How Pandemics Have Shaped Politics Around the World
Political change caused by the outbreak will not stay geographically limited to any single country.
Viruses are the most political of all creatures. Machiavellian in their machinations, and Maoist in their ability to retreat only to advance again, they can bring down empires faster than human revolutions. The consequences of COVID-19 can be prismatically seen through the political repercussions in Europe, the United States, India and China.
The bubonic plague of the fourteenth century changed the political order in Europe in a manner that no organised human effort could have accomplished. The tremors of that upheaval continue to be felt across the world over 500 years later.
Before the plague, the Roman Church dominated most governments. The Pope was more powerful than royalty. The plague led many Catholics to question their faith since priests themselves were succumbing to the plague.
Thus, among the most important political effects of the plague were the weakening of the Church and of the State, and a severance of the mutually self-serving bond between them.
This paved the way for the Protestant Reformation and the rise of nation-states independent of the Church’s influence.
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected Italy profoundly with 2,75,000 cases and over 35,000 deaths. In response to a statement by Prime Minister Conte that the central government may need to ‘revoke regional health policy powers’, the Lombardy governor pushed back, calling Conte’s statement ‘fascist’ and ‘nonsense’. There is uncertainty about the survival of the current government.
The United States
In the 150 years that followed Columbus’s arrival to the American shores in 1492, the Native American population of North America was reduced by 80 percent due to measles, smallpox and influenza. The intentional distribution of blankets infected by European patients to Native Americans further contributed to their decline. The West was won using viruses for bioterrorism rather than the whitewashed Hollywood accounts of the bravery of cowboys.
The Spanish flu of 1918 changed the role of women forever as they left farms and entered the mercantile and industrial workforce in unparalleled numbers. Women also assumed leadership roles and became an economic force demanding participation in making community decisions. This dynamic helped towards women being given the right to vote by the 19th Amendment in 1920.
With high mortality rates in the elderly being reported for COVID-19, will there possibly be a progressive shift in politics? Younger voters tend to be left-leaning. The elderly can’t risk coming out to vote in the US in November. The country is being forced into a postal ballot which is likely to result in a Biden-Harris victory that Trump and his supporters may contest leading to political and civil unrest.
In India, 18 million died in the flu pandemic a hundred years ago; the greatest loss in absolute numbers of any country in the world. The uncaring British response to the spread of flu fueled resentment.
In the ‘Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World’, British science writer Laura Spinney postulates that Gandhi’s succumbing to the flu contributed to his inability to control the mobs protesting the Rowlett Act of 1919 which extended censorship and other repressive measures beyond the war.
The massive protests against the Act included the one at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar where, in April 1919, Brigadier Reginald Dyer ordered his soldiers to fire into an unarmed crowd of protesters, killing over 500 and injuring twice that number. That massacre triggered the end of British sovereignty over India.
With India’s independence, other British colonies intensified their struggles for independence, changing the world map in a manner unimaginable a hundred years ago.
As the number of COVID-19 cases in India continues to rise, resulting in it soon having the highest number of cases in the world, it will be an epic challenge, either boosting or weakening the government.
The COVID-19 outbreak is already having a strong political impact in China. The first known case reported symptoms in Wuhan on 8 December 2019. China has been globally criticised for downplaying the initial discovery and severity of the outbreak.
After the death of Dr Li Wenliang, who is hailed as a whistleblower, hashtags supporting him and urging freedom of expression were blocked. A group of Chinese academicians signed an open letter calling for the central government to issue an apology to Dr Li and to protect freedom of speech.
In response to dissent and the surfacing of underlying fracture lines between the powerful military, the politburo and the weak but emboldened opposition, the Chinese government conceded to the military’s aggressive posturing on the Indian border, the South China Seas, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Around 700 years ago, the plague devastated the Mongol Empire and allowed much of Eurasia to slip out of its economic and military control. Cut to the present, where for years, several countries and major multinational companies have been trying to reduce their dependence on China, step out from under the umbrella of Chinese power, and forge their own destinies.
The COVID-19 pandemic has already caused an acceleration in the exodus of manufacturing operations and supply chains from China. China’s initiatives like ‘One Belt, One Road’ were directed towards increasing China’s political influence.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to result in geopolitical and economic ramifications contrary to China’s intentions. Perhaps a tiny virus will rein in the Chinese geopolitical juggernaut, something that superpowers and trade wars have failed to accomplish.
Much like the outbreak that started in China and spread to the world, political change will not stay geographically limited to any single country. Some experts and world leaders have expressed concerns that COVID-19 might be a once-in-a-generation pandemic. If they turn out to be right, human history will be divided into what came before and what came after, and historians might look back at the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 as a defining moment of the twenty-first century.
(Dr Rajesh Parikh is the Director of Medical Research and Hon. Neuropsychiatrist at Jaslok Hospital and Research Centre, Mumbai. He is also a co-author of the book “The Coronavirus: What you Need to Know about the Global Pandemic”.
This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the authors’ own. FIT neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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