• Weird History

The Actual Reasons Why Epidemics Have Historically Led To Social Unrest

Historically, epidemics are often followed by unrest, and sometimes those social movements during a pandemic create major changes. Recently, Roberto Censolo and Massimo Morelli published a study titled "COVID-19 and the Potential Consequences for Social Stability." In their work, Censolo and Morelli identified three ways epidemics disrupt society: Public health policies clash with personal interests, epidemics make social and economic inequality worse, and societies target minority groups during and after epidemics. 

"To different degrees, most of the great epidemics of the past appear to have been incubators of social unrest," Censolo and Morelli argue. Take, for example, the five cholera epidemics the researchers examined. Nearly twice as many "significant episodes of rebellion" took place after each outbreak.

What about the relationship between epidemics and social movements? In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic coincided with massive protests for racial justice. Similar patterns appear in history. When thinking about the long-term impact of a pandemic, examples from historical pandemics are useful. From the Black Death to the Spanish flu, epidemics disrupt society in some predictable ways. 

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  • Economic And Social Disparities Become More Obvious To The Affected Population

    Epidemics aren't very democratic when it comes to their impact. Historically, poorer and more marginalized communities fare worse during plagues. And that disparity can draw attention to other disparities in society.

    Take the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. Commoners, furious about the special treatment granted to landowners, began to chant, "When Adam delved, and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?" The rhyme undermined the idea that aristocrats had different blood than commoners and challenged the privileges granted to the nobility. 

    During London's devastating cholera outbreaks, the city's infrastructure decided who would live and who would perish. The richer parts of London received their water from pipes upriver of the city, while London's poorest neighborhoods drank water downstream from the city, and thus contaminated with human waste. 

    Epidemics can thus draw attention to economic and social disparities that predated them.

    "It appears that the economic disparities of 21st-century capitalism - where the richest one percent now own more than half of the world's wealth - are beginning to resemble those of 14th-century Europe," says historian Susan Wade.

    "When income inequalities become so jarring, and when these inequalities are based in long-term oppression, perhaps the sort of unrest we're seeing on the streets in 2020 is inevitable."

  • Photo: Deutsches Historisches Museum Berlin / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Policies To Prevent The Spread Of Disease Conflict With Personal Interests

    For centuries, rulers have tried to stop the spread of disease during epidemics.

    During bubonic plague outbreaks in Europe, some cities instituted a new policy of quarantining suspected carriers of infection. These quarantines would last for 40 days - hence the name "quarantine" for the Italian word "quaranta," or 40.

    As yellow fever threatened the British colonies in North America, many also instituted quarantines. Anyone infected with smallpox had to stay in their homes.

    Plague houses, or "lazarettos," isolated sick and potentially infected people. During the 19th century, when cholera outbreaks swept Europe, many countries forced people into lazarettos. 

    But these policies often created a backlash. The policies designed to stop disease imposed on people's interests and possibly their rights. 

    “When voluntary movements are suffocated but inequalities and tensions accumulate, then there may well be a surge after the pandemic is over,” explains Morelli.

    Some families flouted the rules by hiding cases so they could continue to live together. Enforcement might create resentments, as was the case when 17th-century Scottish authorities simply walled up an entire community, leaving the sick and the healthy to fend for themselves.

  • Photo: Pierart dou Tielt / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Epidemics Dramatically Change The Population And People’s Economic Welfare

    It's no surprise that epidemics can have a dramatic effect on population.  

    The Black Death claimed as many as 200 million lives - or over 40% of the world's population. The Spanish influenza of 1918 killed 50 million people, with 1 million perishing each week for the first 25 weeks of the outbreak. Epidemic diseases like smallpox and cholera also claimed tens of millions of lives.

    Population loss shapes societies in critical ways. Ironically, those who survive sometimes fare better economically after a plague. In the immediate aftermath of the Black Death, for example, crops rotted in the field and manufacturing stopped. But the labor shortage after the plague became a powerful tool for Europe's peasants, who demanded higher wages. 

    Peasants could suddenly afford to buy more meat and better bread products. They lived longer, healthier lives.

    But economic shifts in the wake of epidemics also lead to social unrest. In the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, England's peasants demanded more rights and higher wages. In response, the aristocracy slaughtered the leaders and sent the peasants back to the fields.

  • Photo: Liber Chronicarum / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    People Become Suspicious Of Society’s 'Others'

    Racism, xenophobia, and conspiracy theories tend to follow epidemics. 

    During the Black Death, Christian cities rounded up Jews and burned them, blaming Jews for spreading sickness. In Strasbourg, officials blamed Jews for poisoning wells. The city burned alive any Jew who refused to convert.

    In 1836, during a cholera outbreak, Naples targeted prostitutes and beggars. Seen as spreaders of disease, the city kicked out these marginalized groups. 

    The backlash doesn't end when the disease stops spreading. The Red Summer of 1919 came on the heels of the third wave of Spanish influenza. Lynchings, assaults, and riots bloomed in cities like Chicago, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC. 

    These attacks were driven by white Americans afraid of losing their dominant position in the wake of the epidemic and the end of WWI. 

    "These are moments of extreme precariousness, where people are suddenly uncertain about their fate, economic prospects, and the social order," according to Professor Geoff Ward, who studies racial violence. "Mass mobilization may be more likely in such circumstances where people feel they have little to lose and so much at stake."