Since the beginning of civilization, humanity has faced numerous catastrophes such as wars, disasters and epidemics. These events produce diverse impacts from creating new political configurations, modifying world geopolitics, generating economic shocks, changing the relationship between actors, altering the way of conceiving the environment or simply transforming our social habits. The question is: what can we learn today from the past?
Ancient Greece, and particularly the fall of Athens, can provide us with insights on how we face geopolitics today in the context of a worldwide pandemic. Immediately following the beginning of the Peloponnesian war, General Pericles died due to a yet undetermined plague that arrived in Athens. And this was the start of change.
The Peloponnesian wars
Athens had long reached its golden age, and Pericles was working on building a city-state and civilization as a model for ancient Greece: democracy, good external relationships, a recognized culture and development of philosophy. A switch in leadership due to the death of general Pericles changed the direction of the ancient world and redistributed the balance of power.
Athens and Sparta were two of the most powerful cities in ancient Greece and as such were always in conflict. With a system of strategic alliances -mostly military, but also economic- the two city-states collided in war between 431 to 405 BC. The Peloponnesian war had two periods of combat, separated by a period of peace that lasted six years (“The Peace of Nicias”).
During the first period of the war, the strategy of General Pericles to fight against Spartans was centred on naval confrontation. It was a clear strength, considering the Spartans could have easily defeated them in the field. Nevertheless, this required for Pericles to gather all citizens within the walls of the Acropolis. This could have worked as an initial strategy, but a plague hit Athens in 430 BC, creating a disaster for Hellenic civilization. It was a complicated situation, with more than 30,000 people dying, including general Pericles, and the attican civilization was on the verge of disappearing from history.
After the death of Pericles, the leadership in Athens was fractured, but at the same time, the fear of plague led the Spartans to interrupt their invasion of Athens, since their troops were unwilling to be put in contact with the disease. With new leadership in Athens, the strategy changed to become more aggressive against the Spartans until signature of the Peace of Nicias. The war resumed six years later, involving additional allied cities, and came to an end when Spartan General Lysander defeated the Athenian fleet in battle, forcing it to surrender.
What were the consequences? Major changes in the political configuration. Following their victory, the Spartans installed an oligarchic system with the “Thirty Tyrants” regime in Athens, thereby creating a temporary suspension of democracy. This resulted in the decline of Athens as an epicentre of cultural development, the bastion of Pericles leadership and the Athenian golden age. In other words, changes inspired by a competition of power and accelerated by the effects of a plague.
A world in shock
More than 2400 years later, we are facing a pandemic that has already triggered clear changes in economics and geopolitics. Following the COVID-19 crisis, the configuration of power centres in the world is likely to become even more unstable, with leaders facing political opposition resulting from decisions taken during lockdown periods. Furthermore, a major economic crisis appears to be haunting many countries that are already suspended in fragile systems of cooperation.
Like ancient Greece, where city-states created networks for military and economic development, today’s world learned that integration can bring many benefits to society. The European Union (EU) is a model of regional integration in the world, including good practice for addressing the financial crises faced by its members. Nevertheless, when it comes to situations that deeply and directly touch the population – for instance the waves of migration in 2015 due to the conflicts in the Middle East, or right now with new social and health restrictions – the EU appears weak and unprepared.
At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, there were no clear unified decisions, and the EU reacted only with late responses. Although knowledge of the increasing number of Covid-19 cases spreading around the world was already available in January and February 2020, political decisions to go into lockdowns arrived only in March and were taken by national governments. No clear leadership was prepared to face the issues at the European level. Responses to the challenge relied on health systems that were managed locally in each Member State, and as a result the treatment of the pandemic remained largely uncoordinated at the European level.
Much later, agreement on a common European response did arrive, with a set of measures taken on all fronts: economy, health, borders and mobility, and fighting misinformation. But the war was fought in the political arena, and no one wanted to lose power. Governments began negotiations and initiated alliances to find the best ways to recover economically. They also deployed a “diplomacy of border controls” in order to maintain the illusion of mastery of the unforeseen mobility of the virus itself. Once again, health measures went back to the national level, embedded in a political game of borders and presented in a discourse of economic (in)stability.
Be ready to fight inequality
Another major impact of the Covid-19 crisis is its effect on the worldwide economy. The pandemic is revealing inequalities at all levels, including in the realm of public finance. While some developed countries can rely on monetary reserves or solidarity plans at supranational levels, many other countries are navigating on their own sea of international historic debt. The result is a pandemic that affects enormously less developed nations.
The United Nations Development Programme is already working on analysing the impact of the pandemic on the most vulnerable populations. Some key impacts are losses for temporary workers that are affected due to reduced mobility, the fact that many low-skilled workers cannot work from home and evidence that the poorest are being hit the hardest.
Beyond the pandemic, governments are struggling to manage the situation as best they can by taking the lead in the emergency. Despite these efforts, the World Bank has forecast a global recession, with particular economic headwinds for developing countries. This includes major pressure on health and social-security systems and tight financial constraints, along with increasing levels of debt taken to face the emergency and recovery phases.
At the time when COVID-19 arrived in our world, we were already engaged in many critical situations, similar to the political confrontations in ancient Greece. We were historically struggling for changes, including less energy-intensive development following the petroleum crises in the late 1970s, increased environmental consciousness resulting from concern on the impact of climate change and challenges to the achievement of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Collective approaches to many of these issues were internationally agreed that seemed to be a model for the future.
As in the times of Pericles, today’s world is facing new struggles. What is the role of a pandemic in the even more complex world of today? Will the pandemic trigger a change for the better that will not remain simply an inconsequential event in human history? The first lesson we can learn is to be prepared for unforeseen events and manage the uncertainty beforehand. And we should learn to advance the discussion on a model that prioritizes the common good of society, putting aside political tensions and competition for power.
Written by Matias Barberis Rami, Junior Officer at EuroScience.