All societies passing through tragedies think of themselves as exceptionally ill-fated. But human history has seen many plagues before. The Black Death, as you wrote in The Silk Roads, came to Europe through the very routes that brought wealth and new ideas. How does the novel coronavirus outbreak compare? In what way are we better off to face this? And in what way do we have it worse?
In lots of ways, the coronavirus is far less dangerous – at least from a pathogenic point of view. The plague is deadly, partly because being infected so often leads to death. In Europe and North Africa, around a third of the population may have died, so the death toll would have been in many millions, tens of millions even. This had all sorts of consequences, ranging from a collapse in the labour force to long-term changes in spending habits; and, of course, it also changed how people thought about the world around them. As with the Spanish Flu, or indeed with warfare or traumatic events like Partition, having close experience of death and suffering produces sharp changes in society.
The strange thing about coronavirus is that while it is a serious global problem, the bigger challenges in the immediate future will be economic and political. Mercifully, mortality rates are not actually that high, partly thanks to lockdowns and partly because of improvements in healthcare around the world. This pandemic really reveals how poor global governance and co-operation are at international level. That should scare us all about future outbreaks of disease – and about the other major problems of the coming decades, from energy to climate, famine to migration.
What could be the implications of this pandemic on a world in which nations already seemed to be turning away from globalisation?
It can be easy to exaggerate the dislocations in the world. A lot of commentators are talking about reconfigured supply chains, major shifts in manufacturing and production and about localisation taking over from globalisation. I don’t take these views very seriously: they are not grounded in historical precedence nor in the logic of how the world, business or politics actually really work. So, I treat these as soundbytes that either misrepresent or misunderstand the complexities of the 21st century – or are cute expressions of wishful thinking.
You write in The Silk Roads that the plague not only devastated Europe in the 14th century, but — incredibly — made it richer. How did that happen?
When scholars write about the Black Death, they do so almost exclusively only about Europe (and occasionally Egypt). That is partly because there is a lot of material about these regions, and partly because it is Europe’s only real major experience with pandemics and disease in the last 1,000 years – which makes it highly symbolic for scholars and the general public alike. What the plague does, or indeed any outbreak of disease that kills in large numbers, is to reduce the size of the workforce: the fewer workers there are, the more valuable labour becomes. That means that those lower down the social spectrum can negotiate better terms, both in terms of wages and working conditions. And that, in turn, spurs social mobility and consumption patterns, too. So the effects can be dramatic.
However, it does not always happen like that. We see no similar profile in India after the Spanish Flu outbreak in 1918-19 – so there are important differences that depend, presumably, on the region, the availability of labour from other locales, the types of work in question and also on the role that new technologies play in replacing human labour.
Why do societies drift away from ensuring healthcare, when past experience says disease kills?
Because politicians are rewarded for making short-term decisions, rather than investing for the future. That is partly because there is pressure from the electorate and the media to deliver immediate results; but I suspect it also has something to do with the fact that many politicians and civil servants have very similar experiences, lifestyles and skills, and, therefore, fall victim easily to groupthink. These last few months raise lots of questions. But one is about the competence of governments and those in decision-making positions. If they were not ready and prepared poorly for COVID-19, what else are they not ready for?
If you look back at history, how have disasters of this scale tended to affect political power? And how different are those implications likely to be in the age of uber-nationalism?
It is hard to generalise across time and space. A lot depends on who disasters affect most. In the Spanish Flu, for example, the prime victims were adults aged 20-45, with men affected disproportionately more than women – partly because women have stronger immune systems, are more resilient and have better survival instincts. That creates a different outcome, for example, to today’s challenge, where the primary victims have tended to be those who are older, and, above all, with pre-existing underlying health problems. The biggest challenge, by far, however, are the consequences of bringing the economy to a standstill and trying to kick-start that. The burden will fall most heavily on the poor – and will aggravate inequalities.
Several commentators have feared an increase in the concentration of power in states, vis-a-vis individuals. Do you agree?
Yes. In almost every country in the world, the state has taken emergency new powers that can fundamentally re-shape relations with citizens. The question is whether these are handed back once the threat has diminished or are retained “just in case”. Clearly, the way that data is gathered and used is a major concern for all of us, as this drastically alters the ways that governments can track and monitor what we do, with whom, where and even why.
