The Coronavirus is not the Black Death

By Ken Mondschein

The novel coronavirus COVID-19 has sickened almost 86,000 and killed more than 2,900 people, spread worldwide, and caused stock markets to tumble. Analogies to the Black Death, the outbreak of bubonic plague that wiped out between one-half and two-thirds of the population of Europe from 1347–51, were inevitable. With this came the other connotations of the premodern past: New York Times reporter Donald McNeil advised “to take on the Coronavirus, go medieval on it.” It’s a bit of a disingenuous title: McNeil denounces those who want to “close the borders, quarantine the ships, pen terrified citizens up inside their poisoned cities” as medieval and inferior to using modern medicine, even as he admits that the measures have helped somewhat.

To be sure, there are some similarities. Like the Black Death, COVID-19 comes from the Far East and from animal-to-human transmission—in the first case, from rats; arguably from bats today. Like the Black Death, it is a far-reaching pandemic whose spread was enabled by globalism—the Mongol empire and Italian merchants trading on the Silk Road in the first; modern air travel and international markets in the second.


So, too, has the outbreak led to a shuttering of gates and a blaming of the “other.” In the Middle Ages, Jews were blamed for poisoning wells and lynched. Hundreds of Jewish communities were attacked, and many were destroyed. In the city of Strasbourg, several hundred Jews were burned alive in a wooden house specially built for the purpose. In Basel, Switzerland, 600 were burned at the stake and 140 children forcibly baptized.

Today, the race to close borders mirrors Donald Trump’s nativist, xenophobic anti-immigrant stance and provides grist for the mill of those who oppose him. McNeil, for instance, says, “travel restrictions can cause more panic, misery and death than they prevent…. Also, quarantines feed racism and stigma,” but that “for Mr. Trump, such a move is natural.” The medieval, representing the ignorant, tribal, and backwards, is again being used as a foil for the modern, enlightened, and internationalist. But even if we can recognize similar sentiments to medieval Jew-burning in the Trump administration’s anti-Muslim and anti-Latino policies, the president is implementing ideas only held by a percentage of the American population in a top-down fashion while, in contrast, medieval Christian authorities often sought to protect Jews against widespread popular anti-Semitism.


CORVID-19 itself is also very unlike bubonic plague, and not only because it is caused by a virus and not a bacterium. It spreads person-to person, whereas only one of the three forms of the Plague, the pneumonic, does so; the rest require bites from fleas. The mortality rate is quite different: around 3.3% of those infected for Coronavirus versus around 50% for untreated bubonic plague (infection of the lymph nodes with the yersinia pestis bacterium), and 100% for untreated pneumonic (respiratory) or septicemic (systemic infection) plague.

More importantly, while it was a tragic loss of life, the economic effects of the Black Death had overall positive effects for the surviving wage-laborers of medieval Europe. With a smaller population, there was more land, and more food, to go around. More importantly, landowners still needed the grain on which their wealth was based harvested. With less of a labor supply, wage-laborers were able to demand higher prices than ever before. Before the Black Death, a skilled laborer in England could earn three pence per day. Afterwards, he could earn four—adding up to about three pounds a year more total income, accounting for holidays and idle times. The result was a sort of  “golden age” for wage laborers, more prosperity, and more class mobility. Additionally, some historians argue it caused the rise of modern capitalism as the nobility, caught in a pincers between falling grain prices and rising labor costs and seeking a stable income, rented out their properties, allowing the social rise of prosperous non-nobles who invested in agricultural land and proto-industrial infrastructure such as mills.

The coronavirus will have the opposite effect in our late-capitalist economy. With stock prices plummeting, corporations will be under pressure to maintain shareholder value. The easiest way to do this is to reduce payroll. Moreover, with investors withdrawing their credit from the marketplace, companies will stop expanding their operations, further reducing the demand for labor. The “nonessential” workers told to stay home in case of “quarantine in place” also tend to be the most vulnerable; moreover, they are the least likely to have the resources to stockpile necessities. With an uncertain economic future, consumer spending, the driving engine of our economy, will fall, continuing the spiral into recession. For instance, home values will plummet, reducing investment in that major economic sector and affecting whole industries. The net result of the “market correction” will be a fall in wages, economic uncertainty, and the widening of the divide between the rich and the rest of us. The only way out of this is a movement towards a modern social democracy.

Ken Mondschein is a history professor at UMass-Mt. Ida College, Anna Maria College, and Boston University, as well as a fencing master and jouster. Click here to visit his website.


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Top Image:14th century image of the Black Death in Tournai.