How viruses change the world, and how it can be good

Robert Labayen

Posted at May 18 2020 10:31 AM

World history was written by kings, generals, bacteria, viruses, rats, fleas, and mosquitos.

In all the wars in the world, a lot more people died from disease than from battle wounds.

Friends, Romans, countrymen, mosquitos

The Roman army is legendary. But more invincible were the mosquitos in the Pontine Marshes southeast of Rome. All invaders that passed near the area were decimated by swarms of mosquitos that injected malaria through the enemies’ skin.

Rome’s invulnerability allowed it to gather more strength and therefore the Greco-Roman culture dominated Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East for seven hundred years.

Eventually, the mosquitos turned inward. They were attracted to the city's rich breeding grounds in cisterns, fountains, baths, ponds, and aqueducts. Rome was overwhelmed by at least 11 malaria epidemics from 165 AD to 350 AD. Deaths reached 5,000 a day.* Even Emperors and their family died. Farms were neglected because workers perished. The great city was weakened by disease, hunger, and invasions toward its fall.

But it was good for Christianity. Up to two hundred years after the crucifixion of Jesus, Christians were still brutally executed in Rome. Owing to the epidemics, Christianity was gaining converts because Roman citizens perceived Christianity to be a “healing religion”. It was, after all, started by a Messiah who healed lepers, the lame, and the blind and even made the dead come back to life. In 380 AD, Christianity was declared the official religion of the empire.

Spain, smallpox, and big continents

In the 1500s, Spanish galleons could carry only small expeditionary forces. But they defeated the nations of Incas, Aztecs, Maya people and Indians in what is now the Americas. Sure, the conquistadores had steel swords, armor, lances, horses and a few cannons. But they carried the most lethal weapons: smallpox and measles.

Natives fell by hundreds of thousands. And they were demoralized when they wondered why the white invaders were untouched by the mysterious disease. Did they have a superior god? The real reason, of course, was the Spaniards' immunity to the disease. Previous generations of Europeans had been exposed to smallpox, that’s why they acquired genetic immunity.

US and Canada couldn’t be one

During the American Revolutionary War in 1775, the Americans planned to wrest Canada away from the English. They were superior in strength. But on their way to Quebec City, smallpox killed so many of the troops. The invaders turned back and changed their minds. Virus was the reason why the United States and Canada are two separate countries today.

Black Death and Democracy

Up to the middle of the 1300s, farmers were oppressed in England. They couldn’t own property. There was mandatory free work for the masters. They were buried in debt. Beginning in 1347, a plague spread by rats and fleas killed one-third to one-half of Europe. 

The very few farmers who survived went to the cities to take up the vacated jobs. With the farm labor now scarce, serfs were able to demand better terms. Some of them took over large pieces of land. This was the beginning of their emancipation. It was followed by the strengthening of the Parliament supported by the people. When citizens were already enjoying secure property rights, the Industrial Revolution was able to take off.

The world after Covid

It is unfortunate that many have died from Covid-19. The only comfort we may have is to be able to find good things in the bad. This pandemic is so big, the only other events that caused the cancellation of the Olympics were World War I and World War ll. We cannot let it pass without making us wiser and better.

Maybe the sky will stay bluer. Maybe companies will realize they can save a lot in electric and maintenance bills if some of the work is done at employees’ homes. There will be fewer cars on the streets and young parents don’t have to leave their children at home. Maybe we will also learn to consume less. As a result, there may be less trash that will go to the rivers and seas.

Maybe governments will enable towns to produce their own food instead of remaining dependent on national companies. Maybe we will support what we used to call “cottage industries.”

I hope superpowers will be compelled to pool their money into medical science and healthcare than on armaments. It has become obvious that a disease that starts in one part of the world can actually paralyze the rest of us. World leaders now know it doesn’t only happen in the movies.

I pray for the world to become a better place.

(*In a previous article, I said that epidemics will not kill by the millions anymore because, unlike in the past, we have more scientific knowledge.)

Read:

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond

How Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson

The Mosquito: A Human History of our Deadliest Predator by Timothy C. Winegard

Viruses, Plagues, and History: Past, Future, and Present by Michael B.A. Oldstone

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: 

Robert Labayen spent 22 years in advertising prior to joining ABS-CBN in 2004. He was VP-Creative Director at Saatchi & Saatchi and Executive Creative Director at J. Walter Thompson, two of the country's leading ad agencies. He is currently the Head of Creative Communications Management at ABS-CBN. His job involves inspiring people to be their best. He is a writer, painter and songwriter.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.