The Black Death, COVID-19 & The Future
Updated: Apr 10, 2020
Coronavirus/COVID-19 has really taken over our everyday lives and the way we think, socialize and work since mid-March 2020. We, as a people, do what we can to stop the spread of the virus especially to the most vulnerable individuals. We have seen schools, workplaces, and all public events and places shut down. People throughout the world are dealing not only with the illness itself, but with the loss of work and pay. Many are also struggling to care for their children and ensure that they are safe and continue with their learning while working. I also ponder how those in the health care fields, emergency services, truck drivers and all those dealing with the front lines of this pandemic are dealing with the stress of their jobs and caring for their families. While the United States and other areas of the world have dealt with pandemics and other tragedies, this is truly a time like no other in modern times. However, while other similar past instances may not be the same as what we are facing today, we can certainly look to the past and it’s people for answers, hope and inspiration.
Between the 14th and 18th centuries, the Second Plague Pandemic included the “Black Death.” This plague occurred in the Middle East and Europe in the mid-14th century and was the first of the plagues during this period that killed approximately 50-60% of the European population. The Second Plague Pandemic consisted of many other plagues in various areas of Europe, the Middle East and Northern Africa in the centuries following the Black Death, taking 10-20% of the population each time. For clarity purposes, the First Plague Pandemic or “Plague of Justinian” occurred between the 6th and 8th centuries and the Third Plague Pandemic was between 1860 and 1960. The Second Plague Pandemic, more specifically, the period of the Black Death was by far the worst and will be the focus of this posting. Truly, the Black Death and the prolonged Second Plague Pandemic was devastating to Europe and to the world at large. However, much like the ingenuity of humanity during and as a result of many crises in world history, the period following the Black Death brought positive change to the world including many advances in technology, hygiene and inventions that we may take for granted today (Black, 2019).
The Black Death (Yersinia pestis bacterium), which occurred mostly in Europe between 1347 and 1351, was like most viruses, including COVID-19, in which it claimed mostly the elderly and those with underlying health issues. The obvious main difference between that plague and this present day virus are the advancements in technology and medicine, better hygienic practices, mass communication and being cognizant of physical distancing and interaction during an outbreak. The massive death that occurred during the Black Death also resulted in a type of survival of the fittest. Those who did survive, passed on their dominant genes of either immunity or resistance to the bacterium to the following generations (Pappas, 2014). However, there were other reasons as to why the bacterium deteriorated over time. One of the most significant reasons was simply the advancements in hygiene.
The period following the Black Death and as the Second Plague Pandemic progressed, Europeans started to discover and realize ways of reducing or eviscerating the spread of plague. During this time, isolation or quarantine for prolonged periods was widely accepted and practiced. In addition, methods of disinfection, the institution of hospitals, food inspection procedures, proper disposal of garbage and sewage, and processes for purification of water all occurred in the few centuries following the Black Death (Bryant and Rhodes). In the present time, we may take the existence of hospitals and proper disposal of garbage for granted; however, they seem to have had a clear impact on public health and the reduction of plague related fatalities.
In addition to the successes following the Black Death and other similar plagues, there are also heroic stories. One worth sharing occurred during one of the very deadly plagues during the Second Plague Pandemic, the bubonic plague in the 17th Century. The story takes place in the village of Eyam in Derbyshire, England. The bubonic plague was ravaging England, especially in the densely populated city of London. In September 1665, a local tailor received a damp piece of cloth from London. He hung it to dry. The cloth contained plague infested fleas and the tailor passed away within one week. Several months after the plague in Eyam began, many residents wanted to escape to other places because they thought that would be the best scenario to avoid the plague. In a sort of twist, a few local religious figures, who were not well liked, implored the people within the village to stay and quarantine in order to avoid spreading the plague to other places. The people of Eyam heeded the words of these members of the clergy and took their advice. During this period, horrific death and the swift wiping of complete families occurred. The effects on the plague in this village were absolutely devastating and sad. In the Autumn of the year 1666, the plague subsided after approximately 260 residents died in this small village with an estimated population of 350-800 residents at the time (McKenna, 2016).
After reading this horrific story of how an entire village was almost wiped out, one has to wonder - where is the heroism? The astounding last point of this story is that the plague at this point in time was basically non-existent in neighboring villages. In other words, the heroic people of Eyam took steps to avoid the spread of this disease to others. Knowing full-well that they could have escaped when they had the chance to save themselves and their families, they did not. It is completely sad that the original reason for this town to get the plague was at no fault of their own, yet the devastation to this village was unconscionable as the population of the village was significantly eroded and percentage of villagers’ death far exceeded that of the city of London. However, much like September 11, 2001, World War II, and other wars and tragedies throughout history, what the people of Eyam did was put others before self. It is also very evident during this current crisis that health care professionals working in hospitals, nursing homes and in the emergency services are clearly and steadfastly putting others' well being before their own. As a result of the people of Eyam's selflessness, the village may have saved the world and changed the course of history. Clearly, medicine and technology is much more advanced and society is much different in 2020 than it was in the 17th century. One thing is for certain, as we are dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, we can look back almost 355 years ago to a small and mostly unknown village in England for knowledge, inspiration and hope.
