Pandemics are, perhaps, like Nature’s detergents that cleanse up clogged arteries of Organic Evolution by removing surplus population. These widespread diseases have often changed the course of world history.
Nothing cripples human societies the way diseases do. Pandemics have triggered the collapse of empires, weakened contemporary powers, and institutions, caused social upheavals and ended even wars. They have altered geopolitics, pushed up new players, and unveiled superpowers
Thus, these scourges have had great influence in shaping human society, civilizations, geopolitics, and national politics throughout history.
We can list here some of these pandemics and how they reshaped our known history.
The Justinian Plague was among the deadliest pandemics ever recorded. It broke out in the sixth century in Egypt and spread fast to Constantinople, the capital of the then Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine), at the peak of its imperial glory. The plague was named after the then Byzantine’s Christian Emperor Justinian (482-565 AD). The outbreak spread from Constantinople to both the East and West, and killed an estimated 25 to 100 million people.
The scourge returned, again and again, in waves, in different countries, until 750 AD, paving the way for Islam to replace a weakened Christianity as the dominant faith. The Byzantine army weakened as it failed to recruit new soldiers or maintain military supplies to battlegrounds. It lost one province after another…By the time the plague ended, the empire had lost vast tracts of Europe to the new forces like Germanic-speaking Franks and Syria and Egypt to Islam…
Another pandemic, the deadliest in our recorded annals, which changed the course of history in the medieval era, was the Black Death, or pestilence. It hit Europe and Asia in the 14th century and was estimated to have killed between 75 and 200 million people. In the early 1340s, the scourge struck India, China, Egypt, Syria and some other countries before arriving in Europe in 1347 where it killed about 50 percent of the total population.
It also had lasting economic and social consequences. The pandemic led to large-scale persecution of the Jews in Europe as the Christians blamed the community for spreading the diseases…it continued until the Jews returned to Israel after the Second World War in the mid-20th century.
But the Black Death was also a great leveler. It began to dismantle the old feudal system, improved the wages for workers due to their dwindled numbers, and gave a strong voice to the underprivileged…which led to the emergence of democracy. It also weakened the hold of the Church on the Christians some of whom broke away to form Protestant denominations—and virtually shifted the global power of Christianity to America.
In the early 20th century, the ‘Spanish flu’ we now know as influenza impacted likewise. The pandemic broke out in the last phase of the First World War (1914-18), killing up to 50 million people worldwide. From Europe, it spread to America and Asia. It weakened the war machine of the Germans and Austrians, and dismantled the last Muslim Empire of the Ottomans. India was the worst-hit; it lost about 6 percent of the population, up to 18 million people, crippling the British Empire and its Indian soldiers, and paving the way for the rise of anti-colonial movement, and Mahatma Gandhi.
Similarly, in the early 21st century, Covid-19 has unfolded to reshape geopolitics…in 2021, we are apprehensive of what could happen next. While the pandemic is still unfolding in waves, ebbs and flows, and will take years to settle down with a ‘new normal’, we can make some intelligent guess about its long-term impact.
Some experts have suggested the following three-phased progression: (1) The end of the globalized liberal order; (2) A resurgence of authoritarianism, as in the 1930s; and (3) a China-dominated New World Order.
But this appears simplistic, based as it is on the previous scenarios. Of course the past can guide us to explain the present and push us towards the possible future, we should know that the past would have stayed on if it was perfect. A study of history can make us historian, not history-maker!
We can make history if learn from past errors and innovate for the future.
Covid-19 can help us understand the emerging scenario.
The fear that we have come to the end of the globalized liberal order appears unfounded; in our world of globalization of economies and internationalization of civilization, this is not possible—even dictatorships promise democracy! No country, not even North Korea or Myanmar, for example, can live in isolation for long, sitting as they are on their own volcanoes; they will have to come to terms with modernity and join the mainstream, or disintegrate and disappear.
Similarly, the authoritarianism of the 1930s cannot return, except in some areas. No country, not even Saudi Arabia, can afford to ignore the calls of modernity. And no country can import only the consumer products of the West but not its socio-political value systems that had created those products in the first place. Science and democracy are Siamese twins.
Which brings us to the ‘belief’ that China can replace America as the sole superpower.
Of course the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has risen phenomenally as an economic powerhouse, but its ancient socio-political infrastructure is unable to absorb so much wealth; it is like a beggar burdened with a jackpot! Internal pressures will eventually prise open the Communist-controlled dying socio-political infrastructure and create a new one.
There is a major difference between China and America; the former is almost entirely full of native population while the latter is almost full of immigrants of different varieties and generations. In the US, the people run the government; in the PRC, it is the other way round.
So China can flaunt its riches and huge population, America is likely to remain ahead of it due to its controlled population constantly requiring immigrants who come with innovations. Thus America will, in all likelihood, continue to remain the planet’s hub of innovations while China will have to make do with its moniker of world’s factory.
Huge population has huge surpluses and it is no longer an asset, but a liability, where it is China or India. What matters is a continuous inflow of working and innovating population, something that made America the world power in the last century.
But America may outsource its powers to the new group, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) it is trying to set up with India, Japan, and Australia, as a remote-control over China.
These democracies will be the real challenge to China in the 21st century.
And this will perhaps be the contribution of Covid-19 to geopolitics.