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trueHUE® Water cooler stories
Snowden: Although I take Covid-19 very seriously, I think it should not be compared to the bubonic plague. The plague killed about 100 million people in Europe between 1347 and 1743. Whole regions were depopulated, and it caused a terror that I really cannot see in coronavirus.
DER SPIEGEL: Have we been spoiled by our health-care systems?
Snowden: While we are almost despairing while waiting for a vaccine, the people of Florence probably would have danced for joy if you had told them that there would be a vaccine against the plague in 18 months. But I have been thinking about this. It is not necessarily the deadliest diseases that cause most horror and have the biggest political and social impact.
Snowden: Most people wasted away over years. In the 19th century, it was therefore even a bit romantic to have tuberculosis. People would drop dead in public places because of bubonic plague or cholera. Plague doctors were helpless, unable to cope. Similar pictures came from Wuhan via television. I can very well imagine how such exceptional circumstances can fuel political change and economic crises, even if the case fatality rate is comparatively low, as it is with COVID-19.
DER SPIEGEL: Some people even think that China could rise to superpower status because of the coronavirus.
Snowden: Like the U.S. did thanks to yellow fever.
Snowden: Around 1800, the French colony of Haiti was one of the richest colonies in the world because of its sugar plantations that were cultivated by slaves. But the slaves started a revolution. Napoleon, who had ambitions of extending France’s power into the New World, sent more than 60,000 soldiers to strike down the revolution. But most of them were killed by yellow fever. Napoleon had to bury his overseas ambitions, and in 1803, he also sold Louisiana to the United States. That meant a doubling of U.S. national territory – an important step in the direction of becoming a superpower.
DER SPIEGEL: Have superpowers perished because of microbes?
Snowden: Many. The Plague of Athens, a deadly and mysterious disease that spread vesicles across the whole body, contributed to the decline of Ancient Greece. Regarding the decline of Ancient Rome, in addition to many other factors, malaria played a role. Because of climate change, malaria started to spread in southern Europe in the 5th century. Survivors had regular bouts of fever for the rest of their lives and certainly couldn’t work as hard as before, which contributed to the decline of agriculture. In Great Britain, smallpox ended the reign of the House of Stuart, and Napoleon’s army in Russia wasn’t destroyed on the battlefield, but by typhus and dysentery.
DER SPIEGEL: The current pandemic has been accompanied by an ethical drama, such as in the discussion over the measures taken, which have paralyzed public life. Essentially, it is a clash between saving lives and saving the economy.
Snowden: That sounds very familiar. Because of cholera, regular international conferences were held from 1851 to about 1910 to discuss how the spread of this disease could be stopped – for example, by ship quarantines or travel bans. The economic problems caused by these measures were also explicitly discussed – such as that a five-day quarantine would render the use of the Suez Canal no longer worth it.
Snowden: In 1720, a ship carrying precious fabrics from Smyrna and Tripoli arrived in the port of Marseille in Southern France. While still at sea, eight sailors, a passenger and the ship’s doctor had already died of the plague. Usually, quarantine lasted 40 days, but in this case, under pressure from local merchants, it was shortened to 10 days and the precious fabrics were not burned. As a result, more than half of the 100,000 inhabitants of Marseille died of the plague.
DER SPIEGEL: The bubonic plague grew so bad, that many people even lost their belief in God. What is the coronavirus doing to the beliefs we hold in our secular society?
Snowden: I think it calls into question our belief in globalization. We now realize how vulnerable we have become through globalization. I think this pandemic really touches the greatest anxieties of our psyches, the greatest worries we have as humans. But globalization is not an act of God. We created it ourselves. By creating the myth that we could grow our economy exponentially and infinitely, by almost 8 billion people living on earth, excessive travel, environmental pollution, by pushing back nature more and more, we created almost ideal conditions for the coronavirus to emerge, spread and hit us especially hard.