With the global disruption of COVID-19, there have been a number of stories in news outlets documenting the history of past pandemics in an effort to make sense of it all. One name that has come up frequently is Walter Scheidel. The Stanford University historian wrote a book some years ago which acquired a great deal of attention called “The Great Leveler.” In it, he contended that only catastrophes reduced wealth and income inequality, without which it would grow without bound. One recurring leveler was plagues and pandemics (along with war, famine, collapse and political revolution).
I reviewed that book in a series of three posts:
I’ve gone back and cleaned up the typos (the ones I found, anyway). I think these posts are actually quite good (and I’m a terrible critic of myself), so they’re most likely worth a reread (if I do say so myself).
Here’s Scheidel himself writing in The New York Times summarizing the leveling effect he found during pandemics:
…as successive waves of plague shrank the work force, hired hands and tenants “took no notice of the king’s command,” as the Augustinian clergyman Henry Knighton complained. “If anyone wanted to hire them he had to submit to their demands, for either his fruit and standing corn would be lost or he had to pander to the arrogance and greed of the workers.”
As a result of this shift in the balance between labor and capital, we now know…that real incomes of unskilled workers doubled across much of Europe within a few decades. According to tax records that have survived in the archives of many Italian towns, wealth inequality in most of these places plummeted.
In England, workers ate and drank better than they did before the plague and even wore fancy furs that used to be reserved for their betters. At the same time, higher wages and lower rents squeezed landlords, many of whom failed to hold on to their inherited privilege. Before long, there were fewer lords and knights, endowed with smaller fortunes, than there had been when the plague first struck…
In all of these cases, he notes, the elites pushed back. They weren’t content with their “lessers” having a greater share of the pie (which is, after all, why they were elites):
In late medieval Eastern Europe, from Prussia and Poland to Russia, nobles colluded to impose serfdom on their peasantries to lock down a depleted labor force. This altered the long-term economic outcomes for the entire region: Free labor and thriving cities drove modernization in Western Europe, but in the eastern periphery, development fell behind.
Farther south, the Mamluks of Egypt, a regime of foreign conquerors of Turkic origin, maintained a united front to keep their tight control over the land and continue exploiting the peasantry. The Mamluks forced the dwindling subject population to hand over the same rent payments, in cash and kind, as before the plague. This strategy sent the economy into a tailspin as farmers revolted or abandoned their fields.
The elite pushback often failed in the short-term:
…more often than not, repression failed. The first known plague pandemic in Europe and the Middle East, which started in 541, provides the earliest example. Anticipating the English Ordinance of Laborers by 800 years, the Byzantine emperor Justinian railed against scarce workers who “demand double and triple wages and salaries, in violation of ancient customs” and forbade them “to yield to the detestable passion of avarice” — to charge market wages for their labor. The doubling or tripling of real incomes reported on papyrus documents from the Byzantine province of Egypt leaves no doubt that his decree fell on deaf ears…
During the Great Rising of England’s peasants in 1381, workers demanded, among other things, the right to freely negotiate labor contracts. Nobles and their armed levies put down the revolt by force, in an attempt to coerce people to defer to the old order. But the last vestiges of feudal obligations soon faded. Workers could hold out for better wages, and landlords and employers broke ranks with one another to compete for scarce labor.
And yet, in the long-term, people ended up no better off than they had started:
None of these stories had a happy ending for the masses. When population numbers recovered after the plague of Justinian, the Black Death and the American pandemics, wages slid downward and elites were firmly back in control. Colonial Latin America went on to produce some of the most extreme inequalities on record. In most European societies, disparities in income and wealth rose for four centuries all the way up to the eve of World War I. It was only then that a new great wave of catastrophic upheavals undermined the established order, and economic inequality dropped to lows not witnessed since the Black Death, if not the fall of the Roman Empire.
Why the Wealthy Fear Pandemics (NYTimes)
Here are some other pages from history, in somewhat chronological order:
White and Mordechai focused their efforts on the city of Constantinople, capital of the Roman Empire, which had a comparatively well-described outbreak in 542 CE. Some primary sources claim plague killed up to 300,000 people in the city, which had a population of some 500,000 people at the time. Other sources suggest the plague killed half the empire’s population. Until recently, many scholars accepted this image of mass death. By comparing bubonic, pneumonic, and combined transmission routes, the authors showed that no single transmission route precisely mimicked the outbreak dynamics described in these primary sources.