The increase in the powers of the state comes at a time when the leaders in many countries are looking to make political capital by targeting or victimising minorities. That will get worse, sadly, as a result of the pandemic. There is a long and dark history about disease, persecution and violence. We should be wary of that and demand better.
You have argued that the balance of power in the world will shift away from the West. Do you see the pandemic accelerating that, or putting a pause on it?
It will provide a rapid acceleration. Western economies are going to be hit very severely indeed, and each day that passes with lockdown will make it harder and harder to get going again. Many countries in Asia face considerable challenges too, but they are of a different magnitude. On top of that, the pressures from the US and to some extent from the European Union, too, will result in a consolidation of interests that may well result in really significant re-alignments – and progress – in Asia.
Have democracies come off poorly in this pandemic?
Some have done better than others. It has been well noted that democracies run by women – New Zealand, countries in Scandinavia, for example – have done well, while others have not. The analysis, preparation and response in the UK and the US have been embarrassing. That is not a problem though of democracy; rather it is a crisis of leadership. And, remember, that a few months ago, everyone was talking about how poor China’s response had been – and that this showed the problem of authoritarian states. No one has a monopoly on making bad decisions.
Did pandemics in the past increase ideas of human fallibility and weakness and doom — and led to a walk away from science and towards religion and faith?
Yes. The experience and fear of pandemic are very important in all global religions: the anxiety of dying young or not living to see old age raises questions about the meaning of life and about what happens in the afterlife. Ideas about the end of the time play an enormously important role in Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam (and more besides). Disease increases our experience with death and with what it means to be human. It reminds us that however long we have – even if we live to a ripe old age – our time here is limited and so we should make the most of it. Helping others and giving alms are a key part of the link between the realisation that we are here for ourselves, but must use that time to help others, too.
Which has been the most surprising economic/political story of this pandemic for you? Or, if you had to write a Decameron for 2020, what story would you tell?
I wrote about the fact that the biggest threat to the world in the 2020s were pandemics and the lack of global plans to respond to a pandemic in December, as this was something I have been working on for a while. So (sadly), things have played out largely as I feared. I suppose three things though have surprised me: first, the willingness of people to stay locked down, which is not the result of obedience to the state but rather through fear of catching the disease; second, the national responses of governments to provide support for businesses, which was done quickly – as it needed to be; and, third, that lots of trends that I had not thought about have emerged: like changes to listening habits when it comes to music; like how the speed of digital connections has affected mental health; and how the impact on those who live alone is different to that of multi-occupancy households.
My personal Decameron would combine a sense of mourning for not being able to get onto the cricket field with the longing to hug my friends and family, while praying for the dark clouds that have gathered overhead to pass.
You have written often about how empires and regimes that were tolerant and open to change and negotiations and competition tend to thrive and expand. How do societies regain trust after pandemics?
By producing competent outcomes. We all want, expect and need our governments to reduce inequality, to deliver public services, to ensure that those who have the most ability rise to the top – and to provide protection to those who need it. Leaders or governments that do not do this can lose their mandates quickly and are harshly judged by history; but worse, they create problems rather than solve them. Inclusivity and tolerance are nice ideas in theory; but they produce better outcomes in practice, too, than small cabals that emerge and retain all power for themselves. That is why democracies are more efficient, agreeable and successful than other systems of government. Sadly, the direction that many democratic states are taking is to focus on winning elections, rather than building long-term futures for all the population.
What is a lockdown day for you like? Where are you self-isolating? How do you see Britain’s response to the crisis?
I am in Oxford, where life feels, looks and even smells and sounds very different. There is no traffic, no people on the streets and it feels like a ghost town. Human beings are social animals, as Aristotle said, and I miss seeing my students, colleagues, family and friends. It is not easy either doing academic research when the libraries are closed, as many of the materials I need are not digitised. I am working on a big new project and rather selfishly have welcomed the chance to have an extended period being able to read and think.
In what ways could this pandemic change the way we live, fly or travel or think about human possibilities?
Well, there are real questions about the viability of airlines and about when we might to travel internationally. But I am both an optimist and a pragmatist; so I think that all will be well in the end.
As someone who runs a chain of hotels, how do you see the business responding to this crisis?
There will be some unusual and strange new trends – a lot more domestic tourism, for example; and new fashions as people start wearing face masks regularly. Personally, I have a strong explorer’s instinct and am never happier than when travelling and visiting new places. I can’t wait to get back on the road.
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