Like The 14th Century Black Death, Coronavirus Could Turn Sovereign Nations Into Colonies Of MNCs

Back in June 1348, people in England began reporting mysterious symptoms of some unknown illness. What started off as mild and vague: headaches, aches, and nausea was then followed by painful black lumps, growing in the armpits and groin. This was what gave the disease its name ‘The bubonic plague’. The last stage of this unknown new illness was high fever, and then death.

Black Death Coronavirus
Like The 14th Century Black Death, Coronavirus Could Turn Sovereign Nations Into Colonies Of MNCs

The Black Death

The soldiers and caravans had brought bubonic plague – Yersina pestis, a bacterium carried by the fleas that lived on rats – from Central Asia to ports on the Black Sea. The Mediterranean was highly commercialized, and this allowed the plague to swiftly transfer on merchant ships to Italy, and then across Europe. The Black Death killed between a third and a half of the people of Europe and the Near East combined.

General economic devastation accompanied the massive number of deaths. The crops could not be harvested because almost a third of the workforce was dead and the communities fell apart. One among every ten villages in England (and in Tuscany and other regions) were lost and never came into sight again. Houses not looked after as it was a crisis fell to the ground and were covered by grass and earth. Only the church was safe and left behind.

Aberdeen, John of Fordun, a Scottish chronicler, recorded that:

This sickness befell people everywhere, but especially the middling and lower classes, rarely the great. It generated such horror that children did not dare to visit their dying parents, nor parents their children, but fled for fear of contagion as if from leprosy or a serpent.

Citizens of Tournai bury plague victims
Citizens of Tournai bury plague victims

These lines could almost have been written today, although the death rate from Covid-19 is far lower than that of the Black Death. But the society then and now has differences. The economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is severe due to globalisation, the highly-integrated nature of modern economies and ease of transportation among populations today has allowed the coronavirus to spread across the globe in a few months.

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One of the long term consequences of the black death was labour shortage because many serfs and free peasants died. Historians have argued that this labour shortage allowed the peasants that survived the pandemic to demand better and higher pay or to seek employment somewhere else.

A plague doctor and his typical apparel during the 17th Century Outbreak.
A plague doctor and his typical apparel during the 17th Century Outbreak.

Another consequence of the Black Death was the abrupt rise of wealthy entrepreneurs and business-government links. The European companies concentrated their assets and eventually gained a greater share of the market and influence with governments. This is comparable with the current situation in many countries across the world. While the small companies are dependent upon government support to prevent them collapsing, the larger companies involved in home delivery are amassing great profit by utilizing the new trading conditions.

Power of the State

Black Death strengthened the power of the state and accelerated the superiority of key markets by some of the mega-corporations.

Pieter Bruegel's The Triumph of Death reflects the social upheaval and terror that followed plague, which devastated medieval Europe.
Pieter Bruegel’s The Triumph of Death reflects the social upheaval and terror that followed plague, which devastated medieval Europe.

When the Black Death occurred, people reacted to the havoc by retaining money within the family. The wealthy businessmen ensured that their patrimony was no longer divided after death, as they did not want to employ the previous tendency to leave a third of all their resources to charity. Their lads benefited from a constant concentration of capital.

This concentration of wealth greatly accelerated the emergence of merchant entrepreneurs. Silk that was once received from Asia and Byzantium, was now being manufactured in Europe. Wealthy Italian merchants began to open silk and cloth workshops.

In southern Germany, companies like the Welser (which later ran Venezuela as a private colony) grew flax and owed looms on which workers span that flax into linen cloth, which was then sold.

Parallels to COVID-19

The present situations are drastically similar to the ones that occurred during the Black Death. Certain large organisations are utilizing the opportunities provided by Covid-19 to their advantage. In many countries across the world, the market for food, general retail and entertainment has gone online, and cash has almost disappeared.

Colonies for Multinational Corporations

The job of supplying basic amenities has now been taken up by supermarket chains. They have the capacity to recruit more rapidly, and there are many underemployed people who now want jobs. They in addition to this have warehouses, trucks and complex logistics capacity.

The other benefitted sector is online retail which includes companies such as Amazon, eBay, Argos, Screwfix and others. There is a spike in online shopping, and that is for sure.

The entertainment industry that includes giants like Netflix, Amazon Prime (again), Disney and others keep us distracted at home, while our online parcels are being delivered. Google (which owns YouTube), Facebook (which owns Instagram) and Twitter dominate online traffic and we love using them.

The delivery companies: UPS, FedEx, Amazon Logistics (again), as well as food delivery from Just Eat and Deliveroo also are experiencing the bona-fides of this lockdown. These platforms now dominate the movements of products, your Toshiba branded Amazon Fire TV, or your stuffed crust from Pizza Hut, everything.

The corporate dominance that includes companies like Visa and Mastercard are the largest players. But Apple Pay, PayPal, and Amazon Pay (again) have also seen increases in their transaction volume. And often cash is a vector for transmission.

These are big trends but the biggest response to the virus is the strengthening of the power of the state. In that essence, if the state fails to correctly do its duty, the void would be filled by multi-national corporations who would then run the target national like a colony. The process for which has already begun.

For latest updates on the outbreak check out our Coronavirus Coverage.

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