Originally published in The Standard, March 27, 2020
As the world continues to combat the novel Coronavirus, Covid-19, it is becoming clear that a new way of life is in the making. As whole populations are stuck at home, having to discover new ways of working and learning, people are beginning to think about how the world will adopt new practices and cultures. This sort of wholesale change is not new – it has happened in numerous historical times. Such events as Christopher Columbus’ discoveries of new lands, the industrial revolution and the making of the printing press left indelible marks on the world’s outlook and behaviours. Even diseases have had lasting impacts on how the world operates.
In the years around 1340, a disease originated from China and spread through the trade routes of those days, leaving hundreds of thousands of people dead. The bubonic plague got the moniker “The Black Death” because the people who contracted it were left with black fingertips by the end. In the early 1340s, the disease had struck China, India, Persia, Syria and Egypt. There is little documentation of how many people died from it there.
It finally landed in Europe when 12 ships from the Black Sea docked at the Sicilian port of Messina. The Sicilians who met the ships at the dock were horrified to find most sailors aboard the ships dead. Those still alive were gravely ill and covered in black boils that oozed blood and pus. Over the next five years, the Black Death would kill more than 20 million people in Europe—almost one-third of the continent’s population.
The plague returned to Venice 800 years later but officials were able to keep it at bay by holding all travellers in isolation for 30 days and later for 40 days – ‘Quarantino’ – the origin of the word Quarantine. By social distancing, the plague did not achieve as much damage as it had done in the first round.
Life after the great plague was never the same and the world found a new normal. The profound religious, social, and economic upheavals resulting from the Black Plague have continued to this day. Take work culture for example.
Having decimated a third of the population in Europe, there was left a massive labour shortage. This essentially meant that the peasants had options of the places they could work at and in turn employers had to find ways to sweeten the deal – better pay and vastly improved perks.
There was a great impact on the environment as well. Historians note that by 1200, virtually all of the Mediterranean basin and most of northern Germany had been deforested and cultivated. Indigenous flora and fauna had been replaced by domestic grasses and animals and the woodlands were destroyed. With the sudden depopulation, this process was reversed. Much of the primaeval vegetation returned, and abandoned fields and pastures were reforested.
Perhaps most importantly hygiene and sanitation practices greatly improved after the plague as people developed a new culture to be clean, wear clean clothes and maintain cleaner dwellings. A renewed focus on “anatomical investigations” led to many of the modern medical practices today.
The advent of Covid-19 has brought us all to a place where we can re-evaluate modern cultures and ways of life.
Today’s new normal
As companies institute work from home procedures, the importance of transit and transport systems are going to be reviewed over time. As workers get accustomed to working from home and as a new kind of productivity increases, then proximity to one’s job will no longer be a significant factor in deciding where to live.
We could be heading towards a world in which far-flung villages and towns rise in prominence as traditional commuter belts fade away. It is increasingly concievable that you would live in places like Githioro in Nakuru County, Lurok overlooking the beautiful Lake Baringo or Wamba village outside the Namunyak wildlife conservancy and work for an SME in Nairobi, London or Beijing. As we practice social distancing, we shall discover new ways to do such things as attend church, go to musical concerts and attend school.
One of the anticipated government takeaways from Covid-19 is likely to be that “smart cities” are safer from a public health perspective. I think we can expect intensified efforts to digitally capture and record our behaviour. Such initiatives as Nyumba Kumi and the controversial Huduma number could see invigorated activity.
We are likely to see increased engagement around what we should do with the environment and climate change. Like in Germany in the 1300s, we are seeing the environment is being renewed as waterways and skies clear up.
Culturally, we are going to be discovering new challenges. My grandparents, both octogenarians, have a new struggle. In their 8 decades of life, greetings involved vigorous shaking of hands or hugs with kisses on either cheek. They are now having to contend with people not touching when they see each other. “Social distancing is just so difficult to learn for us because our cultures have a lot of touching,” my grandmother told me, adding “A good hearty laugh in Africa needs a high five to really complete it.”