Heraclitus compared our lot to beasts, winos, deep sleepers and even children – as in, “Our opinions are like toys.” We are incapable of grasping the true logos. History, with rare exceptions, seems to have vindicated him.
There are two key Heraclitus mantras.
1) “All things come to pass according to conflict.” So the basis of everything is turmoil. Everything is in flux. Life is a battleground. (Sun Tzu would approve.)
2) “All things are one.” This means opposites attract. This is what Heraclitus found when he went tripping inside his soul – with no help of lysergic substances. No wonder he faced a Sisyphean task trying to explain this to us, mere children.
And that brings us to the river metaphor. Everything in nature depends on underlying change. Thus, for Heraclitus, “as they step into the same rivers, other and still other waters flow upon them.” So each river is composed of ever-changing waters.
‘It is disease that makes health sweet and good’ (Asia Times)
Despite the lack of healthcare and public health measures as we understand them – and we will never know how many plague victims died of neglect, hunger and thirst, or of secondary infections – the plague in medieval England, and Western Europe as a whole, was mediated by a system of research, intellectual authority and technical countermeasures.
But that system was religious, based on the Christian church’s management of the passage of souls from this earth to the next world. The forerunner of the modern emergency vehicle was the bell of the priest’s attendants, advising the dying that relief was at hand, in the form of an expert trained and qualified to take confession and administer the other sacraments that would ensure safe passage, if not to heaven, at least to purgatory.
The dividing line between rich and poor wasn’t so much access to drugs or the best doctors as to post-mortem religious services: the prayers, candles, masses and chantries that were meant to speed the dead to a better hereafter. The technical emergencies the authorities faced weren’t shortages of hospital beds and doctors but of candle wax and confessors. Priests were not immune to the plague.
‘Emergency’, or its Latin equivalent, was the word used by the bishop of Bath and Wells in January 1349, six months after the plague began in England, when he broadcast an urgent message to his flock via the surviving parish priests in his diocese. ‘We understand,’ he wrote, ‘that many people are dying without the sacrament of penance, because they do not know what they ought to do in such an emergency and believe that even in an emergency confession of their sins is no use or worth unless made to [an ordained] priest.’ What they had to do, he told them, was ‘make confession of their sins, according to the teaching of the apostle, to any lay person, even to a woman if a man is not available.’
In 1348 (London Review of Books)
It’s hard to keep a virulent disease down. The first and biggest burst of plague lasted from the late 1340s until about 1353. Just as the world started thinking things were getting back to normal, another wave hit in 1360. After that there were new waves every 10 years or so. Europe’s population didn’t get back to pre-plague levels for a century and a half.
We’ve come a long way since the Black Death (Asia Times)
Quarantining was invented during the first wave of bubonic plague in the 14th century, but it was deployed more systematically during the Great Plague. Public servants called searchers ferreted out new cases of plague, and quarantined sick people along with everyone who shared their homes. People called warders painted a red cross on the doors of quarantined homes, alongside a paper notice that read “LORD HAVE MERCY UPON US.” (Yes, the all-caps was mandatory).
The government supplied food to the housebound. After 40 days, warders painted over the red crosses with white crosses, ordering residents to sterilize their homes with lime. Doctors believed that the bubonic plague was caused by “smells” in the air, so cleaning was always recommended. They had no idea that it was also a good way to get rid of the ticks and fleas that actually spread the contagion.
Of course, not everyone was compliant. Legal documents at the U.K. National Archives show that in April 1665, Charles II ordered severe punishment for a group of people who took the cross and paper off their door “in a riotious manner,” so they could “goe abroad into the street promiscuously, with others.” It’s reminiscent of all those modern Americans who went to the beaches in Florida over spring break, despite what public health experts told them.
Just as some American politicians blame the Chinese for the coronavirus, there were 17th century Brits who blamed the Dutch for spreading the plague. Others blamed Londoners. Mr. Pepys had relocated his family to a country home in Woolwich, and writes in his diary that the locals “are afeard of London, being doubtfull of anything that comes from thence, or that hath lately been there … I was forced to say that I lived wholly at Woolwich.”
