Fatima S. Khan
Intermittent outbreaks of lethal pandemics, in particular, have had profound and lasting effects on human societies and individual behavior throughout history. As Sehovic argued that, ‘Such events have framed the socio-political and economic aspects of human civilization, with their effects often lasting for centuries’ . Every plague that has plagued humankind seemed different from the ones that came before, thus each worked as a touchstone, a mechanism that has allowed people the means to process the current pandemic and figure out how to function and respond. However, there is a need to look in the past for models and precedents for our modern.
In 430 B.C.E, when the Greek city of Athens struck by an epidemic early in the Peloponnesian War. About 25 to 35 percent of the Athenian population died during the ‘Plague of Athens’. The epidemic baffled the Athenian people as they saw no clear cause for it. Since there was no clear distinction between medicine and religion in the fifth century every medical art and religious ritual seemed helpless. Some Athenians linked the war with the disease by remembering an old saying that death would accompany a war with the Spartan Dorians. According to Thucydides, ”the plague left serious effects on Athens’ society resulting in a lack of adherence to laws and religious belief”. While the Athenian epidemic moved rapidly towards the outer world, as a consequence citizenship status went into transition.
Thus, past epidemics have had enormous impact like it was seen during the middle of 14 century, when ‘Black Death’, stuck the Medieval world. Many generations were wiped out which altered the social, economic, and religious lives of those who survived, scarring the collective consciousness of the entire population. The effects were immediate, catastrophic, and devastating on multiple levels as the plague cut down peasants and princes alike, thus leveling the social distinctions of that time. Due to a lack of scientific knowledge, many explanations were proposed mostly wrapped up in religious and superstitious assumptions while widely believed to have an underlying cause: divine wrath at the sinfulness of humankind.
The ‘knowledge’ of that particular time was taken by many with them, that would then be lost to the world. Many Scholars believe that this is what ushered the age of the Renaissance in the 16th century. David Herlihy a great historian has gone so far to suggest that without the Black Death the advances and discoveries of the European Renaissance might have been delayed for another century. The plague amplified the dissatisfaction towards the Church that had existed pre-plague, which led Martin Luther King to nail 95 theses to the Church door at the Wittenberg in 1517 and the beginning of the protestant reformation. If it were not for the plague it would have taken much longer to materialize. Indeed, historians have strived to explain that the Black Death paved a way to a different wave of opportunities from which new ideas towards the Renaissance age flourished, and the beginnings of a distinctly modern world.
Later , a pandemic like the Spanish Flu , the first global pandemic, killed almost 3% to 5% of the world population. Since the spread of Spanish Flu was overshadowed by the deadliness of WWI, the actual death count is unknown. The drastic impact of the flu opened the door for scientific research through which many countries tried to cope with a future pandemic with a desire to have a better global response. This further led to the creation of global health agencies for better international coordination; WHO is a product of that wave. It also galvanized governments to change public health strategy which led them to established healthcare centers.
Unfortunately, we moved away from understanding the necessity of time. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, human security has been compromised thoroughly. The social, economic and political systems have collapsed throughout the world. Throughout the transition period of pandemics, humans have not learned how to cope with such a situation. The COVID-19 has inspired new forms of consumption and international cooperation thus questioning the existing ones. It has also linked disease emergence to worldwide transformations, often framed as globalization. It exacerbated pre-existing social inequalities and exposed fundamental weaknesses in the global humanitarian response towards epidemics. The COVID-19 pandemic may have profoundly negative effect on the world economy, potentially for years to come, with substantial drops in GDP accompanied by increases in the unemployment rate around the world.
Will the emergence of new threats from COVID-19 make states to take refuge in the existing status quo, or will there be a new social order?
Fatima S. Khan is a 7th semester student of BS Politics and IR in the School of Integrated Social Sciences at the University of Lahore.