Pandemics like COVID-19 are not only powerful forces for inflicting human suffering but, as history has shown, for causing societal change. The suffering is predictable, but trying to foretell the nature and scope of resulting societal change is like seeing “through a glass darkly.”

There will be profound consequences for the U.S. economy if we remain in shutdown mode for too long and dire consequences for the public health if we try to get back to normal too quickly. It’s a Hobson’s choice, but President Donald Trump already has signaled which way he’s heading. He’s said he wants the country back to business as usual in time for Easter.

The administration may encourage businesses to reopen and healthy individuals to return to work even earlier than that — at the end of the 15-day period during which it asked Americans to stay at home and avoid gatherings of more than 10 people.

Trump’s message runs contrary to the recommendations of public health officials who fear the virus will go – well — viral, causing many unnecessary deaths and swamping an already overstretched healthcare system. But Trump listens assiduously to conservative and business leaders and looks to the stock market indices the way Roman emperors used to examine the entrails of sacrificed animals to determine whether the gods were favoring their endeavors. The clear signal they’re giving him is that a prolonged shutdown will lead to a long, deep recession, and a recession will sink his presidency.  In his view, this counts far more than the opinion of the scientific community.

But whenever the Trump administration gives the all-clear signal, what will happen to society?  Here we can only surmise.

Under the best case scenario, testing will ramp up quickly so that infected people can be identified and isolated, and healthy people can get back to their normal routines of working, traveling, buying and recreating, albeit using precautions such as social distancing, face masks and frequent handwashing.  Under this scenario, there will be enough healthcare workers, protective gear, ventilators and hospital beds to care for those suffering from COVID-19, not to mention those with other illnesses, and a safe and effective vaccine will become available in a year or less.


Under a less rosy scenario, the virus will continue to spread rapidly with a spike in acute cases and deaths (as it did in China and Italy before quarantines were imposed)?  What then?

In the near term, will state governors take matters into their own hands, overriding the directives of the federal government? Will there be panic, violence and anarchy born out of fear and desperation? Will there be mass internal migrations from hotspots like New York and California to less densely populated parts of the country? Will hospitals, clinics and medical offices become so overstretched they can no longer adequately care for even the severely ill?

And what will the long-term consequences of the coronavirus be? Will it give the coup-de-grace to retail shopping establishments when customers decide it’s not only cheaper and more convenient but safer to shop online? Will it accelerate automation when employers realize they can continue to operate safely during pandemics by eliminating vulnerable workers? Will telecommuting replace office work for the same reason?

Pandemics differ substantially in type, duration and mortality. Their history suggests, however, that they tend to be game changers.

The bubonic (or “black”) plague is the archetype of a pandemic.  It killed an estimated 50 million people in Europe, Asia and Africa, including at least a third of Europe’s population. (The disease broke out periodically in later centuries, and occasional outbreaks still occur today in lesser developed parts of the world). It’s caused by bacteria transmitted from small mammals such as rats, via flea bites, to humans.  Symptoms include fever, headaches, vomiting, swollen, painful lymph nodes, seizures and sometimes gangrene of the extremities.

In the 14th century, there were no cures for bubonic plague. It would be another 500 years before the “germ” theory of communicable disease (starting with the work of Louis Pasteur in the 1850s) was discovered and 600 before the invention of antibiotics (beginning with the discovery of penicillin in 1928).  The risk of death, even with modern methods of treatment, is still about 10%, well above the estimated mortality rate for Coronavirus.  Before modern medicine, people instinctively hunkered down or fled from crowded cities to the countryside in a form of self-quarantine.  (Fortuitously, Isaac Newton, then 22, was a student in 1665 when he was sent home from Trinity College, Cambridge, during a plague outbreak and used the hiatus to develop some of his most important theories in calculus, gravity and optics).


Those in the throes of the plague suffered unspeakably in the 14th century, but the long-term impact of widespread mortality was to create a scarcity of agricultural laborers and consequently raise farm wages in Europe.  Medieval peasants, who had historically been tied to the land they worked for life, began to roam, migrating to the manors of feudal lords who paid them higher wages or becoming free land-owning farmers. Many historians have credited this development with hastening the end of the static feudal system and the start of a modern commercial economy.

The Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 infected about 500 million (25%) and killed about 50 million (3%) of the world’s population.  Unlike the coronavirus, it was particularly lethal among young adults. It was probably carried by American troops, as they assembled, traveled and trained in the U.S. for America’s entry into the World War I and then fought in the trenches of Europe.

The epidemic was so rapid and severe it ravaged the ranks of German army, making it impossible for them to successfully complete a massive offensive begun in the spring of 1918 to overwhelm the Allied forces. The flu, more than the Allied defense, broke the back of the German military and ended the war.

Even though Donald Trump’s vision doesn’t extend beyond the next stock market report or the next election, the rest of us should be pondering the ways the coronavirus will be shaping our future.

Elliott Epstein is a trial lawyer with Andrucki & King in Lewiston. His Rearview Mirror column, which has appeared in the Sun Journal for 10 years, analyzes current events in an historical context. He is also the author of “Lucifer’s Child,” a book about the notorious 1984 child murder of Angela Palmer. He may be contacted at

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