Annalee Newitz: What social distancing looked like in 1666 (Salt Lake Tribune)
In the cold autumn of 1629, the plague came to Italy. It arrived with the German mercenaries (and their fleas) who marched through the Piedmont countryside. The epidemic raged through the north, only slowing when it reached the natural barrier of the Apennines. On the other side of the mountains, Florence braced itself. The officials of the Sanità, the city’s health board, wrote anxiously to their colleagues in Milan, Verona, Venice, in the hope that studying the patterns of contagion would help them protect their city. Reports came from Parma that its ‘inhabitants are reduced to such a state that they are jealous of those who are dead’. The Sanità learned that, in Bologna, officials had forbidden people to discuss the peste, as if they feared you could summon death with a word.
Plague was thought to spread through corrupt air, on the breath of the sick or trapped in soft materials like cloth or wood, so in June 1630 the Sanità stopped the flow of commerce and implemented a cordon sanitaire across the mountain passes of the Apennines. But they soon discovered that the boundary was distressingly permeable. Peasants slipped past bored guards as they played cards. In the dog days of the summer, a chicken-seller fell ill and died in Trespiano, a village in the hills above Florence. The city teetered on the brink of calamity.
By August, Florentines were dying. The archbishop ordered the bells of all the churches in the city to be rung while men and women fell to their knees and prayed for divine intercession. In September, six hundred people were buried in pits outside the city walls. As panic mounted, rumours spread: about malicious ‘anointers’, swirling infection through holy water stoups, about a Sicilian doctor who poisoned his patients with rotten chickens. In October, the number of plague burials rose to more than a thousand. The Sanità opened lazaretti, quarantine centres for the sick and dying, commandeering dozens of monasteries and villas across the Florentine hills. In November, 2100 plague dead were buried. A general quarantine seemed the only answer. In January 1631, the Sanità ordered the majority of citizens to be locked in their homes for forty days under threat of fines and imprisonment.
In his Memoirs of the Plague in Florence, Giovanni Baldinucci described how melancholy it was ‘to see the streets and churches without anybody in them’. As the city fell quiet, ordinary forms of intimacy were forbidden. Two teenage sisters, Maria and Cammilla, took advantage of their mother’s absence in the plague hospital to dance with friends who lived in the same building. When they were discovered, their friends’ parents were taken to prison. At their trial, the mother, Margherita, blamed the two girls: ‘Oh traitors, what have you done?’ Another pair of sisters found relief from the boredom of quarantine by tormenting their brother. Arrested after one of the Sanità’s policemen saw them through an open door, one of them explained in court that ‘in order to pass the time we dressed our brother up in a mask, and we were dancing among ourselves, and while he was … dressed up like that, the corporal passed by … and saw what was going on inside the house.’ Dancing and dressing up were treacherous actions, violating the Sanità’s measures to control movement, contact, breath. But loneliness afflicted people too…
The poor were judged not only careless but physically culpable, their bodies frustratingly vulnerable to disease. The early decades of the 17th century in Europe saw widespread famines, sky-high grain prices, declining wages, political breakdown and violent religious conflicts. (This is the ‘general crisis of the 17th century’ that Important Male Historians like to debate.) One Florentine administrator, surveying the surrounding countryside, reported that even before the epidemic struck, villages were ‘full of people, who feed themselves with myrtle berries, acorns and grasses, and whom one sees along the roads seeming like corpses who walk’. The city was not much better. A diarist in Florence in 1630 noted the ‘many poor children who eat the stalks of cabbages that they find on the street, as though, through their hunger, they seem like fruit’. Famine was compounded by the steep decline of the textile industry in the city, as producers in England, Holland and Spain undercut prices; the number of wool workshops halved between 1596 and 1626. These long, lean years of unemployment and hunger had left Florentines acutely susceptible to the coming epidemic.
