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Our Fragile Bodies: Economic Change, the Nation-State and the Coronavirus Pandemic

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Like most major events in history, no one could have anticipated that by December 2019 the world was set to experience a dramatic change. However, a year after the outbreak of a new type of coronavirus in the city of Wuhan in Hubei, China, it is clear that the disastrous COVID-19 pandemic, which has since kept humanity in standby with a colossal number of infections and deaths, has altered how we presently conceive the world and how, in turn, international interaction will be redefined in the future.

When compared with the physical world, of slowly, cumulative changes, human history changes at a relentless rate (Taleb 2010). Human societies have been characterised by their constant struggle against devastating threats such as war, political dislocations and natural cataclysms. At the same time, in just a few millennia, we have deliberately made great achievements like no other species. A few centuries ago, for instance, the possibility of reaching outer space was a deed merely reduced to wild imagination. On such a vertiginous journey, only a few things have remained constant, but there is a fact that seems to be repeatedly confirmed. While it takes centuries for great civilizations to emerge, any great state can fall apart suddenly, bringing down with them the entire international order they support. Nothing illustrates this better than the severe impact that pandemics have had on human societies, destroying over and over and in no time the institutions we laboriously build. As the coronavirus has come to remind us, pandemics embody a universal challenge for human kind. The unpredictable and quick devastation that infectious diseases can inflict upon societies has no comparison, and there is little that we do to prevent them, despite our great technological progress.

In light of this constant and the severity of our present confrontation with the newest version of such calamities, it becomes natural, and compulsory, for us to address how deep the coronavirus pandemic will impact our societies. Future generations will be better equipped to accurately portray the origin, development and true historic scope of this pandemic. Nevertheless, our generation has the unique responsibility to discuss, from a first-hand account, the impact that this catastrophic event has had on our present institutions and our own selves (Birn 2020).

This piece contributes to such an aim by dissecting the two tendencies that are embedded in our reactions to the coronavirus: the unfolding of a speculative future and the reaffirmation of ideological canons. The present epidemic crisis has highlighted our fast-tracking advancement towards intensive automatisation and digitalisation, as tools that make economic engines less vulnerable to the fragility of the human body. On the other hand, it has also reiterated the stability of nationalism as the main political frame for responding to nature’s forces, in contrast to the precarious development of our cosmopolitan unity.

Pandemics and economic transformation

History provides us with excellent analytical tools to grasp how pandemics affect human societies and shape their development (Brook 2020). Pandemics have stricken humanity basically since the species appeared on the Earth, and their influence on human lives has been recorded since ancient times. However, there are two instances which certainly stand out for their multidimensional impact on largely interconnected societies and at key points in time. The first case is the spread of the bubonic plague across Eurasia in the 14th century, commonly known as the Black Death, which was disseminated through the vast commercial networks formed after the expansion of the Mongolian empire. The second is the importation of smallpox into the Americas in the 15th century, after the arrival of the first European conquistadors. Both cases truly represent global epidemics because they reached multiple societies and had systemic economic, social and political repercussions across continents, as it seems will the case with the coronavirus pandemic.

With regards to the Black Death, it is estimated that a third of Europe’s population, around 25 million people, perished following the waves of bubonic plague that hit the continent in the mid-1300s. Given such a catastrophe, the entire social and economic fabric of the continent was inevitably doomed to change. The drastic reduction of population forced European towns and cities to employ labour more efficiently. Paid labour became more and more significant and expensive, in correlation with the severe scarcity of workers, and cities had to compete with each other for the resource, in order to remain economically viable. Better wages created more wealth and consumption, which in turn brought about productivity. With this, more sectors of the society incorporated themselves into productive activity, especially women. In the political sphere, paid work offered common people more social freedom and leverage. Slavery was mostly unfit in a context of scarce labour and rapid urbanization –the elites had to give up being masters and opted to pay salaries. A considerable reduction in the gap between lower and upper classes took place, creating more internally cohesive societies and thus stronger in the face of outside threats (Frankopan 2016, 190-2).

From a general perspective, the societies which adapted themselves better to the trend were also the ones that benefited the most in the new order. This was the case of Northern Europe, particularly Britain, where hired labour progressively became the norm. On the contrary, the societies which stuck to the restricted mobility of labour were unable to properly address the impact of the bubonic plague, by either lagging behind in the adaptation to the new economic reality, where productivity and not mere labour was the key to success, or by becoming basically unable to cope with it. This occurred in Southern Europe, breeding uneven economic development between both regions (Frankopan 2016, 192-201).

Likewise, the arrival of Columbus into the Americas and........

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