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Three Penguins from Argentina Waltz into the Museum of Art…

On Fool’s Day April 1st, Nelson-Atkins, Museum of Art director, Julián Zugazagoitia called up Randy Wisthoff, the director of the nearby Kansas City Zoo, to ask about his plans for (virtually) reopening during the pandemic. “I was calling him to see how operations were going,” Zugazagoitia told reporters.

“Then, as a joke, he [Randy] said, ‘Hey, why don’t you bring some of your penguins to the museum?’” So, as the rest of the world are being kept out of museums, these Humboldt penguins are waddling their way through the Museum halls, admiring Baroque and Impressionist masterpieces by Monet and Caravaggio.

During their visit, the penguins’ caretakers and researchers from the zoo and the museum worked together. They were surprised to find that the visitors acted quite similar to the museum’s regular guests.

“They reacted very much like our visitors, who wander around the rooms and look a little here and a little there,” said Zugazagoitia. “The average attention span of humans is eight to 10 seconds when you’re looking in a very big museum, and I think the penguins were in that average.

“They were more anthropomorphic than I had expected them to be,” Zugazagoitia told reporters. Adding that since the penguins are Peruvian, he spoke with them in Spanish as they explored the museum together. “I’m

not an expert on the animal world,” he said. “But seeing them was like, ‘Oh my god, they’re paying attention, they’re curious.’”

Archeological evidence indicates that human beings began to capture and breed other animals (besides ourselves) approximately 10,000 years ago in parts of Eurasia. The evidence shows that confinement and crowding led to deadly zoonotic diseases that eventually transmitted to humans in the form of smallpox, measles, and tuberculosis.

A historical uptick in human warfare didn’t help. Horses became not only beasts of burden for transportation, but instruments of warfare themselves. Cows, chickens, pigs, sheep, and all sorts of other animals were exploited as raw material and rations—catering to the establishment of military armies (led by the likes of Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan), that invaded their neighbours in search of loot, slaves, fresh water, and grazing lands.

Wuhan City is a metropolis of 11 million people (Toronto is just over 6 million by comparison)—with an international airport and global connections on one hand, and ancient, local traditions on the other. A perfect storm combining the sale of wildlife species in “wet markets,” restaurants, and over the Internet—with certain culinary customs practiced throughout Southeast Asia and China.

Just as with the effects of human activity on climate change, we need to examine the activities that brook zoonotic diseases (those that can be transmitted from other animals to humans) to spillover. For example, the unabated expansion of farmlands into wild habitats and the conversion of agricultural lands into residential or industrial complexes.

The Black Death, aka the Black Plague, started in China and made its way west across Asia to the Black Sea by 1347. It’s believed that infected Tartars (people from Russia/China) laid siege to a Genoese (people from Italy) outpost on the coast. Where they used their catapults to hurl the bodies of their dead comrades over the town walls in order to spread the epidemic. The inhabitants fled by ship to northern Italian ports, thereby bringing the Black Death to Europe.

The Plague itself was caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, which was carried by the fleas of rodents—primarily rats—who were transported by trade or by troops returning from, or heading to, battle. The bacterium wasn’t identified until 1894, so powerful, influential people of the 14th- century attributed the whole thing to God’s wrath. For the immoral behaviours of scapegoated cultures and the dispossessed, presumably.

As successive waves of the Plague shrunk the workforce, what ratios of balance there was between labour and capital adjusted significantly. Thanks to painstaking research by generations of historians since, we know that real incomes of unskilled workers doubled across Europe within a few decades.

In many Italian towns and cities, wealth inequality shifted dramatically. Higher wages and lower rent costs squeezed the traditional lords, landlords and knights—many of whom failed to hold to their inherited privilege. Poor devils.

Elsewhere in Europe, the economic elites didn’t gracefully cede their ground. During the Great Peasants’ Uprising in 1381, workers demanded to freely negotiate their own labour contracts. The “nobles’” response was to put down the revolt by military force. However, the last vestiges of feudal control soon faded—as workers continued to hold out for better wages— once landlords and employers were forced to break ranks and compete with each other for scarce labour.

Here’s one important lesson that goes unnoticed by a lot of other wanna- be dictators we have on screens before us today: While the aftermath of the Plague altered the long-term economic outcomes for Western Europe by driving modernization—Eastern European noblemen (from Prussia/Poland to Russia) kept their depleted force of peasants on lock down. Thus their economic development has remained behind the West for centuries.

