- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 19, 2020

The Black Death that struck Europe in the 14th century forced a total reordering of society, permanently rewriting rules between landowners and workers, and between the church and the faithful.

The influenza pandemic that swept the globe after World War I, by contrast, left barely a blip on American society.

All eyes are now on the COVID-19 crisis, which could be as consequential as the Black Death, as fleeting as the 1918 flu or somewhere in between.

Politicians, futurists and others are wondering which experiments, small and big, will have staying power beyond the confines of the pandemic.

President Trump, a noted germophobe even before the outbreak, said the handshake greeting may become a practice of the past.

Architecture aficionados debate whether the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus will end the open office concept for the workplace.

The business world is getting an emergency test of the possibilities and limits of telework. Plenty of employees are beginning to realize that in-person meetings may not be as essential as bosses once insisted. Schools are pioneering new methods of distance learning.

The federal government is doling out massive payments to most Americans in what some activists hope is a test run for the universal basic income concept. Spain is testing such a system as part of its own response to the COVID-19 crisis.

Sen. Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent, said the pandemic should persuade Americans to ditch their health care system and embrace his government-run plan.

Mr. Trump said the U.S. is realizing the dangers of globalization and must figure out ways to increase manufacturing in the U.S. and rely less on international supply chains.

A five-year storm?

Whether the world rethinks globalization depends on what analysts say about the frequency of recurrences, said Steven Johnson, author of “The Ghost Map,” a book about London’s cholera epidemic that began in 1854 and the scientific and city planning advances that resulted.

“Is this something that might happen every five years and, if so, then yes, there probably is a structural change that has to happen in terms of globalization because the state of the world can’t tolerate a crisis of this magnitude every five years,” he said.

But if the pandemic is more of a 100-year event, he said, “we actually don’t need to change that much of our systems.”

COVID-19 does seem to have settled the fierce U.S. debate of the past decade over whether government should play an expanding or contracting role. With the federal government engaged in the kind of spending of Northern European social democracies, the expansionists appear to have won.

“Having a government that can respond quickly, decisively and in a well-financed way to these crises, people might find that to be of value,” said Christian McMillen, a historian and associate dean for social sciences at the University of Virginia. He said he expects the debate over how the U.S. delivers health care to become even more prominent in the November elections.

Part of that will be a discussion of Mr. Sanders’ universal health care proposal. But Mr. McMillen said he expects an examination of the way Americans approach disease control, with a reliance on vaccines or cures such as antibiotics.

“I would like to think that this might force us to rethink our overreliance on therapeutics, on drugs and so forth, and invest in a robust public health infrastructure that allows us to respond rapidly to something like this,” he said.

But he, like the other specialists who spoke to The Washington Times, noted the amount of uncertainty about COVID-19 and therefore about what changes it spawns.

They pointed to the 1918 flu, which killed perhaps 50 million people globally and 675,000 in the U.S., a little more than one-half of 1% of the population. That death rate today would equal more than 1.6 million Americans.

Yet other than spurring research into virology, the 1918 pandemic resulted in little lasting social change, Mr. McMillan said. One reason for the shallow impact was that the influenza was mainly a local experience, dealt with by local officials, even though it struck nationwide.

It also washed over the U.S. quickly.

Mr. Johnson said life expectancies were growing in the decades before 1918, but the horrors of a pandemic weren’t unusual and childhood deaths from disease were common.

So when the flu cut life expectancy back to 41 years, it wasn’t shocking. Even with a lower death toll, he said, COVID-19 will be different.

“When we see a mass health catastrophe like this rear its ugly head, I think we’re way more shocked by it now than the folks in 1918 were. I think it will likely leave us more transformed than 1918 did,” Mr. Johnson said.

The 1918 flu stands as an outlier.

Mr. Johnson said even the 19th-century cholera outbreaks, with a smaller death toll, resulted in advances. When the third cholera pandemic hit London in 1854, John Snow, a doctor, proved that it came from contaminated water, not the “bad air” that had long shouldered blame.

With that understanding came new solutions.

“That led to this whole reorganization of the infrastructure of cities and the building in London of the sewer system and sewer systems all over the world,” the author said.

The great pestilence

Nobody is predicting the kinds of changes spawned by the Black Death.

That pandemic, carried in rat fleas, took perhaps half of Europe’s population from 1347 to 1351 and punctured the imperium of the Catholic Church, said Dorsey Armstrong, a professor at Purdue University who recorded a lecture series on the Black Death for The Great Courses.

Some clergy fled their duties while others leaned into them — and died in great numbers. “It looked like God was mad and he wasn’t sparing anybody,” Ms. Armstrong said.

People began to question the church, and reform movements gained strength.

“The Protestant Reformation may not have happened at all, or certainly not have happened when it did, if not for the plague,” the professor said.

Ms. Armstrong said regions reacted differently to the plague. Some fell apart. Others, such as Florence, had leaders who created boards of health and mobilized guilds to reach people.

Leaders were required to stay in the city to govern. Those who fled to the countryside to avoid the plague faced hefty fines.

The Black Death was a label created centuries later. At the time, it was known as the Great Pestilence.

It upended centuries of stagnant social structure and resulted in better lives for those who survived, Ms. Armstrong said.

Suddenly, instead of a land crunch — too little space and too many workers — there was a labor crunch. Too many nobles were looking for folks to work their land. If a noble wasn’t ready to pay more, then his workers headed down the road to someone who would.

“That gave the lower classes more power, more money and, in fact, helped contribute to a rise of the merchant class,” Ms. Armstrong said.

With money in the merchant class, nobles began to marry “down” into those families.

Ms. Armstrong wondered whether there will be a similar reckoning for those doing essential jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic — delivery, food service, sanitation — at low wages.

“The question will be after we get through this initial wave, will their work be better valued? Will the change be a recognition that they need to have higher wages, more paid sick leave?” she said. “That would be a similar transformation for the good.”

Amy Zalman, a futurist and professor at Georgetown University, said COVID-19 is unlikely to cause any social U-turns but will accelerate changes already underway.

That doesn’t mean an idea like universal basic income is certain, but it does mean big conversations about the nature of work and life and pay will be expedited.

“Questions like ‘What is work?’ Is it what we thought work was in 1850 or 1950, what was the relationship between work and wages, how do people sustain themselves, and what is the relationship between work and life — work and not-work?” she said. “Those are questions already very much in the air.”

Lots of speculation has emerged about smaller-level changes. Will the middle seats disappear on jetliners? Can movie theaters survive? Will masks become de rigueur, as hats once were for men in public? With nursing homes taking the brunt of the chaos, will Americans rethink the tendency to warehouse the elderly?

One of the biggest questions is about touch. France has issued guidance discouraging cheek kissing.

In the U.S., Mr. Trump, never a fan of handshakes, said it “maybe is something that’s going to be a little bit from the past.”

At the last Democratic presidential debate, the two candidates exchanged an elbow bump.

Of course, hugging and touches in the workplace were becoming problematic in the #MeToo era — think of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden’s repeated apologies for being too touchy-feely with women around him.

Ms. Zalman said the pandemic could cement that, with social distancing becoming more than a virus coping mechanism.

“I could totally see the phrase and the concept sticking around and morphing,” she said.

In the meantime, the warnings about touch are giving us all more information about the people we see in our neighborhoods.

“I now know who lives together, because the only people who touch people outside probably come from the same household — or are stupid,” Ms. Zalman said.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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