Archived: Do Pandemics Weaken Societies? – Oli Banks

Originally published on April 2nd, 2020

What is a Pandemic? 
The word “pandemic” carries with it not only scientific considerations, but social considerations too. A pandemic is not a death count, case count, or a rate of infection. Whilst it is true that a pandemic, in contrast to an epidemic, must have global reach, the six stages of classification in the World Health Organisation’s system ‘only loosely correspond to pandemic risk’ (World Health Organisation, 2010). Rather, the outbreaks we classify as pandemics are those that affect the social fabric. A pandemic must change the way that society works. We see these effects most clearly in terms of labour markets, but disease can also affect the balance of power between different classes, and different civilisations. Pandemics may have a positive impact on societal strength by aiding the establishment and preservation of democracy. However, the negative impact that they have on trust in others has far reaching consequences, that when taken with the often massive demographic impacts, means that pandemics ultimately weaken societies.

Pandemics and Labour
The most prescient social effects of a pandemic are economic in nature. By causing a shock to the labour market, pandemics change how people use their time, thereby reshaping their lives and their sense of identity. There are three economic consequences of a pandemic which can lead to further social transformation.

One, a pandemic which spreads among people of working age will rapidly decrease the efficacy of the workforce. As people become ill, a decrease in the average “quality” of a worker will be observed. This can be represented as a shrink in the productivity coefficient that determines the contribution of a worker to the firm’s output. There will also be a decrease in the number of available workers. The severely ill will be unable to work, decreasing the size of the labour market. The shrinking of the labour market and reduced worker ability will have a negative effect on economic output.

Two, in cases of pandemics with a particularly high rate of transmission, special measures will be imposed to slow the spread of the pathogen. Whether a product of social or governmental consensus, these measures will restrict or inhibit the normal functioning of society. Typical work practices will change. Employees will work from home, take special precautions when working, or their role within a firm may no longer be practicable. Although the inherent potential of workers may not change, the realised potential of workers will. Thus, there will be a further negative effect on output.

Three, there will also be a drop in demand for some goods and services, and a rise in demand for others. As people go out less and stay in more, entertainment, transport, and travel industries will be subject to a drop in demand, whereas retail, communications, and technology-based industries will experience a rise in demand. This will cause a shift in the structure of the labour market, as the quantity of available work decreases in the former industries, and increases in the latter. Healthy workers will temporarily migrate from one industry to another. Thus, as consumption patterns change, production patterns will change too. 

These changes in the labour market will affect people directly and indirectly. The most immediate effect will be that the things people do day to day will change. Some people may lose their jobs due to economic pressures on their firm, and be unable to find a new job. Others may become too ill to work. In both cases, the daily habits of these people will not remain the same. This makes society vulnerable to political upheaval – ‘revolutions take place when and only when, in such a society, people can no longer lead their everyday lives’ (Lefebvre, 2016). Other workers may transition to working remotely (from home or a ‘safe’ area), or move to another industry (e.g. from waitressing to working at a food retailer). With a change in style of work also comes a transformation of identity: the views of an individual on work, and the role that their work plays in society, will change as their role changes. Furthermore, some workers may be unable to change sectors or transition to working from home, and the privilege differences these factors betray may quickly come to light in a pandemic lockdown situation.

Pandemics and Class
Less immediate effects will stem from the impact that worsening economic performance will have. As the economy changes, there will be a shift in the balance of power between the classes. From 1918-20, Sweden was gripped by Spanish flu. The labour market experienced a shock that was unusually severe even for a pandemic, as healthy men of working age were particularly susceptible to the disease. Sweden was a neutral power in World War I, with minimal participation and no combat deaths. As such, we can use this case to examine the social effects of the Spanish flu, separately from those of the war. The economic analysis of Karlsson et Al. shows that the pandemic preserved the middle class, whose wages remained the same. However, poverty levels rose substantially, as the economically marginalised were pushed into destitution. Meanwhile, returns on capital decreased, depriving the rich of income from their investments (Karlsson, Pichler, & Nilsson, 2014). Thus, although wages for ordinary men and women did not increase, the middle class was effectively strengthened, as those at the top and the bottom lost some of their purchase. 

By strengthening the middle class in this way, pandemics bolster democratic societies. The concept of kyklos in classical political philosophy described a pattern by which societies would change from one political system to another. The chief concern this model raised was how to prevent desirable forms of governance degenerating into undesirable ones. Aristotle posited that the preservation of a democratic system would rely upon a strong middle class (Aristotle, 1905). This is what we saw in Sweden. When the Spanish flu outbreak hit, Sweden was undergoing a political transition toward democratisation. From 1917, the nation had been operating under a parliamentary system, and in 1921, they introduced women’s suffrage. A middle class with increased power would have a positive impact on the establishment of democratic norms, given that democracy – a system whereby power emanates from the people, and yet the rights of the individual are upheld – most closely aligns with middle class interests. As such, in cases like Sweden where economic factors strengthened the middle class, pandemics temper democracy.