Why the Wealthy Fear Pandemics

Everybody knows the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich

That’s how it goes
Everybody knows

And everybody knows that the plague is coming
Everybody knows that it’s moving fast…

That will disclose
What everybody knows.

—Leonard Cohen, 1988

Two months back, in the New York Times Stanford professor of classics and history, Walter Scheidel, wrote a marvellous piece on how the coronavirus could shift the imbalance of power between the rich and the poor. As has occurred often in Western history before.

Historically, the wealthy not only turn up their noses at having to actually do any of the hard work themselves. And during pandemics they sure as Hell haven’t exhibited the rocks to increase workers’ wages justly. For example, as was the case during the Black Plague of the 1340s, when large landowners in England lobbied the Crown to pass an Ordinance obliging labourers to accept the same measly wages as before, and no more.

Professor Scheidel reminds us that “None of these stories had a happy ending for the masses.” In European societies, disparities in income grew for four more centuries—from the Black Plague all the way up to the eve of World War I. It was only then that a new wave of catastrophic upheavals undermined the established order, to a degree not recorded since the fall of the Roman Republic, circa 133-27 BC.

“In looking for illumination from the past on our current pandemic,” writes Mr. Scheidel, “we must be wary of superficial analogies. Even in the worst- case scenario, Covid-19 will kill a far fewer share of the world’s population than any of these earlier disasters.” And it will affect the fortunes of the workforce and next generation “more lightly” as well. How so?

“Labor won’t become scarce enough to drive up wages,” predicts Professor Scheidel, “nor will the value of real estate plummet.” Or our economies rely so much on farmland and manual labour. Yet, the most important lesson of history will endure: “The impact of any pandemic goes well beyond lives lost and commerce curtailed.” Profoundly missed opportunities.

Scheidel concluded that the current crisis we’re living through could prompt redistributive reforms akin to those triggered by the Great Depression and World War II, “unless entrenched interests prove too powerful to overcome.”

What are, I wonder, the odds? If we are to grab hold of these opportunities for real change, rather than disintegrate under the weight of our own shameful surrender.

Florentine author Giovanni Boccaccio’s (1313-1375) masterpiece, The Decameron, was written after his parents died of the Plague in 1349. His father had been the government’s Finance Minister of Trade and Supply. The Decameron features 10 young people—seven women and three men— who have fled Florence and taken shelter in a countryside villa. To entertain themselves, they each tell stories that make up the bulk of the book.

The fundamental choice is this: Continue defending the status quo—where the poor stay poor and the rich get richer—or embrace progressive change.

In the introduction, Boccaccio details the outbreak, its symptoms, and so forth. In the conclusion, the author observes how all the begging/religious pleas and prayers were of no use. Yet, what choice was there but to open the windows to fresh air—wash their hands and faces with vinegar and rose water—place several cloves in your mouth prior to entering a stale room, “and eat two slices of bread soaked in the best wine, and then drink the rest of the wine”?

To Hell with the Church and confession. The crème de la crème of Florentine society thought the sure cure for the Plague was to drink and be merry—and to go about singing, dancing, and amusing themselves. You name it, they tried it. I’ve read The Decameron. They satisfied every appetite they’d ever heard of, or imagined. Everyone felt doomed anyway—having abandoned their swank properties to squatters.

The custom of aristocratic women exposing their bodies completely, the same way to men as if they had been women, was something new. Even the most beautiful, noble women—when they fell ill—did not demur about taking a man-servant to their bed. Rightfully, and without shame.

The facts are, however, that none of that proved as effective against the Plague—then or now—except “social distancing,” as it’s phrased today. Ships entering the ports were isolated for 40 days (quarantino), which had a real practical effect. However, the predominant religious responses of the proletariat—the kind we see echoed in some of our contemporary communities’ responses today—were to whip themselves bloody, while begging God’s forgiveness for humanity’s sins.

On the bright side: (If there was or is one) …may be how the perceived failure of businesslike religion to alleviate the suffering and death of the Black Plague turned many people away from the Church, to sublimate their passions elsewhere. Towards a higher, nobler impulse perhaps—which would eventually give rise to the Humanistic worldview of Enlightenment brought on during the Renaissance.

Speriamo in cose migliori; sorgerà dalle ceneri. We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes.

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