This Too Will Pass

Norman F. Cantor's book, In the Wake of the Plague, tells the story of the Great Plague in 14th-century Europe and the lasting effects of that horrible pandemic.  The medieval plague was so destructive, killing as much as 60% of the population of Europe within a few years, that it permanently altered the social structure and economy of the continent.

With so many landowning families decimated, rich farmland and entire villages sat empty.  Gradually, the land was taken over by persons of lower rank, who then rose into the middle and even upper classes.  With so few working persons available, the value of labor also rose sharply after the plague.  

As with our own pandemic, the plague struck just when markets were at their high, and it quickly diminished the value of everything except human labor.  The century before the Great Plague, from around 1350 to 1450, had been one of remarkable progress.  Supported by a warming climate, agriculture flourished, and the arts and the economy in general reached a level they would not regain for centuries.  It was in this period of prosperity that many of the great cathedrals of Europe were built.

The medieval plague shut down the economy for years and had a permanent effect on business, learning, and the arts even as it brought about greater opportunities for the peasant class.  One of the beneficiaries of the plague was the legal profession: as thousands of estate owners died off, the titles of properties fell into dispute.  With a legal system ill equipped to deal with these cases, lawsuits languished in the courts for years, often for decades, and legal fees mounted.

Our current pandemic does not compare with the Black Death in size and destructiveness, but it is having a strong impact on our markets and economy.  Economists at Goldman Sachs are now predicting a decline of 24% in GDP for the second quarter, though with 12% and 10% rebounds in the third and fourth quarters.  Along with the illness and death itself, businesses and workers are suffering from lost income, and Congress is planning a $2-trillion relief package.

Individual investors have also been hit, and many who sell now may never return to the stock market — just as many bailed out after 2008 and did not participate in the 300% gain that followed the low of March 2009.  Altogether, the global economy is facing an enormous setback as a result of the coronavirus, and it may take several years or more to return to the highs of 2019.  This does not mean that it is the end of the world.  A comparison with the 14th-century Great Plague confirms this.

The Great Plague wiped out half the population of Europe, reduced productivity perhaps to a similar degree, altered the hierarchical social structure that had prevailed before the plague, and weakened the military of great nations such as Britain and France.  These changes were long-lasting.  The life that followed the plague, recorded by Geoffrey Chaucer in the Canterbury Tales, was more democratic, legalistic, amoral, and corrupt.  As Cantor puts it, "[t]he plague had shaken the gentry society like an earthquake, and the fissures ran deep and long[.] ... After the plague a certain restraining sense of honor and civility among the gentry and nobility was attenuated."  Those who are familiar with Chaucer's Wife of Bath know just what Professor Cantor means.

What we are now facing is not another Great Plague.  It is a serious epidemic that, according to authorities such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, can be contained with proper testing and isolation.  President Trump has already put measures into effect in the United States, and other nations are putting similar safeguards into effect.  Canadian leaders have strongly recommended social isolation for all non-essential workers, and similar measures are going into effect in Europe.

Global stock markets have taken a huge hit, with the U.S. Dow having lost a third of its value from its all-time high, but there will be better days ahead for the stock market and for the economy in general.  We are not going to lose half of the world's population and half of our economic productivity.  The coronavirus is not going to shake the foundations of our society.  As soon as the virus recedes, businesses will reopen, sporting events will resume, and life will return to normal.  President Trump predicts a national "celebration" once we return to normal, and there is every reason to expect just that.  Already, Americans who are sheltering in place are eager to get out and spend money.  Nothing is going to stop that from happening.

In the 14th century, there were many myths and rumors surrounding the plague, including total ignorance concerning how the plague originated and how it was spread.  We live with our own myths and rumors, including the idea that the coronavirus was deliberately unleashed by the Chinese military.  In reality, if it follows the pattern of other pandemics originating in China, it probably resulted from overcrowding and poor sanitation.  The slow Chinese response may also have allowed the virus to spread far beyond where it should have. 

