Inequality doesn’t just make pandemics worse — it could cause them

Inequality doesn’t just make pandemics worse — it could cause them

Laura Spinney writes:

A lot has been written about how this pandemic is exacerbating social inequalities. But what if it’s because our societies are so unequal that this pandemic happened?

There is a school of thought that, historically, pandemics have been more likely to occur at times of social inequality and discord. As the poor get poorer, the thinking goes, their baseline health suffers, making them more prone to infection. At the same time they are forced to move more, in search of work, and to gravitate to cities. The rich, meanwhile, have more to spend on luxuries, including products that hail from far-flung places. The world becomes more tightly connected through trade, and germs, people and luxury goods travel together along trade routes that connect cities. On paper, it looks like a perfect storm.

What about in reality? Historian Peter Turchin has described a strong statistical association between global connectedness, social crises and pandemics throughout history. An example is the second century CE, when the Roman and Chinese empires were at the peak of their wealth and power; the poor in both places were very poor, and the ancient silk routes were enjoying a heyday. Starting in 165CE, the Antonine plagues struck Rome; within a decade plague was devastating China too, and both empires then went into decline.

The plague of Justinian in the 6th century and the Black Death in the 14th century emerged in similar circumstances, and Turchin sees the same forces at work again today: globalisation, leading to the emergence of new human pathogens, combined with widening inequality. “And now it looks like our Age of Discord got its own pandemic,” he wrote in a blog last week. [Continue reading…]

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