There’s a famous saying among epidemiologists, “If you’ve seen one pandemic, you’ve seen one pandemic.” In other words, each pandemic is a completely novel situation. But what is common among them is that they all lead to massive changes that reverberate for generations. Look back at history and you see that whether it was the plague or the Spanish flu, big societal level adaptations emerged in their wake.
Yale medical historian Frank M. Snowden describes pandemics as a mirror for humanity, reflecting the flaws and commitments of societies. They play a role in reshaping public consciousness by starting conversations around deep philosophical, religious, and moral issues.
With the world in the grips of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the discourse centers around our post-pandemic selves, behavioral resets, cultural shifts, and the new normal. Many see this as an opportunity for us to create something new from scratch. That might border on wishful thinking, but let’s look at how pandemics have changed the course of history in the past.
The Black Death or the plague in 14th century Afro-Eurasia killed half the population of full continents. It also had a devastating economic and social impact, especially on medieval Britain. Socially, it resulted in an increase in attacks on social minorities, particularly the Jews, who were accused of causing the plague by poisoning wells. “We should be on guard against the ways that outbreaks of disease have historically led to the persecutions of marginalized people,” Hannah Marcus, a historian of science at Harvard University, wrote in The New York Times.
Economically, the plague struck a major blow to the foundation of feudalism as peasants and serfs abandoned feudal manors. The effects of the catastrophe were vast: It emptied cities, halted wars, reversed the evolution of languages, and shook the control of landowning noble elites, who were forced to deal with massive shortages in labor.
On a behavioral level, COVID-19 is eerily similar to the influenza epidemic of 1918 which created ripples of broader societal change. Governments affected by it issued stay-at-home orders, public spaces were demarcated so people could maintain distance, businesses were closed down, and doctors advised the use of masks when around others.
The “forgotten pandemic”, as many historians dubbed it, killed close to 50 million people worldwide and was said to have reduced average life expectancy by about 12 years in the United States. The virus highlighted the inequality between social classes but also revealed another truth: Certain people might be more susceptible but nobody was immune.
The 1918 epidemic led to the realization that infectious diseases could strike anybody. In the years that followed, public health strategy started to reflect this cognitive shift in belief. The epidemic galvanized governments to step up efforts to improve disease surveillance systems, re-organize health ministries, and ensure universal health care.
It might be a bit of a stretch to compare the current pandemic to some of the deadlier ones from the past. Further, it’s still early to say how COVID-19 will reset our society. One thing we can agree upon though is: Diseases have a pivotal role in the modern state as we know it.
If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that people have the capacity to change behaviors when the stakes are high enough. But the real question is: Are we capable of sustaining this change over the long term?
According to Dr. Susan David, a Harvard psychologist and host of a new TED podcast series on coping emotionally with the pandemic, living through a crisis can be genuinely formative. “People who’ve gone through trauma or struggle in the way that we are experiencing now, that struggle can simultaneously be distressing, and there is enormous growth and power that can come from it,” she says.
Here are some helpful ideas and habits that could help us navigate these times.
1. Be prepared: Preparation means boosting immunity. A strong immune system requires a balanced diet, regular sleep, and exercise.
2. Be hygiene conscious: Crowded, dirty markets that house animals in trapped spaces are breeding grounds for zoonotic plagues (infectious diseases caused by bacteria, viruses, or parasites that spread from non-human animals to humans). Stricter regulations are needed for the way we treat animals and organize local markets.
3. Be more self-sufficient: One thing that has become clear is the fragility of systems. The COVID-19 pandemic came with a force that visibly destabilized health care systems and economic processes worldwide. It takes one pandemic to potentially wipe out our finances, food, and transport systems. There is a growing awareness of the need to make our consumption behavior and lifestyle more self-sufficient. The essence of self-sufficiency lies in finding sustainable alternatives to our lifestyle choices. It can range from growing home gardens to learning basic survival skills.
4. Be more evidence-based: The term social distancing is rather misleading. The idea is to maintain physical distance, yet stay connected to people. Historical rhythms from the past have revealed racial undertones, xenophobia, and ostracisation in the face of a pandemic. Cognitive Scientist Jim Davies wrote in Psychology Today that disagreements about the nature of the pandemic and how to respond to it can be exacerbated when issues become politicized. It’s all the more important to seek evidence or credibility while consuming information about current events.
This pandemic has shown us that fear can be just as debilitating and contagious as the virus itself. Global pandemics are devastating, but they must also be seen as an opportunity to learn and evolve.
Think of it as nature’s way of teaching us valuable lessons if we want to survive and expand mass consciousness towards a more sustainable lifestyle. Building and maintaining habits that serve us and others could be the bridge between wishful thinking and pessimism in these rapidly changing times.
Rachika Komal is an Associate, Behavior Analytics with the Product Team at Harappa Education. Triple majors in Psychology, Sociology & Economics from Christ University, in her downtime you can find her hanging out with dogs, catching up on reading, or meditating.
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