The Sanità arranged the delivery of food, wine and firewood to the homes of the quarantined (30,452 of them). Each quarantined person received a daily allowance of two loaves of bread and half a boccale (around a pint) of wine. On Sundays, Mondays and Thursdays, they were given meat. On Tuesdays, they got a sausage seasoned with pepper, fennel and rosemary. On Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, rice and cheese were delivered; on Friday, a salad of sweet and bitter herbs. The Sanità spent an enormous amount of money on food because they thought that the diet of the poor made them especially vulnerable to infection, but not everyone thought it was a good idea. Rondinelli recorded that some elite Florentines worried that quarantine ‘would give [the poor] the opportunity to be lazy and lose the desire to work, having for forty days been provided abundantly for all their needs’.
The provision of medicine was also expensive. Every morning, hundreds of people in the lazaretti were prescribed theriac concoctions, liquors mixed with ground pearls or crushed scorpions, and bitter lemon cordials. The Sanità did devolve some tasks to the city’s confraternities. The brothers of San Michele Arcangelo conducted a housing survey to identify possible sources of contagion; the members of the Archconfraternity of the Misericordia transported the sick in perfumed willow biers from their homes to the lazaretti. But mostly, the city government footed the bill. Historians now interpret this extensive spending on public health as evidence of the state’s benevolence: if tracts like Righi’s brim over with intolerance towards the poor, the account books of the Sanità tell an unflashy story of good intentions.
But the Sanità – making use of its own police force, court and prison – also punished those who broke quarantine. Its court heard 566 cases between September 1630 and July 1631, with the majority of offenders – 60 per cent – arrested, imprisoned, and later released without a fine. A further 11 per cent were imprisoned and fined. On the one hand, the majority of offenders were spared the harshest penalties, of corporal punishment or exile. On the other, being imprisoned in the middle of a plague epidemic was potentially lethal; and the fines levied contributed to the operational budget of the public health system. The Sanità’s lavish spending on food and medicine suggests compassion in the face of poverty and suffering. But was it kindness, if those salads and sausages were partly paid for by the same desperate people they were intended to help? The Sanità’s intentions may have been virtuous, but they were nevertheless shaped by an intractable perception of the poor as thoughtless and lazy, opportunists who took advantage of the state of emergency.
Early modern historians used to be interested in the idea of the ‘world turned upside down’: in moments of inversion during carnival when a pauper king was crowned and the pressures of a deeply unequal society released. But what emerges from the tangle of stories in John Henderson’s book is a sense that for many the world stood still during the plague. The disease waned in the early summer of 1631 and, in June, Florentines emerged onto the streets to take part in a Corpus Christi procession, thanking God for their reprieve. When the epidemic finally ended, about 12 per cent of the population of Florence had died. This was a considerably lower mortality rate than other Italian cities: in Venice 33 per cent of the population; in Milan 46 per cent; while the mortality rate in Verona was 61 per cent. Was the disease less virulent in Florence or did the Sanità’s measures work? Percentages tell us something about living and dying. But they don’t tell us much about survival. Florentines understood the dangers, but gambled with their lives anyway: out of boredom, desire, habit, grief…
Florence Under Siege: Surviving Plague in an Early Modern City by John Henderson.
Inclined to Putrefication (London Review of Books)
The majority of the population feared and condemned inoculation. Even many of those who were in favor of it were torn by doubts and religious scruples. Was inoculation a “lawful” practice? Was smallpox not a “judgement of God,” sent to punish and humble the people for their sins? Was being inoculated not like “taking God’s Work out of His Hand”?
Douglass played upon such popular scruples to the apparent discomfiture of his clerical opponents. Turning to the ministers he challenged them to determine, as a “Case of Conscience,” how placing more trust in human measures than in God was consistent with the devotion and subjection owed to the all-wise providence of the Lord. That he had not raised this issue in good faith becomes evident from a passage contained in a private letter suggesting jeeringly that his correspondent might perhaps admire how the clergy reconciled inoculation with their doctrine of predestination…
Ever since she had accompanied her husband on a diplomatic mission to Turkey, where she had become acquainted with inoculation and convinced of its merits, it had been Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s ambition to bring “this useful invention into fashion in England.” That the country’s best medical minds had not sanctioned the practice did not deter Lady Mary. She bided her time. In the 1721 epidemic she asked Charles Maitland, the physician who four years earlier had inoculated her young son in Constantinople, to perform the operation now on her little daughter. She also enlisted the interest of the Princess of Wales, at whose request the King agreed to pardon a number of prisoners who were under sentence of death if they submitted to inoculation. Six convicts in Newgate Prison were ready to do so, and on August 9, about the time Boylston was injecting his patients, they were inoculated by Maitland. The results at first were good. The ice had been broken and during the next months further persons underwent inoculation at his hands. The culmination of Lady Mary’s crusade was the inoculation of the daughters of the Prince and Princess of Wales…
With improvement in its techniques, inoculation gained increasing favor as a method for the prophylaxis of smallpox until it finally, nearly eighty years later, gave way to Jenner’s magnificent discovery of vaccination.
