“During that time, it seemed no easy thing to see any man in the streets ..., and all who had the good fortune to be in health were sitting in their houses, either attending the sick or mourning the dead. Work of every description ceased, and all the trades were abandoned by the artisans. Indeed, in a city which was simply abounding in all good things, it seemed a difficult and very notable thing to have a sufficiency of bread or of anything else; so that with some of the sick, it appeared that the end of life came about sooner than it should have come.”
This is not a recent news report from some coronavirus-plagued city as the world battles the COVID-19 pandemic. This report was written by the East Roman historian Procopius of Caesarea 1,500 years ago, describing life in Constantinople, the capital of Byzantine during the Justinian Plague.
Lessons from past pandemics
The Justinian plague struck Europe in the sixth century and is estimated to have killed between 30 and 50 million people — about half the world’s population at that time. It spread across Asia, North Africa, Arabia, and Europe. Modern studies claim that it was caused by a similar virus that led to the Black Death which struck 800 years later, killing 50 million Europeans between 1347 and 1351 alone. Both plagues, these studies say, were spread to humans by rodents. In both cases, the entire world population was almost eradicated.
But the world survived. Like the mythological bird Phoenix, humanity rose from the ashes, born again to rebuild and regenerate a new renaissance. Catastrophes, like today’s coronavirus pandemic, will test the human resilience to the limits. We pay too much a price, but we do survive.
In today’s world economic system, we lack compassion. It would be unrealistic to ask the IMF or the World Bank, the arms of this system, to fix it. But there are good examples in the world, such as the mixed economies of the Arab Gulf states and the Scandinavian nations, that could be emulated.
There were more occasions than history can count when humanity was on the verge of annihilation but came out stronger. Earthquakes, world wars and on certain October 1962, people around the world held their breath as the US and the Soviet Union came closest to a nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Procopius, writing about the Justinian Plague, thought it was the end of the world. Just like today’s doomsday prophets, he was wrong. Today’s pandemic has already killed more than 20,000 worldwide. Hundreds of thousands are infected, and millions quarantined. World Health Organisation says it will get worse. Countries have been shut down. The global economy is seemingly plunging into a recession — probably a depression, the International Monetary Fund has warned. Millions of people lost their jobs.
However, the human spirit will prevail. Our resilience will carry us through these tough times as it did centuries ago. This crisis will end, and the virus will fade away just like it did dozens of times during the last 2000 years.
How climate change helps breed viruses
There is unnecessary panic. Sure. It is human nature to be afraid and stressed. But I receive, just like everybody else, on my WhatsApp dozens of videos of the human spirit — of people going out of their way to help others, of volunteers in hospitals, airports and supermarkets, and also other videos of people trying to put a happy, and sometimes sarcastic, face on their unfortunate circumstances as they stay home. Comedy too in the times of crisis.
Nevertheless, there are lessons to be learned from this great crisis. Scientists say climate change is one main reason for pandemics. As temperatures continue to rise, drought and heat lead to food and water shortages resulting in malnutrition, and disease. If we continue to ignore the perils of climate change then we are preparing the ground for the next big pandemic, which, history tells us, could be more destructive. We are messing up with the delicate balance of the environment. And that is bad news as it leads to new and more aggressive types of viruses.
The crisis has also shown us the vulnerability of the health systems in many countries. Their medical infrastructures are being overwhelmed by the number of cases. These countries have been investing their resources obviously in the wrong place. Despite the massive advances in science and technology, thousands of people die of the virus every day because these countries failed to build viable health systems that can save their population. These countries had to rely on other countries, which brings another important lesson — international cooperation.
more on coronavirus
More countries have been moving to the right in the past few years, with the Trump administration leading the trend of unilateralism. This crisis has proved that no country can do it alone. Stable world order depends on multilateralism and international cooperation.
The failure of the world economy, the capitalist system, in particular, is another lesson. Reconstructing the world economy has become an absolute necessity. As the pandemic hit the markets, the little people lost. Tens of millions of workers have been laid off around the world.
As governments offer generous stimulus packages to big business, the normal people are being promised the minimum wage, barely enough to survive. Millions of families are being forced to seek help from charity organisations.
We have seen this before. During the 2008 financial crisis, the greedy financial and investment companies were bailed out by governments. But nobody bailed out the little guy. In today’s world economic system, we lack compassion. It would be unrealistic to ask the IMF or the World Bank, the arms of this system, to fix it. But there are good examples in the world, such as the mixed economies of the Arab Gulf states and the Scandinavian nations, that could be emulated.
The world will survive the coronavirus. Absolutely. But to prevent the next big one, we all should rethink our way of life.