When the Black Plague struck Europe in the 14th Century, it wiped out nearly half the population.
It would take England, for example, 400 years to return to pre-plague population levels.
Death stalked the land.
Events like that do not come without enormous consequences and impacts on the societies that they strike.
In the case of the Bubonic Plague, it killed millions but it also killed the Feudal system and led to the rise of capitalism. As the peasants who worked the land died off in vast numbers, there were fewer and fewer to harvest the crops of the wealthy landowners. Suddenly, the formerly downtrodden peasants had leverge. They demanded better pay and better working conditions, and the Lords of the Manor, having no choice, granted them.
The death of so many of so short a period of time also concentrated what little wealth there as in the hands of the survivors. For the first time there was disposable capital, and peasants could now buy their own tools and often their own land. Feudalism was dead and Capitalism was born.
There was another, far more interesting, impact of the plague, and that was a complete reversal of formerly strict codes of ethics, morality and religion.
The Seven Deadly Sins of the Church had been the foundation of the moral culture of Feudalism. These were:
Ironically, with the rise of Capitalism, these sins became The Seven Virtues. As Gordon Gekko would say, Greed is Good. And indeed, Capitalism is founded on exploiting these very basic human weaknesses. What, after all, drives our own brand of rapacious Capitalism better than Envy, or Pride or Gluttony or Greed. OK, may be not Sloth, but then again, we are always searching for the fastest and easiest way to do something.
The Plague turned the world upside-down. What had been deemed bad was now deemed good, and conversely, what had been deemed good, — the 7 Virtues of Pope Gregory (590 AD) — Chastity, Kindness, Humility, Temperance, Patience, Diligence, were now viewed, more or less, as for ‘losers’. Amusing but deadly to success. These are not traits we seek in our CEOs or in our leaders, sorry to say.
Greed is good.
And now we come to our own Bubonic Plague- Covid-19.
It won’t (God willing) kill off the numbers that the Black Death killed off in Europe, but it is already turning our own social morays on their heads, as the Bubonic Plague once did.
Even as we begin to ‘open up’ the country, the virus has not gone away. So if we are going to survive, we are going to have to change our ways of living and interacting. The virus is going to be there for long time. Perhaps a very long time.
We will no longer be able to gather together. We will lose the sense of physical contact. We will learn to fear others. We will increasingly live alone and work alone. We will communicate by video as opposed to real life. Virtual life will increasingly become real life.
When the Black Death stalked Europe, the new world of Capitalism must have seemed strange and unnatural to those who lived through the change. Markets? Money? Owning land? Selling your goods? To the serfs of Europe, it must have seemed that nothing any longer made sense. The old way of life was gone forever, the new barely comprehensible at first.
But over time, these practices became the norm.
Perhaps over time Zoom and working at home and wearing masks will also become the norm.
But perhaps also, as we all applaud the NHS or bang our pots for the health care workers, or come to appreciate the sacrifices that ‘essential workers’ like bus drivers or police or teachers make, we can also undergo another flip in our 7 Deadly Sins.
Perhaps once again, things like Greed will no longer be viewed as a virtue, but once again, as a sin.
Perhaps, in a strange way, we will return to embrace and appreciate things like humility and kindness.
You can read more about this in my new book Don’t Watch This! How The Media Are Destroying Your Life (Skyhorse 2020)