Europe was in the grips of history’s deadliest pandemic, the Black Death. This, too, likely originated in China and followed the Silk Road, arriving in Italy in 1348. As described in Boccaccio’s “Decameron,” many of the rich fled the pestilence to the country, but the vast majority of Europeans remained exposed. More than half of them died.
The plague further contributed to the collapse of feudalism, depleting the labor force on which it depended and slicing the value of land, which now lay fallow. Formerly little better off than slaves, serfs could now sell their work for money that the lords had no choice but to pay. The seeds of free market capitalism were planted. Previously beholden to the nobility and the church, artists and scholars flourished in what soon became the Renaissance, and freethinking priests spearheaded the Protestant Reformation. From the Old World, a more open and vibrant one became possible.
Then came COVID-19. The pandemic has accelerated the trends begun by the internet, making us less trustful of institutions, angrier and more isolated. Economies are buckling under massive unemployment, and fears of global depression loom. If history is any guide, the immediate result is liable to be further disruption and fundamental changes in the way we lead our lives.