By Steve Hoadley
We humans are the survivors of a war with microbes…but not without major casualties.
Throughout history, not only humans but also governments have struggled to survive attacks by communicable diseases transferred from, or carried by, animals and insects…and ourselves!
Upsurges of diseases have forced significant geopolitical as well as economic and social changes throughout history. The geopolitical changes forced by the current coronavirus pandemic are just coming into view. This Big Q opinion piece speculates on the possibilities.
To gain perspective on the future, one must look to the past, to the following examples of geopolitical changes wrought by pandemics.
The Plague of Athens 430-427 BCE killed 25% of the population, sowed disobedience of the Greek gods and civil law, and triggered disorder and crime. Skilled sailors and soldiers perished, weakening Athens in the long-running Peloponnesian War with Sparta. Militaristic and authoritarian Sparta eventually won the war and dominated the Greek islands. Greek prowess, culture and democracy stagnated and Greece was subsequently subordinated to the Roman Empire.
The Antonine Plague 165-180 CE killed one-third of the population of the Roman Empire, including Emperor Verus. It weakened the Roman legions who were pushed back by the Germanic tribes, foreshadowing losses leading to the reduction of Roman trade across the Mediterranean and the sack of Rome in the next century.
The Plague of Ciprian 249-262 CE discredited the ineffective pagan Roman gods. In contrast, Christian believers ministered to the sick and promoted social reform which led to the adoption of Christianity by Emperor Constantine. But it further weakened the Roman legions and hastened the fall of Rome to the barbarians and the movement of the Empire east to Constantinople.
The Plague of Justinian 541-542 CE spread to Europe from central Asia by rodents and fleas and killed up to one-half of the population of the Eastern Roman Empire and its mid-eastern and European neighbours. It prevented Emperor Justinian from re-conquering Italy and re-unifying the Eastern and Western Roman Empires. Roman weakness allowed Anglo-Saxons to populate Britain and Lombards to populate Europe, and later, Mohammad’s Islamic armies to seize and colonise Roman territories around the Mediterranean.
The Black Death (Bubonic Plague) 1346-1453 was brought to Europe by Mongol invaders, eventually killing one-third of the southern European population. Loss of peasant labour raised the status of surviving farmers, artisans, and women and stimulated invention of labour-saving devices, undermining feudal modes of production and commerce and creating conditions leading to capitalism, nationalism, and urbanisation. The Mongol armies also succumbed to the plague and failed to conquer western Europe. The retreating horsemen brought plague back to the Mongol Yuan Dynasty of China, whereupon it collapsed, to be replaced by the Ming Dynasty.
Smallpox 1520-1900s was brought to the New World by English and Spanish colonists. By wiping out indigenous nations and tribes who lacked ‘herd immunity’ it allowed Europeans relatively easy conquest and colonisation of the so-called ‘empty lands’ in North and South America.
Cholera pandemics, notably in 1817, originated in Calcutta and reduced the population and undermined feudal regimes throughout India, which facilitated British colonialism of the subcontinent.
The Spanish flu 1918-20 caused over 50 million deaths worldwide. It discredited European Imperialism, fuelled nationalism, and led to worker uprisings, unionisation, democracy and reform. Ironically, in Russia it weakened White Russian forces, consolidating Bolshevik rule. In India it led to the Amritsar Massacre and the beginning of the independence movement led by Gandhi. In Western Samoa it led to the Mau movement, shootings, and early independence from NZ, and also to guilt-inspired stewardship of Pacific island states by New Zealand.
In the 20th century modern governments, aided by medical science and rising standards of living and education, began to manage pandemics more effectively than their predecessors. Outbreaks of TB, malaria, polio, Asian flu, Hong Kong flu, HIV-AIDS, Avian flu, Swine flu, SARS, MERS, Zika, Ebola, measles and many more diseases were controlled in developed countries by hygiene, vaccines, and prompt treatment. Faced by the common threats, governments initiated international cooperation, notably in the establishment of the World Health Organisation and the timely sharing of information. The initiatives of charitable NGOs such as Doctors without Borders contributed as well. Fatalities never reached the depths of previous epidemics.
The Big Question one must ask today is, Will the current Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak stimulate further international cooperation as did the infections of the 20th Century, or will it undermine cooperation, weaken regimes and alter geopolitics as did the epidemics of the prior two millennia? The evidence for the latter is growing. In summary, the indictment includes the following.
- China’s authorities initially suppressed information about the Wuhan outbreak, prosecuted the doctor who first reported it, barred international epidemiologists from the country, and blamed the outbreak on the United States. Then China’s diplomats began dispensing medical equipment to needy countries around the world, including New York state, and by allegedly co-opting the WHO, claimed that their mitigation policies were superior to those of Europe and America.
- Despite the WHO declaring a ‘pandemic’ on 11 March 2020, the WHO, the G-7, the G-20, and the EU were unable to effect meaningful inter-governmental cooperation.
- Individual governments adopted a variety of border closure, lockdown, and testing policies at varying rates with varying infection and fatality outcomes.
- Authoritarianism and xenophobia surged in Italy, Spain, Greece, Poland, Austria, Serbia, Hungary, India, and Brazil.
- President Trump blamed Democrats and media for exaggerating the seriousness of pandemic, dissolved a National Security Council pandemic unit, cut federal health funding, blamed state governors for not being ready or for being ‘ungrateful’, demanded an end to lockdowns ‘by Easter’ contrary to his health experts’ (Fauci, Birx) and governors’ advice, barred sharing of medical supplies with partner countries, and withdrew US cooperation from the WHO.
- Russia’s government underreported COVID-19 cases but subsequently decided to close borders and postpone important anniversaries, legislation, and a referendum on extending Putin’s presidential tenure.
What may we conclude from this brief survey? Pending further developments, and setting aside detail, qualification, and nuance for the moment, I offer the following summary.
- Pandemics throughout history have weakened, destabilised and destroyed governing regimes as well as depressed economies and disrupted traditional social orders.
- Unscrupulous and authoritarian leaders in Europe and Latin America have politicised COVID-19 for electoral or economic advantage.
- Absence of coordination by governments in the face of the current coronavirus pandemic has accelerated scepticism about globalisation, free trade and inter-governmental cooperation.
- China’s leaders have skilfully turned a self-created disaster into a diplomatic victory, claiming to be global ‘good citizens’ and more effective epidemic managers than the US and Europe.
- President Trump’s poor management of the pandemic at home and ‘America First’ policies abroad have undermined post-World War II US global leadership and international institutions and weakened the community of democracies in their rivalry with non-democratic regimes.
- Thus COVID-19 has ‘flattened the curve’ of the geopolitical hierarchy and accelerated the rise of China’s global influence at the expense of the United States and the West generally.
Stephen Hoadley is an Associate Professor in Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland. He is an expert in the foreign and security policies of New Zealand, Asia, the United States, Europe and the Middle East.