vulnerable to the smallpox. As a result, the disease killed 90% of the indigenous population.
Smallpox caused numerous Aztec casualties. According to the conversation, many people fell ill or looked after their sick people, which reduced the labor force and severely impacted crop harvests, leading to famine. The famine further weakened the population’s immune system.
Not confined to only the Aztecs, smallpox also decimated the Mayan and Incan populations. The population reduction of the New World lowered the hurdle for European conquests of the regions. Due to smallpox, indigenous peoples could not resist the process of colonization, and the Europeans colonized and developed the newly vacated regions.
Europeans exploited gold and silver from the New World, which was used to make physical currency back in Europe. The influx of gold and silver increased the quantity of currency. This caused inflation in the European economy. The inflation led to the Spanish Price Revolution, also known as the Price Revolution. In a nutshell, The Price Revolution resulted in the economical enlightenment that more active economical activities must be made by those who want to maintain their living standard. According to John Maynard Keynes, the Price Revolution played a pivotal role in structuring the modern day capitalistic economic system.
Infectious diseases have had a grave influence in the modern world. We selected the following five infectious diseases including COVID-19 to study their impact in recent human history. Let’s take a brief look at the epidemic and its effect. Below is a diagram comparing the infectious diseases, sorted by the magnitude of fatalities.
SARS is an abbreviation for “Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome” and is a viral respiratory disease caused by SARS-CoV. In November 2002, it spread to 26 countries including the outbreak in China. Nearly 800 people died and more than 8,000 were infected. The following is a quote from Hindawi, an academic publishing and research community.
“ During SARS in Shanghai, there were not many people on the street and almost no people in entertainment clubs, restaurants and gymnasiums, which caused a very large impact on the whole social and economic life.”
“ During SARS, you could find that Beijing traffic was so good, (there were) not many people on the road. There were no traffic jams, and you felt great to take the bus (with few people) in Beijing. But I was deeply impressed that when I took a bus, and a man behind had a cough, I was scared and I got off quickly at the next stop.”
Travel, tourism, and retail sales plummeted in the affected regions, with losses estimated at $12-18 billion in Asian countries. In China, economic growth showed a 0.5% to 1% decrease in 2003. NCBI concluded that the global economy suffered a total loss of $40 billion due to SARS. According to Dow Jones Market Data, the stock market rebounded starting in April 2003, with a 6-month change of 14.59% and a 12-month change of 20.76% for the S&P500.
The Swine flu is a unique form of flu, and resulted in a pandemic from April 2009 to August 2010. According to the CDC, about one-third of people over the age of 60 had antibodies to the H1N1 virus, so 80% of deaths were children and adolescents. The mortality rate from this disease is 0.02%, which is known to have infected 21% of the world’s population.
On May 2, 2009, President Obama, in a daytime national speech announced that ” schools and childcare facilities with a confirmed case must be closed up to 14 days.” On June 11, 2009, WHO classified the swine flu as a pandemic .
According to Reuters, fears of bank stress-test jitters were compounded by fears during the onset of infectious diseases, and US stock index futures prices fell. The Dow Jones futures, fell 1.9% and the S&P500 futures fell 1.8%. Many were concerned that the Swine flu could further slow the global economy that had already been hit by the 2008 Subprime crisis. According to Dow Jones Market Data, the S&P500 recorded a 6-month change of 18.72% and a 12-month change of 35.96% from the onset of the virus outbreak in April 2009.
MERS is an abbreviation for “Middle East Respiratory Syndrome”, which was first discovered in the Middle East in 2012. Mortality reached approximately 35%, with 2506 infected cases between 2012 and January 15, 2020, including 862 deaths. Eighty percent of the dead or infected cases were reported in Saudi Arabia.
According to Dow Jones Market Data, the S&P500 recorded a 6-month change of 10.74% and a 12-month change of 17.96% from May 2013. In 2015, MERS occurred in South Korea and the market experienced another shock. According to Yahoo finance, about 3,000 schools in South Korea closed their doors and the Korean tourism industry was damaged by the cancellation of 100,000 Korean trips. At that time, South Korea’s tourism and travel services sectors were estimated to have lost $2.6 billion in sales, equivalent to 0.2% of GDP in 2015.
The CDC reports that the WHO declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) on 8 August 2014, taking into account the West African situation due to the disease. During PHEIC, the disease had spread to seven countries including Italy, Mali and Nigeria, Senegal, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States. There are eleven people known to have been treated for Ebola in the United States.
