Rodent Traps in India c. 1915.

How the Renaissance Rose from the Black Death in Europe

It was a sunny morning in October 1347, and a gentle shore breeze puffed the shimmering, white sails of Genoese ships approaching the Sicilian port of Messini. Sicily, a town of 100,000 inhabitants was enjoying a fine autumn day. Children played on its golden beaches and the cobbled marketplace bustled with housewives and vendors trading in the fruits of the harvest.

The ships docked, flung gangplanks noisily down and a silent horror, serenaded by cawing seagulls, rolled innocuously into town. Aboard the ghostlike ships were crew and passengers, infected or dead, with many bodies oozing pus and blood from large swollen tumors visible under their armpits and groins.

The citizens of Messini had only heard rumors about a mysterious pestilence called the Black Death, what we know today as the Bubonic/Pneumonic Plague. And now the brutal, unforgiving disease had arrived on their shores – a stop on the trade route that wound around the Mediterranean and through Eurasia, to China and India.

Messini tried to protect itself by burning down the ships and their terrible cargo. But it was too late. Within months, most of its population had perished and the plague, having found a foothold in Europe, began its serpentine journey of terror around the medieval world – a mythological monster with an insatiable appetite for human flesh.

Though societies in the Middle Ages were clueless about the source of the plague (y. Pestis, a bacteria carried by fleas on rats), their reaction to contagion was similar to ours. They isolated and quarantined the infected; in Venice, all incoming ships were boarded and burned if plague or foreigners were found, and alehouses and gathering places were closed.

In other cities, households with infected members were marked and sealed, and its inhabitants not allowed to leave for several weeks. In cities and towns all over Europe people fled blighted areas (inadvertently spreading the pestilence further), or sealed off plague-ridden villages. The dead were buried in deep pits outside city walls and mourners were limited to immediate family or often, none at all, the family being dead or too frightened to attend.

By the time the Plague finished its deathly dance over Europe, at least a third of the population had perished and survivors faced a new world in which the social order had been remarkably transformed.
With the acute shortage of labor to plow the fields, peasants demanded higher wages and refused to accept serf-like conditions anymore. Kings and the Church lost the reverence and fear they had enjoyed in the Middle Ages: royalty and priests hadn’t been able to save themselves, much less the hapless population.

Eventually, the social and economic consequences of the plague led to an age of Enlightenment and the Renaissance in Europe.

How The Spanish Flu Influenced India’s Freedom Movement

The Flu of 1918, a virulent version of H1N1, attacked a world still reeling from the First World War (1914-1918). It snuck up on unsuspecting populations with predatory ferocity and killed nearly 50 million people around the globe.

At the time, the freedom movement Gandhi had stoked in early 20th century India was still nascent – he had a devoted band of followers, but was without large-scale grassroots support. The strength of Gandhi’s fledgling movement lay in the fact that his organization had figured out how to cross strong caste barriers in Indian society, and unite people for the singular goal of independence from colonial rule.

In 1914, India participated in the World War, sending large contingents of native soldiers and British medical personnel to the front. However, their British colonizers had neglected medical infrastructure on the Indian subcontinent for years. When the pandemic hit, India’s meager public health care system was unprepared. Citizens died in droves without care and facilities. Complicating matters further, many British medical personnel were still at the front. Local Indians who stepped in to fill the massive health care gap tended to be Gandhi’s militant activists, who already had a grassroots organization for quick mobilization in place.

The high death toll among Indians – 18 million dead – fueled immense anger at the British. Their outrage meshed with the healing and support that Gandhi’s followers offered the population during the pandemic, and drove people to his anti-British platform in large numbers.

With the power of the masses behind him, Gandhi launched his first Satyagraha.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

The Plague and the Spanish Flu are striking examples of how a pandemic can dramatically change the societies they strike and steer the course of history. The current Coronavirus Pandemic is writing over our collective future with equal vigor. While its long-term social consequences haven’t played out yet, we are getting our first glimpses of social transformation already.

Even as telelearning and telemedicine become a big part of our lives, the gap between rich and poor has never been as glaring. Wealthier Americans shelter at home or wait out the epidemic, while those hardest hit are lower on the socioeconomic ladder but ‘essential’ – workers like grocery store clerks and sanitation workers who can’t afford the luxury of staying home.

A sense of social vulnerability and social co-dependence is emerging. Leaders are being held to more stringent standards of communication, since life and death are at stake, while scientists around the world are cooperating and sharing information at an unheard-of speed and urgency.

As we ride out the pandemic together, we can be sure that the world we have known with its fragile sense of predictability, its overarching shadow of terrorism, its measured advances in conquering chronic diseases, and its divisive politics, will mutate into another, more insecure, less predictable one.
Please post your ideas on what changes you see coming, personally.
And Stay Safe.

Jyoti Minocha is an DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and is working on a novel about the Partition.

Edited by Meera Kymal , contributing editor at India Currents

Image: India: metal rodent traps in a pile; the rat-catchers gather under a grass-roofed shelter to be paid. Watercolour by E. Schwarz, 1915/193
Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Jyoti Minocha is a DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins and is working on a novel about the Partition.