Even before the Black Death, aka the plague, Europe had fallen on tough times: The 14th century began with a mini ice age and torrential rain, ruining crops and spreading starvation among tens of millions of serfs working hereditary land for nobles in a centuries-old feudal system overseen by the pope. Then came the plague, killing half the people across the continent.
By the time the plague wound down in the latter part of the century, the world had utterly changed: The wages of ordinary farmers and craftsmen had doubled and tripled, and nobles were knocked down a notch in social status. The church’s hold on society was damaged, and Western Europe’s feudal system was on its way out — an inflection point that opened the way to the Reformation and the even greater worker gains of the Industrial Revolution and beyond.
Will the virus dramatically alter how we live, work, and socialize the way 9/11 has — and the way global pandemics of the past did?
Since Covid-19 broke out three months ago, experts and politicians have said that it’s unprecedented or, when pushed, compared it with SARS and MERS, the most recent coronavirus pandemics. Many have cited lessons of the Great Influenza, the 1918 flu that killed about 50 million people around the world, about 2% of the population. But the plague was by far the deadliest pandemic of the past thousand years, killing a much higher percentage of the population with a far greater mortality rate than any other major pandemic. And while it was categorically grim, it was also a catalyst for the brighter, centuries-long history that followed, right up to today.
A primary worry about the coronavirus is whether it will leave permanent marks when it is finally beaten, and if so, what sort. Will the virus dramatically alter how we live, work, and socialize the way that 9/11 has — and the way global pandemics of the past did? It’s too early to say with any certainty, but there are clues of a changed reality to come in the United States and abroad, socially and economically.