COVID is getting me down, as it is everyone, with the possible exception of real estate agents in the kinds of places that rich New Yorkers are looking for. One real estate agent in Taos, New Mexico, for example, told me today her business is booming; mobile professionals are fleeing the cities and looking for artsy retreats with good Internet connections and pristine wilderness. If only I had the money!
To make myself feel a bit better, I read this morning about the Black Plague that ravaged Central and Southern Asia, the Middle East, Arabia, and Europe in the 14th century. According to Peter Frankopen’s 2017 book, The Silks Roads: A New History of the World, the plague began on the steppes of Central Asia and then spread to other areas through commerce, migration, and invasion. “The trading routes that connected Europe to the rest of the world now became lethal highways for the transmission of the Black Death,” he writes (p.188), prompting commercial cities such as Venice to lose 75% of their population. Muslim pilgrims en route to Mecca, similarly, died by the tens of thousands. Victims were covered with boils, “vomiting incessantly and coughing up blood” before dying. As with COVID, the Plague reached the highest political and economic levels, although like COVID, money and status must have provided some relief. And as is true with COVID today, frightened populations scapegoated minority groups, including Jews in Germany.
The mass deaths of the 14th century did have some positive consequences, however. As the number of peasants and workers drastically declined, wages for the lowest skilled laborers increased; supply could not meet demand. Frankopen argues that in Europe, this tightening of the labor market led to significant shifts in social structure, with previously disempowered groups improving their lots considerably.
COVID is killing far too many people, and its long-term effects on those who survive are still unclear. One friend caught the disease and suffered terribly before getting better, while the father of a former student died early on. Other acquaintances have contracted it but recovered, albeit with enormous discomfort. My own father – highly vulnerable because of his age and pre-existing conditions – never leaves his home, but at least he has my mother for company. The mother of my partner is similarly condemned, but she is alone and in solitary confinement, trapped in a small apartment with almost no ability to see friends and family or find relief from the stifling heat. Older European apartments have no air conditioning, and the temperatures this past summer were awful. The economic sequelae are frightening, with millions slipping into serious poverty as we speak.
Still, reading about the Black Death makes me feel a bit better. Humans are like that, I guess. If you can compare a current situation, no matter how awful, to a theoretically worse situation, you derive a bit of temporary psychological comfort. It’s why I wrote my PhD dissertation comparing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the Bosnian civil war; no matter how had things were in the West Bank and Gaza, conditions were immeasurably worse in Bosnia. (Just to really mess myself up, however, I added a discussion of Israel’s war on the PLO in Lebanon, a bloody mess of Bosnian proportions).
You can’t keep deriving comfort this way forever, however. I’m reminded of the words of a friend who once lived in Bangladesh. “Jim, he told me, “they say there is always at least one person worse off than anyone you meet. In theory, however, that can only be true up to a certain point; at the end of the line, there has to be at least one person who is worse off than everyone else.” One day, my friend said, he met that person on the streets of Dhaka. I didn’t ask for details.
I wonder if that person is still alive, and if so, whether s/he has COVID.