When Cotton Mather Fought Smallpox (American Heritage)
Asiatic cholera, one of humanity’s greatest scourges in the modern period, came to Europe for the first time in the years after 1817, traveling by ship and caravan route from the banks of the Ganges, where it was endemic, to the Persian Gulf, Mesopotamia and Iran, the Caspian Sea and southern Russia, and then—thanks to troop movements occasioned by Russia’s wars against Persia and Turkey in the late 1820s and its suppression of the revolt in Poland in 1830–1831—to the shores of the Baltic Sea. From there its spread westward was swift and devastating, and before the end of 1833 it had ravaged the German states, France, and the British Isles and passed on to Canada, the western and southern parts of the United States, and Mexico.
Politics of a Plague (NYRB)
Typhoid was a killer but it belonged to another world. The disease thrived in the overcrowded, insanitary conditions of New York’s slums, such as Five Points, Prospect Hill and Hell’s Kitchen. The family of one of the victims hired a researcher called George Soper and the diligent Mr Soper proved to be Mary’s nemesis – even though when he first tracked her down she chased him out of her kitchen with a carving fork. And that’s part of the problem with Mary.
It’s possible to sympathise with her refusal to believe that she could be transmitting a disease from which she never suffered herself. But Mr Soper had correctly identified her as an asymptomatic carrier of Typhoid fever. She would never get the disease herself but would never stop giving it to other people.
Not surprisingly, Mary Mallon found this impossible to understand. But the New York authorities were desperate and in 1907 Mary was exiled to the isolation facility on North Brother Island in the river outside New York.
At the end of the 19th century, one in seven people around the world had died of tuberculosis, and the disease ranked as the third leading cause of death in the United States. While physicians had begun to accept German physician Robert Koch’s scientific confirmation that TB was caused by bacteria, this understanding was slow to catch on among the general public, and most people gave little attention to the behaviors that contributed to disease transmission. They didn’t understand that things they did could make them sick.
In his book, Pulmonary Tuberculosis: Its Modern Prophylaxis and the Treatment in Special Institutions and at Home, S. Adolphus Knopf, an early TB specialist who practiced medicine in New York, wrote that he had once observed several of his patients sipping from the same glass as other passengers on a train, even as “they coughed and expectorated a good deal.” It was common for family members, or even strangers, to share a drinking cup.
With Knopf’s guidance, in the 1890s the New York City Health Department launched a massive campaign to educate the public and reduce transmission. The “War on Tuberculosis” public health campaign discouraged cup-sharing and prompted states to ban spitting inside public buildings and transit and on sidewalks and other outdoor spaces—instead encouraging the use of special spittoons, to be carefully cleaned on a regular basis. Before long, spitting in public spaces came to be considered uncouth, and swigging from shared bottles was frowned upon as well. These changes in public behavior helped successfully reduce the prevalence of tuberculosis.
Hassler shared his doubts about a closure order, but suggested that a short closure order would “limit most of all the cases to the home and give the other places a chance to thoroughly clean up and thus we may bring about a condition that will reduce the number of cases.” Several in attendance felt that a general closure order would induce panic in the people, would be costly, and would not stop the spread of the epidemic. Theater owners and dance hall operators supported a closure order, hoping that it would bring a quick end to the epidemic that was already causing a drastic reduction in revenue (one owner estimated that his receipts had fallen off 40% since the start of the epidemic). After some discussion, the Board of Health voted to close all places of public amusement, ban all lodge meetings, close all public and private schools, and to prohibit all dances and other social gatherings effective at 1:00 am on Friday, October 18. The Board did not close churches, but instead recommended that services and socials be either discontinued during the epidemic or held in the open air. City police were given a list of the restrictions and directed to ensure compliance with the order. The Liberty Loan drive, always the concern of citizens as they tried to outdo other cities in fundraising, would be allowed to continue by permit, as would all public meetings.
