Pandemics may have a lasting influence on political behavior and socioeconomic structures if they impose a “sufficient loss of life,” according to a new analysis of the Black Death. As such, a team of researchers theorizes that the long-term effects of the current coronavirus pandemic may lead to potential shifts in cultural and societal norms.
The Black Death, also known as the bubonic plague, was one of the deadliest pandemics of the last millennium and resulted in the deaths of up to half of the European population. Rolling waves of outbreaks caused by a bacterium known as Y. pestis – a parasite that infects rats and fleas and spreads to humans through their bites – rocked the continent between the 14th and 19th centuries. Following the plague, political shifts lingered for more than 500 years that could tell us how modern pandemics may shape the political landscape, according to a working paper published on the preprint site Comparative Politics.
A duo of researchers at the University of Virginia set out with a question: could Covid-19 result in similar changes? To answer this question, they traced the local consequences of the Black Death in German-speaking Central Europe because of its “significant regional variation” in death intensity and historically high level of political decentralization.
Before getting too far into it, the team notes several differences between the bubonic plague and Covid-19. For starters, the Black Death killed between 30 and 60 percent of Europe's population. By comparison, Covid-19 has killed just under 0.03 percent of the current population. Furthermore, medicine is far more advanced today than it was in medieval times with doctors better equipped to diagnose, treat, and research diseases.
Differences in European society at the time largely contributed to the lasting impacts of the plague. Europe was primarily built on serfdom whereby agricultural workers supported the elite through labor. As millions of people died, the physical labor force significantly declined. In the US, the long-term effects on the labor market have not yet been large enough to have fundamentally changed the balance of power “between labor and capital.” Although Covid-19 has now resulted in what is thought to be a conservative estimate of 115,000 American deaths, it is still low compared to other pandemics, particularly the Black Death.
“However, we do not believe that Covid-19 is the end of the story, given how densely populated and connected our world is. If we were to eventually have a pandemic with a higher mortality rate, affecting people in prime working age, we could see the type of labor market reorganization that our paper highlights,” said associate professor of politics Daniel Gingerich in an interview with the University of Virginia.
During the Black Death, places that were most hit by the pandemic were most likely to adopt more inclusive political institutions and equal land ownership patterns. Electoral behavior changed as well, with higher-hit areas transitioning to a more participatory political arena with less voter fraud and intimidation.