A government panel of experts on infectious disease concluded last week that Japan had narrowly kept the outbreak of the new coronavirus under control. The panel nonetheless warned that the current situation could still lead to “overshooting” — a nationwide explosive surge of COVID-19.
It’s unclear when and how the spread of the coronavirus will subside. But this pandemic, as in similar cases in the past, could cause many economic, political, social, religious and cultural upheavals, and profoundly change the course of human history.
In fact, history shows that pandemics not only destroyed powerful empires, but also changed the course of political struggles, economic systems, social values and scientific priorities. Therefore it is worthwhile to examine the potential impacts of COVID-19 on the world in 2020 and beyond in comparison with previous pandemics.
The last major pandemic was the Spanish flu — one of the most lethal in history — in the early 20th century. This pandemic, which had three major waves, lasted between 1918 and 1920. The flu, which originated in North America, infected 500 million people, or about a quarter of the world’s population at that time, and killed as many as 100 million people.
More devastating was the Plague, also known as the Black Death, which peaked in Europe in the mid-14th century. The pandemic resulted in as many as 200 million deaths in East Asia, Central Asia, the Mideast, Europe and the rest of Eurasia, out of a world population of 500 million. It caused the following three impacts:
The Black Death killed many young people and serfs, causing the world economy to rapidly shrink and leading to the end of the traditional manorial system in Europe due to the shortage of agricultural laborers. While causing hardships for the socially vulnerable, the pandemic also improved the status of members of the labor force who survived the disease.
The massive reduction of the workforce gave birth to new industries that were less labor-intensive and, ironically for many Europeans, the 15th century was an age of prosperity and new opportunities. The disease’s impact on the world economy was fairly neutral in the long run.
The political impact was more serious. Originating in China or Central Asia, the Black Death traveled the Silk Road, reaching Crimea by 1343. It was then carried by fleas to the Mediterranean. The plague likely caused the collapse of the Mongol Empire and the Mamluk Dynasty in Egypt.
If the COVID-19 pandemic continues for a year, it could damage, if not destroy, the legitimacy of many political leaders, including those of China, Europe and the United States. The severity of the damage may depend on how long the pandemic lasts.
The plague caused anti-Semitism in Europe. Many Christians believed that it was due to the anger of God and accused Jews of poisoning water supplies in an effort to ruin European civilization. In the case of COVID-19, there is also a danger of anti-Chinese or anti-Asian sentiment growing in the world.
The new coronavirus pandemic brings to mind the story of the Tower of Babel in Chapter 11 of Genesis. “The whole world had the same language … The Lord came down to see the city and the tower … Come, let us go down and there confuse their language. …” Then the tower was destroyed.
The term “same language” implies globalization in the 21st century.” After the demise of the Soviet Union, it was said that history had ended and the world was flat. Unfortunately, history did not end and the world is still round. Economies can be globalized, but not hearts and minds.
There are three kinds of globalization: economic, political and sociocultural. While COVID-19 will not stop the pace of economic globalization, it is slowing down the process of political globalization and making sociocultural globalization almost impossible, at least for the time being.
What does all of this mean to the world in 2020? The sociopolitical impact of COVID-19 could be very harmful. Incumbent political leaders may have to resign, simply because the ramification of the new pandemic is so overwhelming that many leaders, including U.S. President Donald Trump, may lose their legitimacy.
Trump was version 1.0 of himself while campaigning in 2016. After becoming president, unfortunately, he never succeeded in evolving to version 2.0. As the war against COVID-19 intensifies globally, he now faces the most serious challenge as a crisis manager. Can he become Trump 3.0?
Trump seems unfit for crisis management. He was a great campaigner, but he has never been a great crisis manager. Earlier during the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S., Trump said that “there’s no reason to panic at all” since the coronavirus “is being handled professionally.”
Last week The New York Times wrote: “Senior aides battling one another for turf, and advisers protecting their own standing. A president who is racked by indecision and quick to blame others who views events through the lens of how the news media covers them. A pervasive distrust of career government professionals …”
Now the number of infections in the United States has surpassed 33,500 and is still skyrocketing. When Trump delivers optimistic statements about the battle against the coronavirus, they still end with his famous “or maybe not” phrase. Trump doesn’t seem to have changed even in the middle of the global pandemic. He will still be Trump 1.0 on the election day in November.
Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.