Despite the closure order and gathering ban, the centerpiece of San Francisco’s crusade against influenza was the face mask. Several other cities also mandated their use, and many more recommended them for private citizens as well as for physicians, nurses, and attendants who cared for the ill. But it was San Francisco that pushed for the early and widespread use of masks as a way to prevent the spread of the dread malady. On October 18, the day that the other health measures went into effect, Hassler ordered that all barbers wear masks while with customers, and recommended clerks who came into contact with the general public also don them. The next day, Hassler added hotel and rooming house employees, bank tellers, druggists, store clerks, and any other person serving the public to the list of those required to wear masks. Citizens were again strongly urged to wear masks while in public. On October 21, the Board of Health met and issued a strong recommendation to all residents to wear a mask while in public.
The wearing of a mask immediately became of a symbol of wartime patriotism…
The American Influenza Epidemic of 1918-1919: San Francisco (Influenza Archive)
It’s difficult to say where this pandemic is leading. On the one hand, it has revealed the extent to which the most essential workers of our society are underpaid and undervalued. It has shown how dependent we are on transient and undocumented workers who are routinely brutalized, especially in the food system. It has exposed the dark underbelly of how food ends up on our shelves and how fragile our food system really is. It has led to an upsurge in union activism and strikes. It has demonstrated the fragility of long, just-in-time supply chains and the downside of outsourcing absolutely everything, such that no one country can produce anything anymore.
It has laid bare the cracks in our society. It has shown that the philosophy of “small government” promoted by billionaires and corporations is a disaster in times of crisis. It has shown that the pattern of crippling and hobbling state and local governments in favor of empowering markets and wealthy private actors is counterproductive. It has shown the utter folly of tying the basics of life to formal employment, such as housing and health care. It has shown that depending on “free markets” for absolutely everything doesn’t work when those markets shut down due to inevitable crises. It has shown the fecklessness and incompetence of America’s leaders, as well as their amorality and bottomless greed.
Yet it has also empowered authoritarians and dictators the world over. It has superempowered the ability of states to track and monitor their citizens. It has devastated local economies and small businesses, while shifting wealth, power, and economic activity to transnational corporations who have access to unlimited money from captured governments. It has led to an upsurge in activity among the extremist far-right and well-armed and organized Fascist militias. The stock market reaches a new high every time the unemployment rate goes up, while the financial industry is bailed out. Unemployment is at Great Depression levels, while workers in the U.S. are told by politicians to fend for themselves. “Essential” workers are ordered back to work or threatened with benefit cut-offs. To date, it has increased inequality.
It has also reduced pollution levels and crippled much of air travel, perhaps forever. It has substantially reduced demand for fossil fuels, even as prices reach all-time lows. It has caused cities to close off streets and avenues to cars in favor of bicycles and pedestrians. It has increased the viability of working from home.
In short, it’s complicated. But much of what happens will be up to us. Will we become more extremist, authoritarian and unequal? Will we continue to embrace the Social Darwinism promoted by our betters? Or will we demand essential workers be paid better, unions to no longer be suppressed, working hours to drop, commuting to go away, streets to be prioritized to bikes, and the government spend its trillions on helping the average citizen rather than just big corporations and the investor class? It could go either way. Walter Scheidel concludes:
In looking for illumination from the past on our current pandemic, we must be wary of superficial analogies. Even in the worst-case scenario, Covid-19 will kill a far smaller share of the world’s population than any of these earlier disasters did, and it will touch the active work force and the next generation even more lightly. Labor won’t become scarce enough to drive up wages, nor will the value of real estate plummet. And our economies no longer rely on farmland and manual labor.
Yet the most important lesson of history endures. The impact of any pandemic goes well beyond lives lost and commerce curtailed. Today, America faces a fundamental choice between defending the status quo and embracing progressive change. The current crisis could prompt redistributive reforms akin to those triggered by the Great Depression and World War II, unless entrenched interests prove too powerful to overcome.