Yahoo Finance reported that nine of the U.S. infected people were airline passengers, causing airline stocks to fall by double digits. In addition, the S&P500 index dropped more than 9% from September 19th to October 15th, 2014. According to Dow Jones Market Data, the 6-Month percentage change of the S&P500 was an increase of 5.34% and the 12-Month percentage change of the index was +10.44% from April 2014.
In Africa, the occurrence of Ebola affected trade and transportation, tourism, agricultural production, mining activity, etc., and led to widespread economic losses. As a result, Liberia and Sierra Leone experienced GDP losses of up to $ 2.2 billion in 2015.
The Corona virus first appeared in China in November 2019. On March 11, 2020, WHO classified the epidemic as Pandemic due to the worldwide spread of the virus. To date, the number of cases confirmed worldwide is 3.75M, the number of deaths is 263K, and the number of cases recovered has been reported at 1.24M.
The CDC recommends keeping a social distance, which means avoiding contact with people and staying at home. Social distancing and travel restrictions have affected a variety of industries. I have quoted some of the cases reported in Vertical IQ in this regard. :
Industrial blows not only lead to cancellations, reimbursement, and business stoppage, but also to unemployment. The BBC noted that the number of claims for unemployment benefits increased to 26.4 million from mid-March, and noted widespread concern about the loss of more than 15% of the US workforce.
As the industries were affected by the spread of the coronavirus, the stock market also underwent major fluctuations. This is due not just to the crisis faced by industry, but also the fears of investors and the governmental measures as reflected in the rise and fall of the market. According to the BBC, the Dow Jones Industrial Average and FTSE experienced their largest quarterly decline since 1987 in the first three months.
Gold, which is considered a safe asset, was no exception. People look for safe assets when the market is volatile. However, since the beginning of March, the price of gold has shown large fluctuations, and only now has shown signs of recovery. Bitcoin also experienced a 50% drop on the night of March 12 and shocked investors. Of course, the single event is not enough to make a final evaluation on Bitcoin as an asset.
We read about various cases of infectious diseases throughout this post. Maybe you know more than what is listed here. One commonality shared by all these infectious diseases is that they cause fear and crisis in the affected societies, which is a big problem in and of itself.
The infected people become unable to work, which leads to an economic crisis that leads more people to be decommissioned. The worsened financial status results in more people becoming malnourished, and this further weakens people’s immunity. The intensified fear from diseases may lead people to seek an outlet to dump their bottled up emotions, which often creates a scapegoat in society. We reviewed the Jewish sacrifice as a case study.
We, as humans, constantly undergo changes both small and large. These changes induce some degree of change in human behavior. Some of the big changes, such as pandemic crises can alter the course of human history. Then, what about COVID-19? What sort of changes will it bring to our society?
The following is a quote from a post by German futurist Matthias Horx. :
“ At the moment I am often asked when Corona will be over“ and when everything will return to normal. My answer is: never. There are historical moments when the future changes direction. We call them bifurcations. Or deep crises. These times are now. The world as we know it is dissolving. But behind it comes a new world, the formation of which we can at least imagine.”
Matthias Horx talks about the rise of teleconferencing, video conferencing, and online teaching during the COVID-19 period that will reshape the way we lead our day-to-day life in the future. While these technologies are not new, they have been in the spotlight during the current COVI-19 crisis as people are asked to perform their duties while maintaining social distancing. People have to work, go to school, and stay social while remaining at home. As we were forced to lead this type of lifestyle for more than three months, what was considered impossible in the past has now been proven otherwise as we had to make do with what is given to us.
ComputerWeekly foresees that there will be accelerated changes to bring about the mass adoption of technologies supporting remote work and online operation of various services in the near future. Simultaneously, it expressed concerns for the increase in phishing and SMShing crimes. Once the adoption of remote work technologies and online operations are completed, there will be overhauling changes in the work environment, lifestyle, and economy.
After the outbreak of COVID-19, “hygiene” has also received more attention than before. Personal hygiene will continue to be a hot issue during the post COVID-19.
ABP Live forecasts that there will be changes in personal hygiene habits and they cited a survey of hygiene product purchases in support of this. According to the survey, 67% say they buy more soap and detergent, and 58% say they buy more bathroom cleaners, phenyl, floor cleaners and more. 41% say that they have bought new types of hygiene products in the past month. Moreover, ABP speculates that the newly reckoned urgency for hygiene may activate digital transactions and contactless payment, leading to a cashless society.
The terms “New normal” and “World 2.0” are regularly used among people to describe the post COVID-19 era. What are your thoughts on how the new changes will affect the economy? While there are many opinions, none negates the fact that big and small changes due to the disease are expected in the coming years. The new era is clearly an interesting topic, and when I get the opportunity, I’ll see you in a more serious article on the subject.
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