Pandemics have historically been instrumental in major socio-political and economic changes. The Black Death of 14th century which led to the end of serfdom in Europe, Spanish Flu of the 20th century which led to major nationalist awakenings are few examples of pandemics and civilizational rupture being directly correlated.
The Justinian plague which occurred in the Roman Empire in 541CE, was a colossal event that caused the demise of the Roman Empire and its mighty hegemony across Europe. The political and economic effects of Justinian plague hold indications of how hegemonic powers diminish under the stress of a pandemic. This is especially relevant in today’s world where we are witnessing major changes in geopolitics, modes of production, supply chains etc. in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Justinian Plague and end of Roman Empire
Justinian plague was a bubonic plague that apparently originated in China. It was carried to Africa via trade routes and reached Constantinople around 541CE (Horgan, 2014). The plague continued to linger for the next 200 years, with a recorded casualty of 300,000 in just the first year (Statista, 2020).
From its peak in 2nd century CE, the decline of the Empire had started much before the pandemic. Although several factors like military overreach, increasing reliance on slave labour, excessive spending and taxation, and the rise of Christianity contributed to this decline, it was the pandemic that finally led to the collapse of the Empire.
By the 6th century, the Roman Empire had built strong networks of connectivity for trade purposes and had densely populated urban habitats. This aided in the quick spread of the pandemic. The decline of the Empire was most visible in how from a housing of around one million people in the first century CE, it was reduced to around 20,000 inhabitants by 600 CE (Gray, 2020).
Greek historian Procopius (500-570 CE) reported nearly 10,000 deaths afflicting Constantinople per day at the height of the pandemic. Throughout the Empire, nearly 25-50 million people died in total (Horgan, 2014). For an agrarian economy, this meant shortage of labour and food, and sharp drop in the amount of taxes paid to the state. The immediate result was famines that occurred in 542 CE, and then again in 545 CE and 546 CE (Roy Chowdhury, 2020). The collapse of the agriculture sector disrupted trade and further negatively affected the economy.
The decrease in population of the Empire also significantly weakened the military. Although Rome had dealt with military threats before, such exogenous shocks were hard to deal with when the Empire was domestically going through the turmoil of the pandemic.
The contours of the history of Justinian plague and its impact on the Roman Empire makes one wonder if Covid-19 has had a similar impact on the United States of America.
Covid-19 & American Hegemony
The geopolitical order is believed to have shifted from unipolarity to multipolarity since the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-08, indicating the waning hegemonic influence of the United States of America. This decline in American hegemony is sourced to the domestic divisions in the country. These domestic divisions have only exacerbated under the Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent to effectively manage it, which raises questions of American claims to global leadership (Fukuyama, 2021).
The recent rise of nations like China and India and institutions like EU, BRICS, AIIB, et al. signal further American decline and possible irrelevance of the American dominated Bretton Woods system. American decline corresponds to a leadership vacuum in the international order which can result in more competitive power rivalry for global leadership in the near future.
This article was written by Sonal Kuruvilla and Mohammed S. under guidance of Dr. R P Pradhan, CPPR Distinguished Fellow
Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.
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