One of the lasting images of the plague years was the "dance of death."  The story goes that at the height of the Black Death, hundreds gathered in the streets to engage in a morbid celebration of death accompanied by sexual licentiousness and drunkenness.  Knowing they faced the likelihood of death, the living abandoned all inhibition and partied like it was 1999 — or, in this case, 999.  Myth or not, the idea illustrates the "end of the world" hysteria that accompanies pandemics everywhere.

There is no reason to party this time around.  In fact, most municipalities and states have banned large gatherings, and for good reason.  Now is the time for self-restraint and resolve.

In a few weeks, or months at most, the coronavirus will likely recede.  We will return to the world we knew before the pandemic, and for most of us with little permanent damage.  If coronavirus deaths reach 100,000 (estimated at 13,671 as of March 22), that would amount to one seventy thousandth of the world's population — not one half.  As unfortunate as those deaths are, they will not significantly alter the future.  

As with the Black Death, we cannot fully control the spread of the coronavirus — nor can our president, who should not be blamed.  We must accept the fact that, like many other aspects of life, there are some things we cannot control.  For those of us who repeat "thy will be done" in their daily prayers, the need for acceptance and patience is nothing new.  The virus is going to spread, and nothing can stop this from happening.  What we can do is to have faith in the goodness of life and in the splendid future that lies ahead.

What we're facing is not the Black Death — it's closer to the panic depicted in the 1950 film with Richard Widmark, Panic in the Streets.  The coronavirus is a dangerous and highly contagious disease, but the panic it has generated, with the collusion of the mainstream media and the political left, is as dangerous as the disease itself.

What we must do is remain calm, take precautions, and maintain our faith that we will get through it.  We are not facing the Black Death, however similar the coronavirus may be in some respects.  This is not the time for the Dance of Death, despite what some on CNN seem to believe.  It's time for assurance that we will survive it and that better times lie ahead.

Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books and articles on American culture including Heartland of the Imagination (2011).

Norman F. Cantor's book, In the Wake of the Plague, tells the story of the Great Plague in 14th-century Europe and the lasting effects of that horrible pandemic.  The medieval plague was so destructive, killing as much as 60% of the population of Europe within a few years, that it permanently altered the social structure and economy of the continent.

With so many landowning families decimated, rich farmland and entire villages sat empty.  Gradually, the land was taken over by persons of lower rank, who then rose into the middle and even upper classes.  With so few working persons available, the value of labor also rose sharply after the plague.  

As with our own pandemic, the plague struck just when markets were at their high, and it quickly diminished the value of everything except human labor.  The century before the Great Plague, from around 1350 to 1450, had been one of remarkable progress.  Supported by a warming climate, agriculture flourished, and the arts and the economy in general reached a level they would not regain for centuries.  It was in this period of prosperity that many of the great cathedrals of Europe were built.

The medieval plague shut down the economy for years and had a permanent effect on business, learning, and the arts even as it brought about greater opportunities for the peasant class.  One of the beneficiaries of the plague was the legal profession: as thousands of estate owners died off, the titles of properties fell into dispute.  With a legal system ill equipped to deal with these cases, lawsuits languished in the courts for years, often for decades, and legal fees mounted.

Our current pandemic does not compare with the Black Death in size and destructiveness, but it is having a strong impact on our markets and economy.  Economists at Goldman Sachs are now predicting a decline of 24% in GDP for the second quarter, though with 12% and 10% rebounds in the third and fourth quarters.  Along with the illness and death itself, businesses and workers are suffering from lost income, and Congress is planning a $2-trillion relief package.

Individual investors have also been hit, and many who sell now may never return to the stock market — just as many bailed out after 2008 and did not participate in the 300% gain that followed the low of March 2009.  Altogether, the global economy is facing an enormous setback as a result of the coronavirus, and it may take several years or more to return to the highs of 2019.  This does not mean that it is the end of the world.  A comparison with the 14th-century Great Plague confirms this.

