Our health has more to do with capitalism than we might suspect. And pandemics have long ceased to be “fate”.
Ahen the pandemic arrived in Catalonia in April 1348, the doctor Jacme d’Agramont wrote a little pamphlet entitled “Measures to protect against the plague”. Experts agreed that the causes of the deadly disease were not only to be ascribed to a heavenly enmity between Mars and Jupiter, but also to be understood as a consequence of the sinful life of man: As a punishment, God poisoned the air. That is why the physician d’Agramont considers it essential that people now quickly confess their sins and pray in order to reconcile the Almighty. In addition, the doctor ordered a number of secular preventive measures: drink and eat as little as possible; Eel, duck and suckling pig should be avoided entirely. Warnings are also given against baths and sex, as this would open the pores of the skin and allow the poisoned air to penetrate the body.
Spencer Strub, a medievalist who teaches at Harvard University, remembered Jacme d’Agramont in the New York Times last week to show that the traumatic experience of collective vulnerability is part of human history. What also comes with it is the temptation to find a scapegoat who brought the plague. In the Middle Ages, “strangers, prostitutes, Jews and the poor” were considered candidates. Today America and China accuse each other of being responsible for the corona pandemic. One must remain skeptical about the romantic notion of these days that the pandemic is triggering a wave of solidarity above all. It also triggers egoism, nationalism and waves of authoritarianism at least at the same time.
The structural similarities of traumatic pandemic experiences in history cannot, however, level out the great differences between then and now. In the Middle Ages, magic, medicine and charlatanism were very close. Today, even in the Catholic Church, only a few people – the Bishop of Chur, Marian Eleganti, for example – label the Corona crisis as God’s punishment and claim a reverse correlation between infected people and pious believers. There may be reasons to pray in our secular world, but responsibility for epidemics has passed to virologists and epidemiologists: a blessing for humanity.
Health used to be a privilege of the upper class
We owe it to an evolutionary process that is fed by scientific curiosity, medical success and capitalist progress dynamics. The connection is easy to recognize if you take a look at the data and curves that the German economist Max Roser, who works in Oxford, has on his website “Our world in data”. It is by no means the case that medical progress has come linearly since the Middle Ages. Roughly speaking, most people were destitute by the year 1800, they had a short life expectancy (if they didn’t die at birth) and were constantly ill. Only a small upper class could afford a beautiful, healthier, and comfortable life.
It was not until the industrial revolution, the introduction of capitalism on a broad front in the 19th century, that everything changed radically. Average life expectancy in Europe was 40 years in 1800, today it is twice as high. At the same time, the differences in life expectancy between rich and poor within a country have decreased significantly. The more prosperous a country is, the more health you can afford.