What Impact Will COVID Have On Our Future? If The Black Plague Is Any Guide, The Impact Will Be HUGE

Three years into the COVID-19 pandemic, we still have no fixed idea of how to deal with this damned pathogen. That’s less a reflection on the science than it is on the nature of pathogens. And people. It’s hard enough fighting an actual pandemic. Having to battle misinformation, deliberate propaganda and genuine, honest confusion at the same time? People wanting black and white answers is understandable. Being handed a delineated tick tock of how to solve a problem beats having to figure it out for oneself. Alas, pathogens don’t play nicely. They’re intensely single-minded. Bigger problem? They’re adept at adapting. For a creature that’s no more than a clump of RNA, incapable of reproducing itself by itself (it needs another creature’s host cells and their DNA in order to do that), COVID-19 has been remarkably savvy. It has evolved continually, always looking for a way to improve its ability to infect us and our cells (saliva, lung, heart, brain, blood or whatever) and spread more explosively. Like most viruses, COVID-19 evolves on the fly because it can – and because it has to in order to survive. That’s why pinning it down is so challenging. That’s why as a way to cull the human herd, pandemics are even more efficient than war.

Consider our relationship with COVID from COVID’s point of view. COVID has one “mission” built into its being: make more of itself. That’s it. That’s its entire mandate – reproduce at all costs. That reproduction will require penetrating our cells and converting our DNA into their RNA. In essence, viruses see human beings as cheap sex hotels where they go to boink like bunnies. Considering what a mess COVID makes of its lodgings – it does to us what Who drummer Keith Moon used to do to hotel rooms – what kind of idiot “lodging facility” would open its doors to monstrously rude guests like these? In America, it turns out, plenty of idiots.

Like war, pandemics cause massive disruption to nearly ever facet of normal life. We are now part of a data set that proves the point. We ache for life to return to normal because we assume life CAN still return to “normal”.

History says “normal” died the moment COVID appeared. History says pandemics not only kill, they leave the survivors with a “new normal”. The first pandemic that provided a viable data set for us to consider is the Black Plague that swept through Europe, when a Genoese trading ship unwittingly transported plague from Kaffa (in the Crimea) to its Italian base in 1347 . Along with trade goods, these ships carried sailors sick and dying from pestilence. Imagine how much more terrifying a pandemic would be if we had zero idea what was causing it and even less of a clue how to stop it. The sars-cov-2 virus, so we keep learning, is remarkably at home inside our bodies. It finds purchase not just in our lungs but in virtually every one of our organs. Long term COVID has only just begun to present itself. It’s going to be torment millions of the disease’s survivors for the rest of their lives. But, sdars-cov-2 – as bad as it is – pales in comparison to what the plague bacillus does to human (and animal) bodies.

Bubonic plague arrived in two forms at the same time: one infected the bloodstream and caused egg-sized buboes to form in its victims’ armpits and groin. The buboes oozed dark blood and foul-smelling pus. This form of plague – spread via physical contact – caused severe pain, internal bleeding and organ failure that could kill a victim within five days of being infected. The second form of plague killed even more brutally and quickly. Pneumonic plague infected the lungs and spread via infected bodily fluids. This form could kill in three days; sometimes within 24 hours or less. Its victims coughed and sweated heavily. Everything flowing from them – sweat, saliva, blood, urine, shit – smelled foul and spread infection.

Depression and despair accompanied both forms of plague. As historian Barbara Tuchman describes in her magnificent work “A Distant Mirror”, “before the end, ‘death is seen seated on the face’.”

Just as COVID-19 has massively impacted the world’s economy – being as so much of it is now tied together – plague disrupted the Medieval economy. In fact, bubonic plague destroyed feudalism. Feudalism relied on a kind of slavery at its core. Peasants farmed the land for the benefit of their immediate lords. Those lords owed the lords above them taxes paid in the form of the farm products grown on their lands by the peasants. Most of everything flowed upward to the king, the “lord’s lord”. But, after the plague wiped out anywhere from 20% to 100% of the people in any particular place, every part of the economic process ground to a halt. Dead peasants couldn’t pick anything. Unpicked crops didn’t get to market and didn’t get up the food chain to the higher lords and the king. And it’s not like the lords were going to do something as crazy as farm their own fields.

