No one would make light of a pandemic that has already cost so much in terms of death, suffering and treasure — especially since there is undoubtedly so much more to come. But still, it must be said that if we are to have a pandemic, the early 21st century is the best time in all human history to have one.
They used to be common. Yellow fever, malaria, cholera and other deadly diseases swept through American cities over and over in the early years of the nation, and there was little that doctors could do to help the victims. Their patients lived or died as fate and their immune systems would have it.
With the birth of epidemiology as a science in the mid-19th century, however, these diseases rapidly abated as physicians learned what was needed to prevent them from spreading via insects, contaminated water and other vectors.
The diseases that spread directly from human to human through the respiratory route, such as flu and the coronavirus, however, were much harder to prevent. The Spanish flu of 1918-1919 took at least 50 million lives worldwide.
But the enormous medical advances of the last century in terms of vaccines, tests, drugs and technology increased the ability to contain the spread of these diseases — and help victims survive them — by several orders of magnitude. So while the coronavirus pandemic’s effects will be painful, to say the least, dealing with them is well within our power.
That wasn’t always the case with earlier epidemics. To imagine what pandemics were like in a world where medicine was nothing more than a hodgepodge of untested, contradictory and mostly crackpot theories, just consider the most infamous and perhaps the most deadly of them all, the Black Death of medieval Europe, caused by bubonic plague.
It originated in Asia and spread to Europe via Genoese ships coming from Crimea beginning in 1347. Traveling through both land and maritime trade routes, the plague swept across Europe in a great left hook. Beginning in Italy, it reached England in 1348, Scotland and most of Scandinavia in 1350, from which it spread eastward toward Russia, before finally petering out in 1353.
It left a devastated continent in its wake. At least one-third of the population died in those terrible years. It would be two centuries before the population again reached pre-plague levels. Florence, Italy, particularly hard-hit, wouldn’t fully recover demographically until the 19th century.
In the cities, corpses lay untended in the streets or were buried in mass graves. In the countryside, whole villages were deserted — England alone saw at least a thousand villages simply disappear — and livestock wandered at will, free for the taking.
The economic effects of the plague can’t be overstated. Indeed, they began the transition of Europe from the medieval to the modern era.
The land remained, of course, and fell into the hands of fewer landlords, for the plague largely hit all levels of society equally, not hitting the poor especially hard as other epidemics often did. But the labor needed to work the land was now much scarcer. The economic balance of power between lords and peasants, therefore, shifted sharply in favor of the peasants.
With landlords desperate for workers, peasants were able to go where the best deal was to be had. Serfdom began to fade away, as landlords converted labor services into wages or rents.
In the cities, craftsmen were able to command much higher wages from the guildsmen. This reduced class distinctions, as the standard of living among workers rose sharply. Suddenly, they were able to afford better furniture, household goods and clothes. Indeed, so many people began to wear linen underwear that the price of paper declined as its source material — rags — increased.
The labor shortage also led to a search for labor-saving devices. Productivity per capita rose an astonishing 30 percent in the next few decades.
The plague would return again and again to Europe until the mid-17th century but never as ferociously as in the time of the Black Death.
Today, plague is a trivial disease, easily cured by antibiotics, proof that while we are going through a bad time, we live in medically very good times, indeed.
John Steele Gordon writes for Commentary.
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