In July of last year, an essay in the New Yorker proposed that crises can be a catalyst for positive change. As the U.S. suffers a fourth wave of COVID-19, is optimism still warranted? I am hopeful that we can count on human resilience in the face of adversity and historical evidence that suggests the potential of crises to “shake up the way people think.” Those words were spoken by Gianna Pomata of Johns Hopkins University, and quoted by Lawrence Wright’s essay, “How Pandemics Wreak Havoc – and Open Minds.”
A professor of Medical History, Pomata notes that in the 14th century a virulent disease known as the Black Plague devastated Europe (as well as China and India), but also ushered in the European Renaissance. Arts and sciences flourished in this era of profound change, while hereditary class divisions and control of wealth gave way to new social and economic forms. “After the Black Death, nothing was the same,” Pomata says. “What I expect now is something as dramatic is going to happen… in economy and culture. Because of danger, there’s this wonderful human response, which is to think in a new way.”
Wright adds, “We seem to be at another point when society will make radical adjustments, for good or ill,” and his essay offers a look at the mixed effects of pandemics that emerged throughout the history of the western world. Pandemics almost always triggered economic volatility, but responses varied widely. Wright is hopeful that our present pandemic will open minds to the possibility of “major transformations.” He notes that, “Like wars and depressions, a pandemic offers an X-ray of society, allowing us to see all the broken places.”
The events of early September 2021 might alert us to the urgency of a response to climate change, as well as to the effects of a COVID-19 rebound which has dramatically slowed hiring. Much still seems uncertain, but perhaps a look at history can help us to find a sense of perspective if not equanimity—and also inspire us to take up the work of creating positive change.
HOW PANDEMICS WREAK HAVOC – AND OPEN MINDS
Lawrence Wright, July 13, 2020
The New Yorker magazine