Here’s Tuchman:

“When death slowed production, goods became scare and prices soared. In France, the price of wheat increased fourfold by 1350. At the same time, the shortage of labor brought the plague’s greatest social disruption – a concerted demand for higher wages. Peasants as well as artisans, craftsmen, clerks and priests discovered the lever of their own scarcity. Within a year after the plague had passed through northern France, the textile workers of St. Oman near Amiens had gained three successive wage increases. In many guilds artisans struck for higher pay and shorter hours. In an age when social conditions were regarded as fixed, such action was revolutionary.”

See any contemporary echoes? COVID has disrupted our supply chains and caused inflation. But, it’s also given exceptional power to workers over their bosses. The Great Resignation happening now owes everything to the pandemic.

Just like now, conservative forces attempted to minimize labor’s power. In 1351, the English Parliament passed “The Statue of Laborers” which (Tuchman again) “…denounced not only laborers who demanded higher wages but particularly those who chose ‘rather to beg in idleness than to earn their bread in labor’. Idleness of the worker was a crime against society, for the medieval system rested on his obligation (emphasis mine) to work”.

The conservative forces lost the fight then just as they’ll lose it again now. Tuchman gets to the heart of it: “Once people envisioned the possibility of a change in a fixed order [like feudalism], the end of an age of submission came in sight; the turn to individual conscience lay ahead. To that extend, the Black Death may have been the unrecognized beginning of modern man.”

That’s a pretty significant disruption. Something a lot like it is coming our way. But, that’s just history talking.

History Teaches: Deadly Pandemics Can Topple Whole Economic Systems — Like This Pandemic Is Toppling Ours

From Black Death to fatal flu, past pandemics show why people on the  margins suffer most | Science | AAAS

The right wing and our punditry are beside themselves that Americans are refusing to go back to work. Um, no — they’re not refusing “to go back to work”, they’re refusing to return to work 1) that doesn’t suit them or their skill sets, 2) doesn’t pay what the work should be paid and 3) doesn’t fit into their lives. This is how workers are supposed to think — not as the slave-like drones conservatives want American workers to be. Leave America and you discover that the rest of the world works in order to live. Americans, by contrast, live to work. It’s not because we love our work; it’s because, in essence, we’re meant to be chained to it. Something in conservatism loves the idea of a workhouse where the indigent work for virtually nothing until they drop dead. Their hands or legs are easily replaced by another. The worker herself is irrelevant; all that matters is that “the work” gets done so the bosses atop the food chain can get paid.

The Black Death that blew through Europe in the fourteenth century (Historian Barbara Tuchman called it “the calamitous 14th century in the subtitle of her brilliant book “A Distant Mirror” — her deep dive into the century that, in Europe — produced not only the Black Death but also, during the same time frame, the hundred years war (between England and France) and the papal schism that put one pope in Rome and a second pope in Avignon, France. For a short time, a third pope also entered the picture but he soon disappeared.

The feudal system that dominated Europe worked vertically. Atop it was the king. Below him were all the families that supported his being king. Below them were the far flung landowners of the realm and wealthy merchants and below all of them were the vassals — the dirt poor peasants working the dirt for everyone above. This was economic slavery. No vassal was ever going to get rich and set himself up in business somewhere. Such things didn’t happen. The system wasn’t designed for anything to happen. Money pre-capitalism was undynamic in nature. A country was worth what it could physically produce. Or pilfer in war.

The bubonic plague killed more than half the population in many places — even more in some, less in others. It devastated the work force. Even as the world succumbed to plague all around them, the healthy tried to keep life going. People still had to eat. Crops had to be farmed and, somehow, gotten to market — if there was still a market. The plague pandemic cut down the number of available hands to do that farming to a bare minimum. Now, the peasant who lived on “Sir John’s” land might normally have been obligated to pick Sir John’s crops so that he could generate income for his estate and family by getting that produce to market. But Sir John’s neighbor — Sir Neville — was offering actual cash to Sir John’s vassals if Sir John’s vassals would pick Sir Neville’s crops first. It’s not like Sir John was a prince who treated them like princes.

So, off to Sir Neville’s Sir John’s vassals went. And, just like that, feudalism in Europe died.

In time, the guilds arose — representing the crafts and then labor in general. With the rise of capitalism, labor became a commodity. Industrialization meant mass production which meant the likelihood of abuse on the factory floor. Industrialization became another form of feudalism to the laborers until the unions — based on the old guilds — rose up and demanded fairness in wages and working conditions.

The Black Death gave life to labor.

Though the death wasn’t anywhere near as catastrophic as during the plague, the coronavirus pandemic still reached everywhere with the potential for mass death. If your loved one’s body is in the pile, you’re not going to measure one pandemic’s body count versus another. You’re mourning a loss that changed your world.

