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What the History of Pandemics Can Teach Us About Resilience

Widespread disease outbreaks have the potential to shock societies into new ways of living.

Five years ago, I decided to write a novel set in the aftermath of a terrible pandemic.

But as I finished the book, its events collided with the present. I was working through copy-edits in March 2020 when New York City, where I live, began to shut down. Suddenly I had a lot of time, and a lot of motivation, to consider what I had gotten right and wrong about the devastation wrought by disease on a society.

But a disease outbreak can also cause governments to double down on repression and bigotry, as when the United States scapegoated Asian-Americans during 19th-century plague epidemics.

History can’t tell American policymakers and activists exactly how to respond to Covid-19 — more often, it offers an example of what not to do. Still, outbreaks in 20th-century South Africa, medieval England, ancient Rome and more can offer some lessons for those working to heal the damage of Covid and forge a more just society in its wake.

Five years ago, the history of pandemics was a jumping-off point for me — an inspiration, little more. Now it’s something more urgent: an example of what we can dare to hope for in these dark times, as well as what awaits us if we fail to act. Here are some lessons learned.

Different societies responded in different ways. In many parts of northwestern Europe, such as Britain and what is now the Netherlands, the sudden death of a huge share of working people meant it was easier for the survivors to get work and acquire land. “You get an increase in wealth per head and a reduction in wealth inequality,” Mr. Bailey explained. Economically, at least, “ordinary people are better off.”

The reverse was true in much of eastern Europe, where lords consolidated their power over the now-scarce peasantry to reimpose serfdom, forcing them to work the land on terms favorable to landowners. There, inequality flatlined or actually increased in the wake of the plague.

Over all, if “resilience in a pandemic is coping,” he continued, “economic and social resilience subsequently is adapting.” The modern lesson: “Adapting to the new reality, the new paradigm, the new opportunities, is key.”

The move toward greater economic equality in England post-plague may have been a bit of an outlier — throughout history, epidemics have tended to intensify existing social inequities.

“If the effects of racism and effects of xenophobia were less systemic within our society, we would likely see fewer deaths as a result of Covid-19,” Mr. White said. “Bigotry is fundamentally bad for public health.”

Even as pandemics have often re-entrenched old prejudices and forms of marginalization, they’ve also often given rise to something new, especially when it comes to art, culture and entertainment.

A spiritual response to disease brought cultural change to 14th-century England, too. Recalling the mass graves of the Black Death, Britons feared dying without a Christian burial and spending eternity in purgatory, Mr. Bailey said. So they began to form guilds, small religious groups that essentially functioned as “burial insurance clubs,” raising money to give members the proper treatment after death.

These guilds hosted parties and other events, and over time there was concern “about boozing of ale going on in and around the church,” Mr. Bailey said. So the guilds began to build their own halls for socializing. Then, during the Reformation in the 16th century, the guilds were dissolved, and the halls became something new: pubs.

It would be flippant to call such cultural innovations a “silver lining” of pandemics — after all, plenty of new art forms and social venues have emerged without the catalyst of mass death. It is worth remembering, though, that in the wake of even the most devastating public health disasters, human social life and creativity have re-emerged in new and unexpected ways.

“Pandemics are both catastrophes and opportunities,” Mr. Bailey told me. And in the coming years, the world will face the tragic opportunity of rebuilding after Covid-19 — and if we learn the lessons of history, we may be able to do so in a way that’s more fair, more inclusive, and even more joyful than the past we’ve been forced to leave behind.

Anna North is a senior reporter at Vox and the author of three novels, including, most recently, “Outlawed.”

Category: Science

Source: New York Times

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