The UN this week came out with a report on zoological disease outbreaks pointing to the reasons why outbreaks such as Covid are becoming more commonplace. Amongst the factors are more demand for meat, rapid urbanisation creating cesspools for disease, agricultural intensification and deforestation leading to closer contact (and consumption) or wild animals carrying hitherto unknown pathogens and increased travel and transportation across the globe helping spread emerging diseases are amongst the factors listed out. Rather than a dramatic bolt from the blue, Covid was actually quite predictable. After all it’s the 14th such outbreak of a disease transmitted from animals to humans since 1920!
In fact, far from being something new, Covid seems to be playing a similar role to the plague in Medieval Europe. And it’s being driven by a lot of the same factors. One of the silliest notions to emerge after the end of the Cold War (aside from other howlers like neo-liberalism, trickle-down economics or the spread of democracy by arms) was that globalization was something new and unprecedented in world history. The original globalist was in fact Genghis Khan and his Mongol empire that starting in 1206 went on to create the largest contiguous empire in history that for the first time connected east and west in an empire stretching from China to Poland. Trade boomed as for the first time in history a single political authority could protect trade along what came to be known as the Silk Road. This movement of goods and people across the globe soon led to the spread of the plague out of East Asia which reached Europe in 1347 via merchant ships coming to Italy. Just as airline passengers are the perfect conduits for Covid today.
Like covid today, the plague helped accelerate dramatic socio-economic changes. It killed off nearly half the population of Europe leading to a dramatic labour shortage leading to skyrocketing wages for peasants and craftsmen who could now demand payment in coin creating a money economy. The plague struck densely-packed cities leading nobles to flee to country estates. When it was over, the feudal lords wanted to put the economically-powered peasants back in their place through new taxes but only provoked peasant rebellions that hastened the end of feudalism and the rise of centralised monarchies and capitalism. The plague accentuated the contradictions within feudal society and speeded up its decline. This was not the only time disease played a transformative role: according to writers such as Jared Diamond and Peter Watson, zoonotic diseases also helped Europe conquer the new world as native populations in the Americas were decimated by diseases that Europeans, long living with a much greater variety of domesticated animals, had grown accustomed to.
Unlike the plague, however, Covid is not killing off millions of people or creating dramatic labour shortages. Quite the opposite. If the plague ended up helping the poor eventually overcome feudalism, Covid seems to be helping capitalism merely intensify its exploitation through mass unemployment, trade disruptions and dramatically altering the balance between capital and labour. While Covid, or rather its reaction to it, seems to be playing into the worst instincts of capitalism, like the plague did for feudalism, it too is accentuating late capitalism’s central contradiction: an unprecedented ability to churn out goods and services while delivering economic insecurity, reduced circumstances and inequality amongst those supposed to be buying them. Just as it took years after the fact to understand the true importance of the plague in Europe, the true significance of Covid will only be realised long after it has passed.