The way this pandemic has already changed ours.

We’ve experienced the “for worse part”. There is a “for better” out there. It’s coming and, if the workers of the world unite? We may see the pandemic with mixed emotions. For some people, this new world will be their salvation.

Conservatism — By Its Nature — Will Always Look Backwards First

I don’t judge conservatives because they want to conserve — as their name says. I judge them because they won’t admit WHAT they want to conserve. Considering as you can’t conserve what doesn’t exist, conservatives have zero interest in the future. That’s Progressives’ territory. That’s why I prefer the descriptor “progressive” to “liberal”. Progressive is just more accurate — every fiber of my being wants humankind to progress as quickly as we can into the future (because we’ve made a total hash of the past). Just as “Progressive” neatly describes my overall direction with one word, so, too does “conservative” describe the direction conservatives want to take America. What do conservatives want to conserve? What does any individual conservative want conserved? For them, the present is the perfect place to start. If they could literally take us back to the past — to the idealized time and place in their head that they think of as “perfection” — they absolutely would. Same as a Progressive would whisk us all off to a perfect future of enlightenment and harmony. Like I said: I’m not here to judge (in this blog post). I’m here to understand.

Look, the future is scary. Who knows what’s going to happen? If I take off my “Progressive World View Specs” and put on a pair of borrowed “Conservative World View Specs” (they’re way too tight for my liking), I begin to appreciate the security the past held for some. In our part of the world, Europeans got it into their heads that the brutal lethality of the pathogens they carried with them meant they were morally superior to the indigenous peoples of North America they rolled with relative ease BECAUSE they’d been decimated by European pathogens. Europeans didn’t walk onto a “virgin continent” waiting to be enlightened by them, they entered a graveyard — the ground softened not by their ideas, a little by their superior weapons, but mostly because the pathogen load heading west (smallpox, measles, whooping cough, bubonic plague, malaria, yellow fever, dysentery) was more overwhelming than the pathogen load heading east (syphilis). Europeans carried more than just disease with them though. They brought their monotheistic religion — and their monotheistic religion convinced them that THEIR god was THE god and THEIR god said THEY could do whatever they liked to other people — especially if they believed in other gods or, worse, no god.

“Manifest Destiny” was no different from Cortes decimating the Aztecs and Pizarro brutalizing the Incas. “Gold, glory and god”. That was the mandate. Europeans took the Americas with relative ease but not for the reasons they thought or still think. Better and more pathogens. That’s it. That’s the difference.

But, once convinced of their superiority, Europeans would not be dissuaded. Europeans even used their most sacred religious texts — the thing upon which they based their entire civilization — to JUSTIFY enslaving other humans. If bondage and stolen labor were good enough for iron age people, then, damn it, it should be good enough for us! When you cloak your justifications for slavery and personal superiority with the divine, perhaps you can be forgiven for thinking you ARE the “alpha and the omega”. You’ve come to believe your wardrobe is who you are — and you think you’re God.

But for their pathogens, white Europeans might not have had such an easy time dominating the America’s. Their beachheads might have been smaller and less successful even over time. Instead of being easily rolled by the Europeans — who they outnumbered by a lot! — the Aztecs and Incas might have recognized the Europeans for the competitors they were. I bet, given the chance, the Aztecs and Incas might even have learned from the Europeans, found ways to either approximate or steal the Europeans superior war-fighting technology. We’ll never know. When Americans began rolling across North America, their destinies manifested, each mile further west they traveled convinced them that they were truly on a divine mission — new crusaders, if you will, conquering Indians instead of Muslms.

The “All men” that America’s founders thought were “created equal”, were white and they were all men. In their defense, maybe they weren’t quite as ‘enlightened” as they thought. But, that’s the America conservatives want to conserve. That’s the “original version” of America constitutional originalists are thinking of. They believe THAT is the America the rest of us should still be living in. If the founders couldn’t imagine a thing, then we just have to live in an America that laments its founders’ lack of forward-thinking chops. Talk about the tail wagging the dogma! Except that wasn’t how those men thought. They made the document dynamic.

Take away the native peoples who were here for ten thousand years before the Europeans set sail just for argument’s sake (though I bet their traditions would still help us a lot). Prior to the arrival of the Europeans — and then everyone else on the planet — this continent had no “native culture”. That is, European culture was not “native” to this place. Now, when we say, “European culture”, we don’t mean one thing. German culture is not so different from English culture (their royalty’s all related) but very different from Italian culture. It took a thousand years for several of the more prominent tribes of France — the Franks, the Merovingians, the Carolingians — to evolve into what we now think of as “French people”.

