What Now, My World?

Here’s something you might not have known, unless you either studied it in school or looked it up one day out of curiosity or boredom:

Following the “Black Death” bubonic plague that swept the world during the 14th century, poor people suddenly had a lot more power than they did before the plague. The reason is simple. A large proportion of the world’s population got wiped out by the plague – an estimated 75 million to 200 million, depending on who’s counting. Those are big numbers, considering the global population was probably around 400 million at the time.

The massive death toll created a lot of job openings, you could say. This put the peasant classes at an advantage they hadn’t enjoyed since pretty much ever. According to the LiveScience website:

“Social effects of the plague were felt immediately after the worst outbreaks petered out. Those who survived benefited from an extreme labor shortage, so serfs once tied to the land now had a choice of whom to work for. Lords had to make conditions better and more attractive or risk leaving their land untended, leading to wage increases across the board. The taste of better living conditions for the poor would not be forgotten. A few decades later, when lords tried to revert back to the old ways, there were peasant revolts throughout Europe and the lower classes maintained their new freedoms and better pay.”

I share this bit of history because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what the world will look like after the COVID-19 pandemic finally packs its bags and lickety splits off this mortal coil. You start thinking about these things after five months of coronavirus-inspired life changes. You wonder whether life as you once knew it will ever make a return engagement. It can be a little unnerving, thinking that the world might have made a permanent tilt into the unknown, and wondering how best to navigate it.  

I doubt anything as titanic as a sudden rush to power by the working classes will happen – although that would be sweet justice, considering that the working classes have been the ones keeping the world moving forward through the pandemic (truckers, delivery drivers, grocery workers, food production workers, transit workers, utility workers, hospital staff, first responders, etc.).

I do imagine that the world will reassess a lot of things, ranging from proper social behavior to the way people work. Remote jobs will likely become even more commonplace; handshakes and hugs less so. Many businesses will be forced to dial back their growth plans, if for no other reason than to keep from getting overextended in case another unforeseen event sends their sales down the crapper. This could have an impact on hiring if companies get gun-shy about expanding payroll.

Retail shopping will continue to die on the vine, but that was probably going to happen, anyway. Restaurants and bars will no longer pack people together so close you can count the freckles on the next person’s earlobe. International travel will become even more constrained. More parents will home-school their kids. Nobody will ever take their elderly relatives for granted. Or their hand sanitizer. Or their toilet paper.

Then again, maybe not. Maybe once a vaccine is developed, and everyone is immunized, and COVID-19 disappears, things will get back to normal – quick. Humans have short memories. They like to sweep catastrophe under the rug ASAP and forget it ever happened. Just look at what took place following the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic, which infected some 500 million worldwide and killed an estimated 20 million to 50 million people.

As reported on the Cleveland.com website, the Spanish Flu caused cities to close churches, schools, dance halls, bowling alleys, pool halls and cabarets. Social distancing measures were put in place to prevent the disease from spreading.

But just a few weeks after the first wave ended, many of these places opened right back up again. Most Americans returned to their busy lives, with no restrictions or limitations. People thronged to movie theaters, bowling alleys and sporting events, “cheering the end of World War I and the end of social isolation.” A second wave then hit, killing millions more, and for a while folks trudged back into social isolation. But that too passed. The 1920s brought fast living and high old times. For most folks, the 1918 pandemic was consigned to the annals of history and remained that way for the next century or so.

I doubt you saw the same response following the 14th century bubonic plague, by the way. As human devastation goes, the plague might have been the closest thing to the Ice Age that the world had seen since the actual Ice Age. Chances are that for every two living souls a person knew before the plague, one ended up dying during it.

As noted in another LiveScience article: “Seven thousand people died per day in Cairo. Three-quarters of Florence’s residents were buried in makeshift graves in just one macabre year. One third of China evaporated before the rest of the world knew what was coming. By the time the tornado-like destruction of the 14th-century bubonic plague finally dissipated, nearly half the people in each of the regions it touched had succumbed to a gruesome, painful death.”

Coronavirus, thank God, is not the bubonic plague. As of mid-August, an estimated 775,000 worldwide deaths have been attributed to the coronavirus, according to WorldOMeter. That’s out of around 22 million cases and a global population of some 7.8 billion. Comparing the coronavirus to the bubonic plague is like comparing a surface ripple to a tidal wave. For that matter, comparing the coronavirus to the 1918 Spanish Flu is like comparing two surface ripples to a tidal wave.

Even so, the world has changed during coronavirus, right before our eyes. Lots of people have died, and lots of survivors mourn those losses. Face masks are the norm. So is social distancing, at least in civilized society. You visit a pub here in London and you enter in one door and exit out of the other. You stand six feet apart when approaching the bar to order your pint. This will be standard operating procedure for the foreseeable future. Museums, theaters, music halls and movie houses are still closed.

At the same time, life is getting more normal every day. The kids are due to go back to school in a couple of weeks over over here. People might return to offices around the same time. You no longer have to worry about loading up on certain types of foods because the grocery stores and grocery delivery services are back to full inventory and full service.

Personally, I’d love to see life return to what it was a week before the pandemic hit. Five months of lockdowns, social distancing, face masks and limited travel and entertainment options have begun to wear on my nerves. I want to hit the jazz clubs again, return to my normal routine, my quiet life, not think about restrictions and disease.

But that’s just me talking, stuck in my little devil-may-care bubble. In reality, the world has already changed. It won’t soon forget this pandemic. If everything breaks right, humans will learn a few lessons, commit them to memory, and get ready for the next pandemic.

Because there’s always a next one.

*The title of this blog was inspired by “What Now My Love?”, a song from my childhood by Frank Sinatra. My Mom listened to it a lot. When I googled the song, most of the hits were versions by Shirley Bassey or Elvis Presley. I never even knew those two recorded it. I always associated it with Frank.

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