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Epidemics lead to a rise in racism, conspiracy theories and civil unrest

Rising civil unrest, conspiracy theories and racism typically follow in the wake of epidemics, a study of historical outbreaks has warned. 

Researchers from Italy analysed 57 past epidemics — finding that the turmoil from each outbreak tended to result in a quieting of existing unrest.

The findings, the team said, may explain why movements — such as the activism of Greta Thunberg and Liberate Hong Kong — seem weakened since COVID-19 began.

However, the team also found that epidemics can sow the seeds of later discord.

This can arise, for example, through attempts to assign blame for the disease outbreak on conspiracy, immigration or the ‘filth of the poor’.

But at the same time, epidemics can increase social inequalities while simultaneously serving as an incubator to exacerbate previous social tensions. 

Rising civil unrest, conspiracy theories and racism typically follows in the wake of disease epidemics, a study of historical outbreaks has warned. Pictured, Dutch Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder's oil composition 'The Triumph of Death'  depicts the social upheaval which beset medieval Europe in the wake of the Black Death

Rising civil unrest, conspiracy theories and racism typically follows in the wake of disease epidemics, a study of historical outbreaks has warned. Pictured, Dutch Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s oil composition ‘The Triumph of Death’  depicts the social upheaval which beset medieval Europe in the wake of the Black Death

‘The social and psychological unrest arising from the epidemic tends to crowd-out the conflicts of the pre-epidemic period,’ said paper author and political scientist Massimo Morelli of the Bocconi University in Milan, Italy.

‘But, at the same time, it constitutes the fertile ground on which global protest may return more aggressively once the epidemic is over,’ he added.

In their study, Professor Morelli and economist Roberto Censolo of the University of Ferrara analysed 57 epidemic outbreaks.

The study included the infamous Black Death of 1346—1353 and the Spanish Flu of 1919—1920.

Their investigation suggests that amid an epidemic the status quo is typically reinforced and incumbent governments consolidate their power — but that such is commonly followed by a sharp rise in social instability after the threat has passed.

In fact, the team identified only four revolts that occurred amid the outbreaks that were not directly connected to the epidemics themselves.

Focusing specifically on five outbreaks of the bacterial infection cholera, the researchers counted 39 rebellions in the decades preceding the epidemics, but 71 in total in the ten years that followed them.

‘Overall, the historical evidence shows that the epidemics display a potential disarranging effect on civil society along three dimensions,’ the duo wrote.

‘First, the policy measures tend to conflict with the interest of people, generating a dangerous friction between society and institutions.’

Next, they added, ‘to the extent that an epidemic impacts differently on society in terms of mortality and economic welfare, it may exacerbate inequality.’

‘Third, the psychological shock can induce irrational narratives on the causes and the spread of the disease, which may result in social or racial discrimination and even xenophobia.’ 

Researchers from Italy analysed 57 past epidemics — finding that the turmoil from each outbreak tended to result in a quieting of existing unrest. The findings, the team said, may explain why movements — such as the activism of Greta Thunberg (pictured) — seem weakened since COVID-19 began

Researchers from Italy analysed 57 past epidemics — finding that the turmoil from each outbreak tended to result in a quieting of existing unrest. The findings, the team said, may explain why movements — such as Liberate Hong Kong (pictured) — seem weakened since COVID-19 began

Researchers from Italy analysed 57 past epidemics — finding that the turmoil from each outbreak tended to result in a quieting of existing unrest. The findings, the team said, may explain why movements — such as the activism of Greta Thunberg (left) and Liberate Hong Kong (right) — seem weakened since COVID-19 began

In the case of COVID-19, for example, the latter dimension has manifest as an increase in racism targeted at the Chinese and Muslim communities. 

Furthermore, the researchers also noted that — on a short-term basis — governments can strategically exploit the restrictions of freedom introduced to combat disease outbreaks to reinforce their power.

Government actions to protect the interest of landowners and large employers can also act to foster greater inequality, the team said.

The full findings of the study were published in the journal Peace Economics, Peace Science and Public Policy.

THE CAUSE BEHIND EUROPE’S BUBONIC PLAGUES

The plague, caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, was the cause of some of the world’s deadliest pandemics, including the Justinian Plague, the Black Death, and the major epidemics that swept through China in the late 1800s. 

The disease continues to affect populations around the world today. 

The Black Death of 1348 famously killed half of the people in London within 18 months, with bodies piled five-deep in mass graves.

When the Great Plague of 1665 hit, a fifth of people in London died, with victims shut in their homes and a red cross painted on the door with the words ‘Lord have mercy upon us’.

The pandemic spread from Europe through the 14th and 19th centuries – thought to come from fleas which fed on infected rats before biting humans and passing the bacteria to them.

But modern experts challenge the dominant view that rats caused the incurable disease.

Experts point out that rats were not that common in northern Europe, which was hit equally hard by plague as the rest of Europe, and that the plague spread faster than humans might have been exposed to their fleas. 

Most people would have had their own fleas and lice, when the plague arrived in Europe in 1346, because they bathed much less often. 

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