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Pandemics Kill People, Not Societies

Historical sociologist Samuel Cohn explains that COVID-19 has us living a “historic normal” that’s yet to cause the downfall of a society.

By Rachel Knight ‘18

Before the implementation of Western medicine, pandemics occurred every 10 to 50 years. The introduction of Western medicine brought with it a sense of security and immunity to plagues, epidemics, and pandemics. Then COVID-19 hit, revealing a viral weak spot in modern medicine. 

Samuel Cohn, a professor in the College of Liberal Arts, studies both general historic and development sociology. His most recent book, All Societies Die: How to Keep Hope Alive, which will be published this spring, examines the downfall of societies. He said while pandemics initially take out a good portion of the population, they rarely result in major population or societal changes.

“No society has died of a pandemic,” Cohn explained. 

Cohn suggested this is in part because pandemics typically follow a mortality pattern that targets the oldest and youngest members of the population. While Cohn acknowledged that any death (regardless of the person’s age) is cause for concern, population numbers tend to recover quickly from elderly deaths. This is because elderly adults are generally closer to death than prime age adults. 

Infant and child mortalities are also recovered fairly quickly throughout history. Cohn shared that parents who lose a child to disease or crisis usually go into increased fertility behavior after a period of mourning. Thus young population numbers are relatively quickly recovered. 

Photo of the Roman Colosseum.

Our reaction to COVID-19 is similar to the ancient Roman response to plagues.

COVID-19 has an unusual mortality pattern for pandemics, because it has affected relatively  few infants and children. Even so, our reaction to COVID-19 is not much different than the Romans’ reaction to plagues. Those with the means to avoid contact with other people isolate in rural areas until it’s considered safe to return to cities.

“That is the classic anti-pandemic approach of pre-industrial societies. The wealthy move from the city to country villas with the intention of not coming back until the coast is clear,” Cohn said. “Many poor people would have families with farms, so in a more modest version you go home to get out of the city. Even before modern medicine, you could avoid real wipeouts by simply bailing out of town.”

While most pandemics have few lasting societal influences, they often result in increased religious practice. This is usually because people turn to religion to help explain the unexplainable and feel a sense of serenity in situations they cannot control. Some religions have even used pandemics as an organized opportunity to spread their faith. 

“The Christians took care of a lot of Romans who were being hit by prime age mortality in much of the 100s to 300s of the Roman era, which was what gave the Christians a good reputation for being charitable,” Cohn shared.

The Black Death, a global epidemic of bubonic plague in the mid-1300s, was one of the few pandemics that had a profound effect on society. Cohn credited it with ending the Middle Ages and beginning the Renaissance. This is because mass prime-age adult deaths made farmers who were previously dependent on feudal lords more independent. 

Leonardo Da Vinci's famous painting, The Last Supper.

The Black Death gave lower classes social and economic mobility, inspired stronger religious practices, and set the Renaissance in motion.

“Lots of people died, and suddenly the farmers were scarce,” he explained. “The nobles needed their labor, which gave the farmer bargaining power for the first time. The first thing they did was say, ‘We’re taking the right to leave. If we’re scarce, that means someone else wants me.’ Suddenly they were moving and there was a creation of the capitalist labor market. Furthermore, there was an increase in consumer expenditure giving merchants more business. Not all plagues have such a happy ending.”

While Cohn credited the Black Death with important socioeconomic shifts, he also pointed out that it was utterly traumatic to live through. 

“During the Black Death, death was not contained in some kind of critical care unit where your family didn’t see it,” Cohn said. “Parents were watching their children with bubonic plague cry and cry and slowly die. As soon as one family member died, buboes would begin popping up on another loved one’s face. This was an experience that was etched in the psychology of everyone who saw this, and that led to religious thinking and cultural thinking. It was a profoundly traumatic experience.”

While COVID-19 deaths are high, few members of the population have experienced them the same way people experienced bubonic plague deaths. We place the responsibility and burden of caring for the critically ill on our healthcare system. We know they suffer, but we do not see the climax of this suffering first-hand. 

The traumatic experience for most people in the COVID-19 pandemic has been the realization that Western medicine doesn’t immunize us from pandemics or mass mortality.

“With the rise of modern medicine came a sense of efficacy over being able to control your mortality,” Cohn said. “If I eat healthy, if I exercise, if I drive safely, if I don’t smoke, I can protect myself from premature death.”

Student wearing a mask as they study on campus.

Our best defense against pandemic causing viruses like COVID-19 is teamwork.

When our sense of control over our own mortality is shattered, society tends to take on a more fatalistic, courageous, macho, whatever happens happens view of life. Cohn explained that in this psyche, if you take chances, that means you’re brave. Cowardliness isn’t going to save you anyway. This way of thinking about morality is the “historic normal.”

The return to the “historic normal” psyche has been exhibited throughout COVID-19 in America by individuals who are reluctant to follow restrictive safety guidelines like mask mandates and stay at home orders. Team oriented countries like Switzerland, Japan, and Singapore have done a better job of following COVID-19 safety guidelines, according to Cohn, because there is a collective cultural understanding that teams can do a lot more than individuals.

Cohn said although COVID-19 death rates are high, we won’t likely see lasting major societal changes from this pandemic.

“All things considered, I believe most people will fortunately view the pandemic as an exceptional time period and improved modern medicine as being the new normal,” he said. “If pandemics become more dominant and are far more normal than common diseases, then I think you would start seeing the changes. But I don’t think this pandemic is strong enough to do that.”