The Great Plague wiped out half the population of Europe, reduced productivity perhaps to a similar degree, altered the hierarchical social structure that had prevailed before the plague, and weakened the military of great nations such as Britain and France.  These changes were long-lasting.  The life that followed the plague, recorded by Geoffrey Chaucer in the Canterbury Tales, was more democratic, legalistic, amoral, and corrupt.  As Cantor puts it, "[t]he plague had shaken the gentry society like an earthquake, and the fissures ran deep and long[.] ... After the plague a certain restraining sense of honor and civility among the gentry and nobility was attenuated."  Those who are familiar with Chaucer's Wife of Bath know just what Professor Cantor means.

What we are now facing is not another Great Plague.  It is a serious epidemic that, according to authorities such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, can be contained with proper testing and isolation.  President Trump has already put measures into effect in the United States, and other nations are putting similar safeguards into effect.  Canadian leaders have strongly recommended social isolation for all non-essential workers, and similar measures are going into effect in Europe.

Global stock markets have taken a huge hit, with the U.S. Dow having lost a third of its value from its all-time high, but there will be better days ahead for the stock market and for the economy in general.  We are not going to lose half of the world's population and half of our economic productivity.  The coronavirus is not going to shake the foundations of our society.  As soon as the virus recedes, businesses will reopen, sporting events will resume, and life will return to normal.  President Trump predicts a national "celebration" once we return to normal, and there is every reason to expect just that.  Already, Americans who are sheltering in place are eager to get out and spend money.  Nothing is going to stop that from happening.

In the 14th century, there were many myths and rumors surrounding the plague, including total ignorance concerning how the plague originated and how it was spread.  We live with our own myths and rumors, including the idea that the coronavirus was deliberately unleashed by the Chinese military.  In reality, if it follows the pattern of other pandemics originating in China, it probably resulted from overcrowding and poor sanitation.  The slow Chinese response may also have allowed the virus to spread far beyond where it should have. 

One of the lasting images of the plague years was the "dance of death."  The story goes that at the height of the Black Death, hundreds gathered in the streets to engage in a morbid celebration of death accompanied by sexual licentiousness and drunkenness.  Knowing they faced the likelihood of death, the living abandoned all inhibition and partied like it was 1999 — or, in this case, 999.  Myth or not, the idea illustrates the "end of the world" hysteria that accompanies pandemics everywhere.

There is no reason to party this time around.  In fact, most municipalities and states have banned large gatherings, and for good reason.  Now is the time for self-restraint and resolve.

In a few weeks, or months at most, the coronavirus will likely recede.  We will return to the world we knew before the pandemic, and for most of us with little permanent damage.  If coronavirus deaths reach 100,000 (estimated at 13,671 as of March 22), that would amount to one seventy thousandth of the world's population — not one half.  As unfortunate as those deaths are, they will not significantly alter the future.  

As with the Black Death, we cannot fully control the spread of the coronavirus — nor can our president, who should not be blamed.  We must accept the fact that, like many other aspects of life, there are some things we cannot control.  For those of us who repeat "thy will be done" in their daily prayers, the need for acceptance and patience is nothing new.  The virus is going to spread, and nothing can stop this from happening.  What we can do is to have faith in the goodness of life and in the splendid future that lies ahead.

What we're facing is not the Black Death — it's closer to the panic depicted in the 1950 film with Richard Widmark, Panic in the Streets.  The coronavirus is a dangerous and highly contagious disease, but the panic it has generated, with the collusion of the mainstream media and the political left, is as dangerous as the disease itself.

What we must do is remain calm, take precautions, and maintain our faith that we will get through it.  We are not facing the Black Death, however similar the coronavirus may be in some respects.  This is not the time for the Dance of Death, despite what some on CNN seem to believe.  It's time for assurance that we will survive it and that better times lie ahead.

Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books and articles on American culture including Heartland of the Imagination (2011).