The primary measures we’re using to control the spread of COVID-19—masks, social distancing, isolation—have changed little from those used to mitigate the Spanish Flu in 1918, or even the bubonic plague in the Middle Ages. (In fact, the word “quarantine” comes from the Italian quaranta giorni, the forty-day period of time that arriving ships were required to anchor off the Venetian coast to prevent the spread of the Black Death.)
We were intrigued by a recent piece in the New Yorker that looks at another impact of the plague that ravaged the world in the 14th and 15th centuries: the Black Death likely ushered in an era of unprecedented social change and knowledge advancement. Devastated economies recovered to become stronger than before, with greater equality. With half of the population wiped out, workers’ wages rose, leading to the rise of a new class of artisans and innovators. With a shortage of adult men to fill jobs, women found meaningful employment in many trades.
Science and medicine moved from a spiritual and astrological orientation to a more knowledge-based approach. The “quarantine enforcers” birthed a public health infrastructure. And so the Renaissance was born. But the author also points out that great upheavals, whether caused by disease, depression or war, lead to radical social adjustments—which can be a good thing or a bad thing.
Our current pandemic offers glimpses of both possibilities. Will distrust of science, government ineptitude, and political divisiveness become further entrenched? Or will society emerge stronger, with advances in technology and medicine, a stronger economy and a renewed social system that addresses deep-rooted inequality—our own post-pandemic Renaissance? It’s up to us.