Friday, May 22, 2020

Questions about the coronavirus: the epidemic seen in a historical perspective

The figure above shows the effect of the two major outbursts of plague in Europe (you can find a detailed discussion of this subject in my book "Before the Collapse"). Here, Rorberto Mussi developes a historical perspective of past epidemics and of how that can help us understand the current one. (image from Langer et al., 1964)

Guest Post by Roberto Mussi

The COVID-19 epidemic is generating a lot of questions from scientific, medical, political, and societal points of view. It not yet the time for complete answers, they will come slowly in the future together, hopefully, with antiviral treatments. But we can at least ask correct questions: this article tries to do that by looking at past history.

The first question that comes to my mind is about the conditions that generate a pandemic outbreak. Are pandemics completely random events or do they spread only when some specific conditions occur in society? Historians can provide information about similar events of the past. They tell us that the "Black Death" arrived in Europe after the economic downturn of the late 13th century (some talk about a true economic revolution occurring between the 11th and 13th centuries [1]). It’s also a pretty intuitive statement: a virus can attack more easily an undernourished population [2]. In modern terms, the reproduction number (R0) depends on the context. In a historical dimension, pandemics are a consequence of a crisis, not a cause.

So, the consequent question is: why now? Economic historians teach us [3] that the Western heavy industrial development stopped at some moment in the 1970s. From then on, (only) information related and finance-related innovation flourished [4]. Something similar happened also after the 13th century [5] with, for instance, movable type printing. Of course, we are not experiencing famines as in the 14th century and, as Ugo Bardi [6] notes, this virus is causing a much lower death rate than other historical pandemics. What's at stake, it seems, is not our lives, but the kind of life we are used to: a highly motorized society, mass commuters, low-cost tourism, etc. (let’s call it "high mobility life"). No need to stress that we are moving much less after the COVID-19 outbreak. An obvious consequence will be a big economic depression because of future low mobility.

Now, another question that comes to my mind is: what is the link between COVID-19 and the high mobility life? In the 14th century, undernourishment (cause) created conditions for the plague (effect). Then, the world after the plague was less populated and food became again sufficient for everybody [7] (negative feedback that stops the effect). Today, some sort of cause (unknown) created the condition for the COVID-19 to spread (effect) which is threatening high-mobility life (negative feedback that stops the effect).

Then, what is the unknown cause? Easy to ask, but much less easy to answer. I am looking forward to future analyses that will provide satisfactory answers. Nevertheless, we all know history repeats itself, at least in some forms, and it is there that we can find a possible answer already now. Paradoxically, (we could say also ironically if that was not the case of thousands of victims) the COVID-19 epidemic spread mainly in the major world economic areas. But this is, I think, the point that we have to focus on to find answers: zoonosis, the passage of the virus from animals to humans, is not always related to low sanitary conditions.

We are always told that the zoonosis that led to the coronavirus epidemic happened because some Asian regions cannot afford refrigerators so they bring living animals directly to the wholesale marketplace. But that’s not correct, yewei (a term that means eating exotic wild animals) is a kind of luxury and status symbol nowadays in southern China [8], and it is by the way much more expensive than conventional cuisine. Not to speak to the city of Wuhan as we see it on TV: a megalopolis with brand new skyscrapers that we just cannot afford to build in many countries today.

So, the Covid-19 epidemic is not a problem unrelated to growth (that is, of people who haven't yet experienced growth), it is a problem of growth. That's the similarity with the past: an economic downturn is threatening many aspects of life and especially mobility. Diminishing returns of resources, especially fossil fuels, is an open issue. Many successes with renewables have been achieved but not for mobility, by far much dependent on oil than other energy sectors.

Coming back to the cause-effect-feedback chain: an economic downturn (cause) created conditions for a pandemic (effect) then the world did not find a better solution than stopping mobility (negative feedback that stopped the effect). The growth failure of high mobility life may be the element that makes the current situation similar to past failures.

The Author

Roberto Mussi was born in 1977 in Italy. He studied mechanical engineering and has a Ph.D in Energetics. He studied and worked as a research fellow at the Politecnichal school in Milano, at the Politecnichal school of Torino, and at the University of Florence. He lives and works in Florence for Yanmar R&D Europe as group leader of the renewable energy sector. 


[1] The Medieval Machine : the industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages, Penguin Books, 1976

[2]Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present,” Frank M. Snowden

[3] The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power, and the Origins of Our Times, 1994

[4] Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. Penguin. ISBN 978-0241263884. 2018

[5] Baroque Tomorrow: Why Inequality Triumphs and Progress Fails?by Jack Michalowski

[6] (Italian)

[7] (Italian), Prof. Alessandro Barbero conference on crisis of the Late Middle Ages,

[8] Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic; W. W. Norton, 2012


  1. Well, this was also a question of time, so that a virus with the right caracteristic can emerge. Ebola was to deadly to be transported,SARS1 was too easy to find... we have now the perfect virus for our high mobility world : up to 14 days before symptoms arrive, many carriers with little symptoms... and airplanes to transport people all over the world in little time.

  2. Thanks for the article, there might be a million causes related to growth that support an outbreak like this, but we are told that china and its meat markets or research labs (or any other obviously racist conspiration theory out there) are to blame.

    Christian Drosten, the (leading?) german virologist on the other hand, assumes that the most probable carrier of the virus before its spill over to humans is the racoon dog. Racoon dogs are being bred in china for their furs under very gruesome conditions. The furs of the animals are being exported to be worn by the rich in the west.

    These terrible breeding farms are located in china because there is almost no regulation and oversight. Regarless of them being the real source of corona, it certainly is conditions like in these animal farms that provide the perfect ecosystems for pathogens to evolve.

    Profit driven and globalised industrial agriculture has always been the number one suspect in any viral outbreak, but It seems we are incapable of doing something about it. We continue with making a profit regardless of the consequences.

    But what if things go wrong? For the many growth addict elites the narratives of the natural desaster or blaming the other have become a second nature. Its the wuhan virus that is to blam. I wonder how often the same lies can be told before the system of exploiting nature for maximum profit collapses.



  3. The virus (however it began) spread rapidly because of air travel, something that only wealthy people or businesses can afford to do. People who push brooms or work on factory production lines do not need to travel to meet clients or attend conferences. It seems to be most distructive among older people in cities that have been breathing polluted air for longer than than our ancestors even lived. It also seems to attack people who work or live indoors all day w/o fresh air and sunlight. it appears that this virus follows wealth as plant diseases follow monocultures.
    If my wild guesses are correct, we can expect more of the same if we live the same way...but we also have incredible bioscience to prepare and control future outbreaks. Given the political will to do so.

    1. Thats a fun thought :). Covid is a disease of rich, old, white, men. But it checks with my theory that disasters are only called crisis if the elites are (also) affected.

      Poor people suffering is just the way things are supposed to be, its only "natural" after all.

    2. Except it isn't race. The virus kills black, white,red, brown, and yellow skinned people ... as long as they are packed close together with poor air quality, modern diets, and little sunlight.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)