Remember how some of the French had no problem collaborating with Germany during WWII? That wasn’t a new behavior, that extreme pragmatism in the face of shifting political tides. In “A Distant Mirror”, her wonderful history of “the calamitous 14th century”, the historian Barbara Tuchman returns repeatedly to the story of Charles de Navarre (10 October 1332 – 1 January 1387), a French knight, in his time called Charles the Bad. He was King of Navarre from 1349–1387 and during those years — as the Hundred Year War raged on, Charles (whose property was in Normandy) saw the English and the French armies go back and forth across his domain repeatedly. The war pitted he French crown against the English crown; both wanted to declare the other’s as theirs. While he could have remained loyal to France the whole time — and simply took his licks (being sacked and burned) each time the English plowed through. Instead, Charles chose to ally with the English BEFORE they got to his land. Suddenly, this French lord couldn’t be more English. He’d welcome them to and through his territory, feeding them, housing them, giving them happy endings if they wanted them.

Then, when the tides changed yet again — and the war’s momentum swung back to the French, Charles would hang out his tricolor as if he’d never taken it down. Why, Charles had ALWAYS been at war with Eurasia AND those damned English! Vichy France’s pragmatic survival instincts kicked in at least six hundred years before we realized. That behavior pattern is part of what we think of as “French” behavior in national affairs. Same token — the Swiss and their neutrality are not new either. The Dutch have always been traders. The Germans have always been… well… “German”. The more closely aligned with the Catholic Church a country was — like Spain — the more cruelly dogmatic it became. Franco and the Spanish Inquisition are directly related.

Even the Europeans will tell you how their neighbors are. Especially the Europeans. When those people came here, to America, they all brought their national personalities with them. No such personalities existed here. But, Europeans weren’t the only non North Americans hitting our beaches. Before too long, people from all over the world had “discovered” America — and saw that they, too, could fill this empty canvass with themselves. Who “got here first” is a nonsensical argument since, really, no one was here first. And, as for whose money paid for it? That’s swell, but “ownership” is a concept invented by men to justify their claim that a thing — land, a cave, a woman — was theirs. The concept of “ownership” saves us from having to piss on or lick everything to prove that it’s ours.

Conservatives, if they could, would piss on or lick practically everything (licking it all first before pissing on it, I’m betting). Conservatism hews closely to its “religious values”, don’t forget. They believe in a kind of perfection perverted — an Eden destroyed by a woman. They believe that humanity’s fall from Grace was redeemed by a man-god born of a virgin, sent to die for all of our sins (though, if he doesn’t get betrayed by Judas and doesn’t die for our sins, I’m kinda wondering what that woulda been like but nevermind). Let’s be real. Down deep, there’s no such thing as a “God-fearing conservative”. No truly conservative person fears God.

That’s because most every God-fearing conservative doesn’t believe IN God, he believes he IS God. They won’t put it that way. Instead, they say “I understand what the lord wants from me” or I have a personal relationship with God!” He looks around at others who think they understand God and shakes his head sadly. Poor, misguided fools think God speaks through them, can ya believe it? Even those of us who “think” we understand God need to be set straight by this guy because HIS version of God is THE version of God (no substitutes accepted).

Enlightenment scares these people almost as much as Enlightenments do. Conservatives have rooted not just their religious faith but everything they think in the belief that a sky deity loves them and wants them to do his bidding here on earth. How things WERE — that’s what the sky deity wants. And if how things ARE RIGHT NOW is the closest we can get to HOW THINGS WERE then so be it. We’ll take what we can get. We’ll enshrine as much of yesterday into today as we possibly can and turn off the engine.

Unlike conservatives, Progressives aren’t intimidated by the unknown. We’re adaptive by nature. New information isn’t anathema to us, it’s our life blood. And if new voices bring new information or new ways to problem-solve? So much the better! The future is going to happen whether anyone likes it or not. Change is inevitable. It’s only ever a matter of time scale.

What do conservatives want to conserve? Everything you need to know is right there in the pause BEFORE they start to answer. They’re making a list, don’tcha know! They’re thinking about everything from the past that they wish could become permanent. The playing field was not level in that past. It wasn’t meant to be. Only the “equal” “all men” were expected to play, being the only ones qualified to play — by themselves of course.

That’s the America conservatives want to conserve. It’s why they’re always looking backwards, hoping to see the past come alive again. It’s the America they had full control of, before the rest of us realized how little they understood it.