Pivotal Moment? What History Tells Us About COVID-19’s Future Impact

Earlier this month, I had a conversation with an esteemed fellow historian about the exploding coronavirus crisis. “The disruptions that we will face,” I gloomily told him, “will be greater and deeper than anything we have seen since World War II and the Great Depression.” “Tell me more,” he reacted.

A few days later, on March 18, newscasters, TV analysts, and editorial writers began to draw parallels between the exponentially unfolding crisis and the deadliest war ever and biggest economic meltdown in modern history.

History offers the best tools to understand the present and even prepare for future outcomes because historians look at human and social developments with a long-term perspective and in their complex interconnectedness rather than as isolated snapshots.

Unprecedented Global Catastrophe

We are witnessing an unprecedented global catastrophe that originated from Wuhan, China, sometime in November 2019. Within a few days, it became a provincial viral epidemic. It immediately reverberated, paralyzing several world economies: first in China, soon after that in South Korea, then in Iran and Italy. Within three months, it had created health and economic havoc in virtually every nation.

Massive epidemics, catastrophic disasters, and prolonged deadly conflagrations are pivotal moments that often alter the course of history. This is particularly true in contexts of deep pre-existing tensions between nations, ethnic groups, castes and classes, and economic sectors and socio-economic ideologies.

These are often moments or periods of transition that spin other catastrophes and produce historical watersheds: from one distinct historical era to another; from political autonomy to colonialism or vice versa; political swings from right to left or left to right; dictatorships; one class losing power to another; and sometimes, the world turning completely upside down.

Black Death and Smallpox Pandemics

Let’s begin with the fourteenth century. The Black Death pandemic that peaked in Europe between 1348 and 1350 had widespread, profound, and long-lasting economic, social, and political consequences. The death of roughly one-third of Europe’s inhabitants proved beneficial to surviving peasants and laborers, who were now able to acquire land at lower prices and earn higher wages.

The Black Death, historians agree, eroded the power of manorial lords over the peasantry. This led to the demise of serfdom in Western Europe and created the circumstances for the emergence of absolutist national monarchies. The Middle Ages convalesced into what historians call the Early Modern Period (1500-1800).

In 1519, on the other side of the Atlantic, smallpox made its lethal debut in Mexico, among an indigenous population that lacked immunities to the virus. The ensuing high rate of death among Mexico’s inhabitants (over 90 percent), along with more advanced weaponry, allowed Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés and a couple of hundred other conquistadors to bring the mighty Aztec empire to its knees in little over two years.

Spain established the world’s first global empire. It would be three centuries before Mexico could free itself from the Spanish colonial yoke.

Depression Virus

Fast forward to 1929. Following several weeks of volatility in the New York Stock Exchange, on October 28, the Dow Jones fell by 12.82 percent, and the next day, on Black Tuesday, it plunged by another 11.73 percent. It hit rock bottom on July 8, 1932. Investors jumped off their office windows – if only in the morbid imagination of sensationalist journalists.

Unemployment shot up to 25 percent, salaries tumbled, and soup kitchens and shantytowns now dotted the landscape. Beginning in 1930, choking clouds of dust rolled eastward from Colorado to New York City and from Nevada to the nation’s capital, destroying crops, killing cattle and farm animals, and displacing 2.5 million malnourished farmers.

Because of the interconnectedness of most of the world’s economies, the meltdowns in the United States and Great Britain sprung a domino effect. The depression became a global crisis.

When the American, British, and other European markets collapsed, they brought down scores of national economies that had come to depend on the purchasing power of industrial nations. Cuba’s sugar-exporting economy buckled, and the same thing happened in coffee-exporting Brazil and tin-rich Bolivia. Africa’s Ivory and Gold Coasts, whose economies depended on exporting cocoa and palm kernels to Europe, fell into severe depressions. Similar outcomes ravaged vast regions of Asia.

The Depression virus spread to other vulnerable organs of society, shaking the social order and producing feverish political change. In Latin America, for example, nearly every nation saw profound social and political transformations: crumpling oligarchical regimes, labor unrest, the ascendance of militarism, populist revolts, and coups of diverse political coloration.

Economic bankruptcy energized fascist movements and governments in Italy, Germany, Japan, Spain, and elsewhere where nationalist leaders promised to restore economic prosperity and national pride. We know how that went.

The United States, Canada, Great Britain, and France endured profound social, economic, and political changes of their own: laissez-faire capitalism disintegrated to be replaced by the modern capitalist welfare state. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal is a textbook example.

The 1930s generated a new formula of increased government intervention and regulation, marked by massive injections of state capital to combat unemployment and deprivation, to foster a semblance of social equality, and to jump-start virtually every sector of the economy.


Back to New York City. It is one year, nine months, and eleven days into the New Millennium. At 8:45 am, a hijacked American Airlines Boing 767 crashes into the North Tower of Manhattan’s iconic World Trade Center. It was the first of four commercial jets hijacked by terrorists affiliated with Al-Qaeda.

Chaos breaks loose. The death toll reaches 2,977, the Dow Jones mirrors the collapse of the twin towers, and stock markets around the world plummet. A mild recession already underway deepens in the U.S. and around the world. Hardest hit are the property insurance, travel, and tourism industries.

