Epidemics lead to a rise in racism, conspiracy theories and civil unrest

Rising civil unrest, conspiracy theories and racism typically follow in the wake of epidemics, a study of historical outbreaks has warned. 

Researchers from analysed 57 past epidemics — finding that the turmoil from each outbreak tended to result in a quieting of existing unrest.

The findings, the team said, may explain why movements — such as the activism of Greta Thunberg and Liberate Hong Kong — seem weakened since COVID-19 began.

However, the team also found that epidemics can sow the seeds of later discord.

This can arise, for example, through attempts to assign blame for the disease outbreak on conspiracy, immigration or the 'filth of the poor'.

But at the same time, epidemics can increase social inequalities while simultaneously serving as an incubator to exacerbate previous social tensions. 

Rising civil unrest, conspiracy theories and racism typically follows in the wake of disease epidemics, a study of historical outbreaks has warned. Pictured, Dutch Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder's oil composition 'The Triumph of Death'  depicts the social upheaval which beset medieval Europe in the wake of the Black Death

Rising civil unrest, conspiracy theories and racism typically follows in the wake of disease epidemics, a study of historical outbreaks has warned. Pictured, Dutch Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder's oil composition 'The Triumph of Death'  depicts the social upheaval which beset medieval Europe in the wake of the Black Death

'The social and psychological unrest arising from the epidemic tends to crowd-out the conflicts of the pre-epidemic period,' said paper author and political scientist Massimo Morelli of the Bocconi University in Milan, .

'But, at the same time, it constitutes the fertile ground on which global protest may return more aggressively once the epidemic is over,' he added.

In their study, Professor Morelli and economist Roberto Censolo of the University of Ferrara analysed 57 epidemic outbreaks.

The study included the infamous Black Death of 1346—1353 and the Spanish Flu of 1919—1920.

Their investigation suggests that amid an epidemic the status quo is typically reinforced and incumbent governments consolidate their power — but that such is commonly followed by a sharp rise in social instability after the threat has passed.

In fact, the team identified only four revolts that occurred amid the outbreaks that were not directly connected to the epidemics themselves.

Focusing specifically on five outbreaks of the bacterial infection cholera, the researchers counted 39 rebellions in the decades preceding the epidemics, but 71 in total in the ten years that followed them.

'Overall, the historical evidence shows that the epidemics display a potential disarranging effect on civil society

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