Insights & Trends
We have been living through a worldwide pandemic since January 2020. As I write this, over 380 million have contracted Covid-19. More than 5.5 million have died. Here in the USA, we have regrettably contributed significantly to the cases and the deaths. We are over 900,000 deaths or 16% of the total worldwide.
Have we learned anything? Hard to say with any certainty. We are still in it. We’ve learned a lot about science, not much about messaging correctly to keep people alive. We’ve learned something about our local populations and distrust as well as deep connections between neighbors who have helped when hope was dimming.
All pandemics end. And when they do, history tells us what happens next will transform us all.
On a larger scale, though, there are lessons from the past that could inform what we experience next.
All pandemics are bad. Humans have endured many. Some have been much, much worse than others.
In 165 CE, the Antonine Plague hit the Roman Empire. Smallpox killed about 10% of the entire population during the 20 or so years the plague was actively circulating.
Rome responded with innovation. Slaves and gladiators were recruited upwards into the army into positions previously denied. So many administrators were lost to death and illness that sons of freed slaves were allowed to serve in local administrations. The entire fabric of society was changed. The established fabric of society was ripped apart. Yet historian Cassius Dio called it a Golden Era for the Empire.
The Black Death (bubonic plague) reemerged with a vengeance in Europe during the mid-1300s when 12 ships docked at the port of Messina in October 1347. Within 5 years, 20 million people had died, one-third of the population. Yes, one-third.
Predictably, people lost their minds, turning to all sorts of hysteria, superstitions, and practices that all proved ineffective. No one was spared, peasant or pope. Worst of all, the plague kept returning randomly to cities for decades. The human species was on its knees.
Within about 30 years though, something remarkable began to rise from the ashes of what was left of Europe. The beginning, and then the flourishing of the period called the Renaissance had taken root, throwing off feudal ways. Science, art, and mathematics were rediscovered, reborn, enhanced and given new energy. Life still wasn’t great for everyone, but for many, the world had changed and would never be the same.
Between July 1914 and November 1918, 20 million lives were lost in WWI. Sometime in the Spring of 1918, a new outbreak of flu was reported in several places around the world. It may have begun in Kansas, but quickly spread with U.S. and European servicemen going and coming home from WWI. It struck a devastating blow, especially to younger people who usually survived the flu. It was a ghastly death.
By summer, the flu seemed to be fading. Then the second wave hit. Then a third wave in the winter of 1918-1919.
Official death estimates range from 20-50 million. However, some experts suggest an enormous undercount, with possibly 100-150 million dead.
The years of WWI and the 1918 Flu created enormous losses for humanity. The aftermath led to a reaction of remarkable resilience.
The Roarin’ 20s. Automobiles, electricity in homes and businesses, radios. The rise of technology. Women’s Suffrage in the US.
The lesson? Pandemics change society. Those changes are not predicable, not obvious. All pandemics end. And when they do, history tells us what happens next will transform us all. So now is the time to get ready, to look and seize advantages as they arise. To prepare for sweeping changes and amazing opportunities.
Chief Executive Officer
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