There is no denying it: we are in the midst of a pandemic. Covid-19 has impacted every person in every country in some way or another: wedding plans need to change, holidays cancelled, workplaces need to implement different practices—and buying some products has become an adventure due to the hoarding practices of others.
While on one of those pointless buying exercises, the sight of empty shelves made me think of the tales from my grandparents about rationing during World War Two. At least then, supplies were scarce so the rationing was, well, rational.
Disease brings far greater calamity to a country: illness and suffering, sometimes leading to death; the overwhelming of medical facilities; economic crisis, including job losses; changes in work practices; changes to plans for weddings, travel, eating out and socialising; closure of religious spaces; fear and insecurity.
And it has been happening for centuries. From ‘Medical News Today‘ here are some of the best-known examples:
Plague of Justinian 541AD
The Black Death 1346 – 1353
Spanish Flu 1918
Off course, there are more than these instances. But it shows that pandemics are not new. And there are similar effects on the societies they invaded as Covid-19 does today.
- Covid-19: 11,415 (as of 3:14pm 21st March 2020)
- Spanish Flu: 20 – 50 million
- The Black Death 1346 – 1350: 75 – 200 million
- Justinian Plague: Estimated at 25 million
Dealing with the Dead
- So many people are dying in Bergamo, Lombardy, Italy that the local mortuaries cannot cope. The army has been bought in to transport the bodies of the dead to neighbouring provinces. Once cremated, the remains are returned to Bergamo.
- During the Spanish Flu, bodies piled up and mortuaries were having difficulty dealing with the volume. Many people ended up having to dig graves for family members.
- There were so many people dying of The Black Death that many were buried in mass graves with no funeral rites or ceremony. And of course, we all remember the reported cry of “[b]ring out your dead by the carters who were charged with collecting and burying those unfortunates whose families could not.
- Over 5000 people per day were dying in Constantinople during the Justinian Plague. Bodies were eventually buried in mass graves, dumped at sea or buried in towers that were then sealed.
- The hospitality and travel industries are already suffering due to Covid-19, leading to unemployment of thousands. Weddings are being cancelled or delayed, travel plans are in chaos and many cafés and restaurants are left with no option but to close their doors. Many small businesses are predicted to fail due to the necessary strategies of social distancing and self-isolation.
- During the Spanish Flu, many businesses could not operate because of a lack of well employees, including garbage collection.
- So many people were dying during the Justinian Plague that there was no one to tend crops, bake bread or deal with livestock, resulting in food shortages. This left people too weak to fight disease or conduct trade either. Traders and sellers were also dying or simply too afraid to sell their goods. The economy collapsed.
Interruption to Normal Life
- In an effort to control and hopefully limit Covid-19, many countries have closed schools, workplaces, entertainment venues, places of worship and any public space that is not essential. In addition, national borders have been closed, and many areas and countries have gone into ‘lockdown’. People have even been advised not to shake hands.
- During the Spanish Flu, many of the same provisions were bought in as for Covid-19, including not shaking hands.
- We are yet to know the lasting results of Covid-19.
- The decimated workforce resulted in higher wages for the poorest of workers. It also often meant that land that would normally have to be divided among many sons went to the only remaining child, increasing wealth for some and allowing better circumstances for others.
- Justinian Plague: end of serfdom; skills were lost; people to complete even unskilled tasks were scarce; too weak to defend themselves.
I have barely touched on this topic. If someone was to write a book on it, the volume would be very thick! But I do think it is worthwhile remembering that our ancestors got through this—and so will we.