The Sunday Magazine

How pandemics have remade politics, societies and culture

According to Yale University historian Frank Snowden, "infectious diseases are as important to understanding societal development as economic crises, wars, revolutions, and demographic change."
Left, Frank Snowden's most recent book. Right, skeletons suspected to have come from a cemetery for victims of the bubonic plague that ravaged Europe in the 14th century. (Yale University Press and Lefteris Pitarakis/The Associated Press)

In less than a month, COVID-19 has utterly transformed our way of life, derailed our economy and spurred some of the biggest government programs ever seen in Canada and in many other countries. 

For millennia, disease outbreaks have altered the relationship between citizens and their governments, and changed the course of history. 

According to renowned historian Frank Snowden, "infectious diseases are as important to understanding societal development as economic crises, wars, revolutions and demographic change."

Snowden is professor emeritus of History and the History of Medicine at Yale University. His most recent book is called Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present.

Here are some highlights of his conversation with The Sunday Edition's Michael Enright. His comments have been edited for clarity and condensed.

On why pandemics have been so transformative in human history

To put that most briefly, my sense of pandemic diseases is that they reach down to the most fundamental elements of our psyches. They pose starkly the question of our relationship with our own mortality, and that of our loved ones, friends and communities around us.

They pose the questions, what is the relationship that we have with our religious beliefs? What sort of divinity is it that we believe in? Who created a world where these occurrences take place? What is our relationship with political authorities?

They reveal to us what we really think in terms of our ethical values about how concerned we are with others. They stretch the bounds of the economy. They stretch the bonds of family relationships.

During the Industrial Revolution, when a disease like typhoid or Asiatic cholera was around,  those two diseases were rampant because it was the era of mass urbanization and unsanitary crowded conditions, without sewage systems and without water. We have since built sanitary bulwarks against those. But, on the other hand, we have created new vulnerabilities for a pulmonary disease that spreads through the air like COVID-19. So that's a different world that we live in. And this disease is showing us what our deepest vulnerabilities are in the world that we've made.

How the Black Death in the 14th century changed European societies

One of the things that I believe that epidemic diseases have done is that they have moulded our whole society. And with that, they have moulded the emergence of the early modern state.

This really is a precedent for centralized state power. It's also a legacy of cholera that, again, created new bases for state power in the 19th century. So our political arrangements have been profoundly affected by the passage of pandemic diseases.

One of the themes that runs through the history of epidemic diseases is stigma and violence against groups who are blamed. In the plague years, this took the form of anti-Semitism, for example. I'll give the example of Strasbourg, where there was a Jewish population of 2,000. They were accused of poisoning the wells of Christendom and being responsible for the plague. They were rounded up by an irate citizenry, taken to the Jewish cemetery of the city and offered the choice of converting on the spot or being put to death. Half of them refused to convert and they were burned alive in the cemetery.

Witch-hunting, burning of witches, anti-Semitism programs, social tensions, riots have all been part of the history of plague. We see this through the ages. And it comes down to coronavirus, where we see people from Asia being stigmatized and some countries saying this must be the Chinese virus or the Wuhan virus. In Italy, where I am now, there was a hunt for patient zero — as if you could blame someone for the virus — and they wanted to turn on immigrants.

On how governments can find the right balance between the suspension of civil rights and the protection of the populace

That is a very difficult balance to strike. I don't believe that authoritarian governments are best at this, because they cut off the communication with the citizenry. Democratic governments are regarded as much more legitimate. There is more trust that the leaders will be held accountable and they are more likely to respond to the idea that this is a temporary measure. And health officials, therefore, are empowered because people voluntarily come to them and report their diseases.

One of the problems of authoritarian regimes is the distrust of the citizenry. And that distrust makes it almost impossible for them to practise modern scientific public health measures.

Indeed I think one of the interesting features of the lockdown in China  — this extraordinarily draconian measure — is that after a very little time, Xi Jinping decided that it was necessary to mimic democracy. He was appealing to popular sentiment and nationalism to rally round the government and to participate in a way that they weren't in the early days of the lockdown. So in a sense that was a left-handed compliment to the capacity of democratic regimes to call upon the compliance of their citizens.

On the features of our current era that COVID-19 is exploiting

We're nearing a global population of eight billion people, and with a world economy that we seem to believe can keep growing infinitely — even though the resources of our planet are limited and the result of that has been, as we see with climate change, that we have devastated the environment.

And one aspect of that is deforestation. We have destroyed and invaded animal habitat — so that the relationship between society and people, on the one hand, and wildlife, on the other, has been tremendously transformed. People are now encountering wild animals in ways and to an extent that were never true of the past. And that now has brought them into contact with the diseases that these animals carry, such as bats. It's not by chance that the most recent diseases that have swept and worried our society are those that, like SARS, Avian Flu, MERS, Ebola and now coronavirus, are created by this new relationship between man and animal species.

Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.

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