In 2014, Sharon DeWitte, a University of South Carolina Professor of Anthropology, did a study on whether there were health improvements in London in the years following the Black Death. DeWitte and her students gathered approximately 600 samples from skeletons from various pre and post-Black Death cemeteries. The samples also included those in different levels of socio-economic status and various religious communities. In other words, her sample attempted to include a general representation of society at the time. DeWitte’s findings prove that increased survivability and improvements to health occurred following the Black Death. In addition, there was a significant increase in life expectancy or age-at-death in the years following the Black Death (DeWitte, 2014). These findings are also astounding since the Black Death was the first of many periods of plague during the Second Plague Pandemic. To reiterate, survivability increased following the 4 year period of the Black Death. These results beg several questions: DeWitte raises the question of migration of people with immunities into London following the Black Death, which may have contributed to the life expectancy. In addition, did public health and hygiene improve following the Black Death? Did the survivors of the Black Death pass dominant genes of plague immunities to subsequent generations? Aside from the possible genetic effects; it is clear that plague, pandemics, epidemics, etc. contribute to changes in activities related to public health and well being.
Given the study by Sharon DeWitte and the actions of the people of Eyam, how does this help us in today’s world and in our workplaces?
Thankfully, through the development, knowledge and examples of the past, we have learned why it is important to physically distance ourselves from others in times like these. We also have extraordinary advances in medicine and technology. Finally, we are very fortunate to have the motivation and dedication of so many in the medical and scientific research fields who are very committed to studying this modern-day plague to find a vaccine. As I write this blog, I also see more and more articles coming out on streamlining and making it easier to test for COVID-19.
Aside from the medical and technological advances to target the virus directly, many of us have the opportunity to work from home, given the advances in technology that allow us to do so. There are also many private companies who have the ability to shift their focus from their core products and services to assist with the supply chain for the needs to respond to COVID-19. We experienced this during the World War II period and clearly learned from it. While many are still faced with the fear of losing their jobs or have already lost them or are being furloughed, the advancements and shifts will hopefully mitigate what could be massive unemployment in numbers that this country has never seen.
In the short and long-term time following the end of this pandemic, it will be very interesting to see how this society will change. I am certain that more advancements in technology and medicine will be realized, as well as local, state and national policies that were used in this pandemic to respond to future circumstances. In addition, there are some questions that remain for the workplace:
Will handshakes be frowned upon or socially unacceptable? A practice that I don’t think is terrible (although some may think is impersonal) is nodding heads as is done in the Japanese culture.
Will leaders encourage physical distancing at meetings, social events and other work-related gatherings? This would be very wise, especially as we re-integrate into our work spaces and during flu season. The technology for webinars, web-based meetings, etc. is so advanced and almost seamless. Small businesses should also look to invest in this technology because these advancements may have prolonged success for those businesses, especially in times like this. The difficult aspect of physical distancing will be the luncheons, after-work events, holiday parties, etc. Human Resources and leaders will need to be able to communicate the necessity for physical distancing, especially if there is a contagion going around. It may also not be a bad idea to practice this when we all return to the workplace.
Will there be a shift for more telework? It is hard to tell at this point, given many companies are back and forth on allowing more or less telework. However, Human Resources departments and leaders in all kinds of companies and industries will assess how work-from-home was accomplished during this prolonged period and whether or not it was successful. Perhaps we will see more technology to improve telework. We may also see more encouragement and occurrences of telework during the flu season.
Will we see increased hygienic practices in the work-place and will this be sustained? Time will tell. We, as a society sometimes lax in certain initiatives as time goes on. Following the outbreak of COVID-19 in the United States and prior to the mandatory stay-at-home orders, many workplaces put up signs for washing hands and how to properly wash hands, reminders for staying home if feeling ill, and more Purell stations. In the very least, these reminders and Purell stations should be sustained. Leaders should also ensure that food areas, bathrooms, gyms, door handles, railings, etc. are also regularly sanitized.
Will we see a more widespread allowance of sick time (not related to policies similar to Family Medical Leave) that does not count against the employee? Currently, there are several states who have “sick leave laws” in place. For example, Michigan and New Jersey recently put laws in place that permit 40 hours of sick time per year for employees that does not count against them. This will obviously result in costs to businesses for paying out this leave and for the lack of productivity. On the other hand, being sick and away from work - whether paid or not - also reduces productivity.
I am very confident in those in society and the workplace, whether in corporate settings, small businesses, non-profits, the medical field, emergency services, construction and other trades, retail, etc. will advance practices and concepts in their various fields as a result of COVID-19. It will be very important for Human Resources professionals and leaders of all businesses to heed these advancements in order to mitigate damage from the next similar issue. The legacy of the courageous people of Eyam show that most are currently doing what we can. Sharon DeWitte’s study shows that we will.
Black, Winston (2019), “What was the Black Death?,” livescience.com, All About History, 12 December 2019, Accessed: 22 March 2020.
Bryant, John H. and Rhodes, Philip “Public health,” britannica.com, Encyclopedia Britannica, Accessed: 23 March 2020.
DeWitte, Sharon (2014), “Mortality Risk and Survival in the Aftermath of the Medieval Black Death,” journals.plos.org, Plos One, Volume 9, Issue 5, 7 May 2014, Accessed: 23 March 2020.
McKenna, David (2016), “Eyam plague: The village of the damned,” bbc.com, BBC News, 5 November 2016, Accessed: 27 March 2020.
Pappas, Stephanie (2014), “It Got Better: Life Improved After Black Death, Study Finds,” livescience.com, Live Science, 7 May 2014.
File: Eyam_Church_geograph.org.uk_21749.jpg; Author: Flemming, Alan; Created: 23 March 2002; Downloaded: 31 March 2020; Source: geograph.org.uk; via wikipedia.org.
File: GettyImages-150615499-2cb3ab2.jpg; Downloaded: 31 March 2020; Source: HistoryExtra.com.