Disease and Trust
However, generally speaking, experiencing a pandemic will harm a society. Measures intended to limit the spread of the pandemic cause damage to inter-personal relations, and in most cases, this damage will harm society. One example of a socially harmful measure is social distancing. Used in Europe during the Spanish Flu, along with quarantine, closure of public spaces, and compulsory use of gauze masks, distancing practices were successful in slowing the spread of disease (Yu, Lin, Chiu, & He, 2017).However, they also caused a significant decrease in trust of others, which was still detectable in the descendants of those that lived at the time (Aassve, Alfani, Gandolfi, & Le Moglie, 2020). Some other types of natural disaster, including earthquakes and floods, also do harm to the trust dynamic of societies (Toya & Skidmore, 2012), (Carlin, 2014). A society is stronger when internal cohesion is stronger, and so a deterioration of trust will weaken a society. Hayden writes that when Ebola spread across some regions of Sub-Saharan Africa, victims were heavily stigmatised. The stigma they faced was perhaps tied to a rational response that kept pathogen carriers away from the healthy, but this stigma persisted long into recovery of the victims (Hayden, 2014). This stigma then adversely affected the mental health of the survivors (Reardon, 2015). The rise in discrimination that occurred in Ebola-stricken areas was not unique – epidemics generally result in heightened feelings of hatred, and alienation from the “other” (Cohn, 2018). The reduction of trust in others also has measurable negative impacts on both economic performance (Algan & Cahuc, 2010) and on the quality of political institutions (Knack & Zak, 2003).

Epidemics and Colonisation
Pandemics also affect how societies interact, and can be to the advantage of societies who have developed immunity. Disease was the fulcrum around which the successful colonisation of Mexico turned. Prem notes that from 1520, a series of epidemics swept across “New Spain”, resulting in the massive demographic collapse of native civilisation. Owing to a stringent system of regulation imposed on Spanish settlers, progressively tightened due to their bad behaviour, it was difficult and illegal to claim land occupied by indigenous people. Though underhand tactics were sometimes used to bypass legislation, the majority of land titles did not result in Spaniards taking control of native lands, but rather, were given when the land was unoccupied by natives. The 1520 smallpox epidemic had a mortality rate of approximately 50%, with the 1545 and 1576 Cocoliztli epidemics having similar rates. Due to compounding, the ultimate mortality rate from epidemics alone may have been as high as 90%. It is no wonder then, that Aztec and other regional societies did not survive. As the natives died and large swathes of land were left abandoned, Spanish settlers were able to apply to the colonial administration for titles and legally acquire the land rights. Even in the case of the encomendero system, whereby the first settlers were awarded indigenous-occupied lands, the Spanish were barred from practicing agriculture, building in native villages, or staying with the natives beyond a single night on these lands. Pre-epidemic colonial policy was to preserve native administrative structures and extract their economic surplus. Rather than demolish Mexican societies, the Spanish took advantage of the fact that most societies they encountered produced additional wealth that was typically awarded to priests. As the King said to Cortes in 1523, ‘They will give and pay us for each year as much revenue and tribute as were given and paid until now to their priests and lords’ (Prem, 1992). The Spanish did not cause the complete collapse of indigenous civilisation in Mexico. The expansion and evolution of patchwork encomiendas into the all-powerful haciendas of the nineteenth century was facilitated by disease, for which the natives had not developed immunity, due to their isolation from Eurasia. Today, Mexico is a beautiful but troubled country with a history of colonial servitude. Had smallpox and Cocolitzi not affected the region, the outcomes for Spanish and native Mexican societies would have been very different. 

Pandemics by definition spread across the globe, and therefore across multiple societies. Pandemics will generally weaken societies, but may be beneficial to democracy. However, the greatest impacts of epidemics, if not pandemics, in history have been in destroying one society and allowing another to expand. Between societies, pandemics may shift the balance of power.

Hi, my name is Oliver and I’m co-writer on this blog with Fred. I study Politics, Philosophy and Economics at undergraduate level. For this blog I’ll be writing a series of articles on pandemics and current affairs from the perspective of my disciplines. Enjoy!

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Carlin, R. E. (2014). Trust Shaken: Earthquake Damage, State Capacity, and Interpersonal Trust in Comparative Perspective. Comparative Politics, 419–437.

Cohn, S. (2018). Epidemics: Hate and Compassion From the Plague of Athens to AIDS. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hayden, E. C. (2014, December 18). Ebola survivors fight prejudice. Nature.

Karlsson, M., Pichler, S., & Nilsson, T. (2014). The Impact of the 1918 Spanish Flu Epidemic on Economic Performance in Sweden. Journal of Health Economics, 1-19.

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Prem, H. J. (1992). Spanish Colonization and Indian Property in Central Mexico, 1521-1620. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 444-459 .

Reardon, S. (2015, March 5). Ebola’s mental-health wounds linger in Africa: health-care workers struggle to help people who have been traumatized by the epidemic. Nature, pp. 1-2.

Toya, H., & Skidmore, M. (2012). Do Natural Disasters Enhance Societal Trust? CESifo Group Munich.

World Health Organisation. (2010). Pandemic Influenza Preparedness and Response. France: WHO Press.

Yu, D., Lin, Q., Chiu, A. P., & He, D. (2017). Effects of reactive social distancing on the 1918 influenza pandemic. PLoS One.

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