History Tells Us Epidemics Are Followed by Huge Civil Unrest for These Three Reasons

Academics have warned that the level of social unrest around the world may spike once the COVID-19 pandemic is over, for three reasons.

"To different degrees, most of the great epidemics of the past appear to have been incubators of social unrest," Massimo Morelli, professor of political science at Bocconi University, and Roberto Censolo, associate professor in the department of economics and management at Italy's University of Ferrara, wrote in the journal Peace Economics, Peace Science and Public Policy.

The pair reviewed evidence on protests and unrest around the time of 57 epidemics between the Black Death in the 1300s and the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, finding only four occasions where revolts were not clearly connected with the respective outbreaks.

For instance, the Black Death was followed by "popular revolts [that] shook authorities."

They also looked at evidence on five cholera epidemics to see if social tension that escalated during those periods lead to "significant episodes of rebellion," and found 39 took place before and 71 after. "This pattern characterizes each of the five epidemics," they wrote.

According to the study, there is evidence to demonstrate that epidemics can disrupt civil society in three ways. Firstly, because policies to prevent the spread of disease can conflict with people's interest; secondly because the epidemic's impact on mortality and economic welfare can worsen inequality; and finally due to the psychological shock that can lead people to believe irrational narratives regarding the spread of disease, "which may result in social, racial discrimination and even xenophobia."

The co-authors also noted that since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic late last year, "protest movements seem to have lost their voice all over the world," including that in Hong Kong, the environmentalist movement inspired by Greta Thunberg, France's populist 'gilet jaunes' movement, and the anti-right wing Sardines movement of Italy. Of 20 protest movements active in December 2019, only two or three are still active, they said.

But the COVID-19 pandemic's impact on social and economic relations, combined with government restrictions to prevent the spread of disease, "are causing a latent sentiment of public discontent," wrote Morelli and Censolo.

Conspiracy theories surrounding the virus and their support by some political leaders are "the symptom of potentially dangerous frictions inside society."

Compounding this is anxiety, depression, and stressful social relationships tending to trap individuals within the private sphere, "so that the social ties of protest movements necessarily loosen," they wrote. However, these conditions may later make people more aggressive, "such that the level of social conflict in the post-epidemic period might be expected to increase," the co-authors said.

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Police officers face off with protesters on the Interstate 85 during protests in the early hours of September 21, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina. The protests began following the fatal shooting of 43-year-old Keith Lamont Scott by a police officer at an apartment complex near UNC Charlotte. Sean Rayford/Getty Images

"The necessary restrictions of freedom during an epidemic may be strategically exploited by governments to reinforce power," they went on. "[Hungary's Prime Minister, Viktor] Orban and [President Donald] Trump are only the most visible recent tips of the iceberg, with clear attempts to bring up the salience of law-and-order vis a vis all other issues."

Morelli and Censolo acknowledged more sophisticated historical analyses is needed to shed light on the issue of social unrest linked to epidemics.

Susan Wade, associate professor of history at Keene State College and an expert in medieval Europe, made a similar observations in a piece in The Conversation in June, when the police killing of George Floyd sparked mass protests around the world.

"Now that America is experiencing widespread unrest in the midst of its own pandemic, I see some interesting similarities to the 14th-century uprising," she wrote.

"It appears that the economic disparities of 21st-century capitalism—where the richest one percent now own more than half of the world's wealth—are beginning to resemble those of 14th-century Europe.

"When income inequalities become so jarring, and when these inequalities are based in long-term oppression, perhaps the sort of unrest we're seeing on the streets in 2020 is inevitable," Wade concluded.

Wade told Newsweek the study by Morelli and Censolo "may give some insights into our current situation" as "there do seem to be similarities between what happened in the 14th century and current unrest in the U.S."

This article has been updated with comment from Susan Wade.