In retaliation for the 9/11 attacks, the United States and Great Britain bomb Afghanistan and invade it soon after that. In March 2003, the United States went to war against Iraq.

One of the legacies of 9/11 was the passage of the Patriot Act that granted federal authorities expanded powers to detain immigrants indefinitely, search homes and offices, and expand citizen surveillance. While originally meant to be temporary, most Patriot Act provisions are still in place.

Unfolding Catastrophe and Potential Consequences

As of Monday, there are over 750,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus worldwide; this is, of course, the proverbial tip of the iceberg. To date, there are nearly 35,000 deaths. The United States’ own CDC has modeled terrifying worst-case projections: 214 million Americans infected, 1.7 million dead. The economic costs of the pandemic will be in the tens of trillions.

The coronavirus is rapidly spreading in a world rife with social, political, and geopolitical tensions. If history is of any value, many of these are likely to build up and perhaps explode, producing social restructuring, firing up domestic conflicts, eroding civil rights, and igniting wars.

Photo: Johannes Eisele, AFP

In the past three decades, most of the world has experienced an obscene increase in wealth and income inequality. According to 2015 U.N. statistics, 62 of the world’s wealthiest individuals had as much wealth as 50 percent of the global population, which is 3.7 billion people. The wealth gap in the United States is likewise staggering. In 2017, the Washington D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies estimated that the three richest Americans had more wealth than the bottom half.

The economic disruptions of the present crisis are likely to expand income and wealth inequality and accelerate the squeezing of the middle class, particularly small business owners and the legions of contract workers of the gig economy.

Economist Thomas Piketty, one of the world’s leading experts on wealth inequality, has sounded the alarm about the dire social and political consequences of inequality, which he described as “incompatible with the meritocratic values and principles of social justice fundamental to modern democratic societies.” Piketty expressed concern about the rise of oligarchy and pessimism about the direction of the United States.

US Democratic Foundations

It is no secret that Donald Trump’s administration has worked diligently to erode the nation’s democratic foundations, the civil rights of citizens, and human rights of undocumented immigrants while expanding the power of the Executive Branch at the expense of the other two.

Historically, times of war and crisis have reduced rather than expanded individual rights. Even Abraham Lincoln suspended the requirement for arrested people to be brought before a judge or court before being confined during the Civil War. Another great wartime president, Roosevelt, while expanding civil rights for African Americans, ordered the internment of 120,000 Japanese and Japanese American citizens.

Politico revealed disturbing information about requests by Trump’s Department of Justice to Republican lawmakers to draw legislation to permit federal authorities to detain individuals without trial for indefinite periods, extend the statute of limitations provisions, and further limit asylum claims in the name of the current emergency but applicable in the case of natural disaster or civil disobedience.

Economic stagnation and lack of wage growth have, indeed, aggravated social tensions in the United States. Trump and other demagogues on the right have incited racial hate and even violence. Social and political scientists recognize that the nation and its political leadership are as polarized as they have been since the Era of Reconstruction (1865-1877) and serious commentators increasingly raise the terrifying specter of a Second Civil War.

The paralysis of the economy, the rise of unemployment, and uncertainty about the course of the 2020 presidential campaigns and scheduled elections bring us closer to such dreadful scenario. While thousands of consumers line up outside Walmarts and COSTCOs to buy bread and toilet paper, hundreds are doing the same outside gun and ammo shops, which are reporting soaring sales, especially in states most affected by the pandemic.

If a Second Civil War happens, and I hope it will not, it will not be like the first time around: clashing phalanxes of gray- and blued-clad armies from different geographic sections; but rather as in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939, between red and blue neighbors and cousins shooting at one another.

End of History?

In 1989, political scientist Francis Fukuyama published The End of History and the Last Man, a provocative essay in which he argued that the great conflicts of the twentieth century, capitalism vs. communism and democracy vs. totalitarianism, were over. The undisputed victors, Fukuyama declared, were capitalism and liberal democracy. The last three decades have proven him wrong.

Liberal democracy has been the target of unremitting attacks even in the longtime bastions of the United States, Great Britain, and France. The unholy alliance of nationalist and white supremacist masses, populist leaders, and proponents of crony capitalism is on the offensive and likely to gain ground in a context of a prolonged pandemic accompanied by months, if not years, of economic decline.

Global stock markets plunged as growing fears of the coronavirus wreak havoc on the economy. Photo: Timothy A. Clary, AFP

Historically, natural disasters and severe economic crises increase competition for food and other natural resources. They also make some countries vulnerable to foreign attacks and may push some nations into war out of fear and desperation.

Before the coronavirus crisis there were several global hot spots of tension with the potential of escalating into armed conflict, among them the most explosive of Israel and Iran; Turkey and the United States; India and Pakistan; North Korea and the U.S. allies South Korea and Japan; and the United States and China. It does not help to have a cast of world leaders that include megalomaniacs, expansionists, bullies, and at least three confirmed assassins.

And to think that Fukuyama anticipated a “powerful nostalgia for the time when history existed” and feared the “prospect of centuries of boredom.” What is unfolding before our eyes is neither new nor normal; and for those of us who think historically, not at all boring.

Luis Martínez-Fernández: Professor of History, University of Central Florida