Covid-19 and Modern Slavery: Historical Perspectives

Trevor Burnard

Wilberforce Professor of Slavery and Emancipation and Director of the Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

The study of historical epidemics is not an esoteric subfield for the interested specialist but is central to understanding historical change in general. Infectious diseases are as important to understanding societal development as economic crises, wars, revolutions and demographic change.

Throughout human history, infectious diseases have been far more devastating in their medical and social effects than other causes of illness. Their history is far from over.

We have been terribly complacent about infectious diseases. In 1969, the US Surgeon General declared the end of infectious diseases. This mood of optimism led to the closure at top universities like Harvard and Yale of departments of infectious medicine. There are some counter-currents, such as the US establishment of the Center for Disease Control and the great effort of the World Health Organisation and other international agencies against SARS, but the longstanding belief that pandemic disease was both controllable and could be consigned to the past has been noticeable, including in works of history. Our optimism has had catastrophic results.

Similarly, we were highly optimistic in the mid-twentieth century that slavery would disappear, after discourses of human rights were established in the late 1940s and slavery was made illegal everywhere in the world from the late 1970s. On the contrary, forms of modern slavery have increased and mutated (not altogether dissimilar to infectious diseases like SARS, Ebola and Covid-19) since the beginning of this century so that now many millions of people, mostly in the developing world but also in developed countries, experience precarity and vulnerability in their working and personal lives. That the increase in modern slavery and in the social effects of infectious disease have occurred simultaneously is not an accident.

Many of the features of a globalized society render the world acutely vulnerable to pandemic disease and the re-emergence of slavery: population growth, climate change, rapid means of transportation, the proliferation of megacities with inadequate urban infrastructure, warfare, persistent poverty and widening social inequalities.

Epidemic diseases are not random events, let alone ‘acts of God’, but medical events which reflect underlying social structures, standards of living, and political priorities. They need to be studied as major social events with significant economic and political consequences, conditioned by political choices. Medical crises have a significant impact, in particular, on the lives and political power of marginalized groups – in the past that has led many in those vulnerable groups into enslavement.

One way to think of pandemics as medical events with social causes and consequences is to adopt the term ‘syndemic’ which was a term developed by medics and medical anthropologists in the AIDs crisis of the 1980s and 1990s. A ‘syndemic’ occurs when two or more diseases form a cluster of epidemics affecting a given population in social contexts that perpetuate that disease and exacerbate its effects. Covid-19 is an excellent example of a syndemic as it interacts with underlying health conditions and seems to be disproportionately dangerous for specific sectors of society, notably people with underlying medical conditions and who are poor and vulnerable. Classic syndemics in the past include the Black Death and the ‘destruction of the Indies’ as measles and smallpox entered populations that had no resistance to them. The effect of these syndemics was to change the relationship of Europe with the rest of the world.

History is both a guide to epidemic disease and a means of realizing that what we are doing today – shutting down much of the economy in an attempt to restrict the spread of the disease – is unprecedented. In the past, we either did not have the ability to stop or reduce an infectious disease epidemic or else, as in recent years, the epidemic never got large enough to affect significant numbers of the population.

Public authorities draw on previous epidemics to fight new ones. Over the centuries, they have invoked strategies from the past to fight new threats. Doing this gives the impression of a forceful and energetic response, thereby providing the population with some sense of protection. What is seldom done is for authorities to consider the long-term effects of disease on such things as slavery, forced labour and the impact of disease on the poor and the vulnerable.

Epidemic disease has had an enormous social effect and has coincided with slavery in numerous ways, such as the following:

  • The Black Death 1348-53 ended serfdom and slavery in late medieval north-western Europe
  • The reduction of the population of the Americas by as much as 90 percent after the arrival of Columbus in 1492 meant that European settlers turned to millions of important Africans as chattel slaves
  • Continued disease in the Caribbean made that region dependent for centuries on the Atlantic slave trade
  • The death of thousands of European soldiers from disease was a major factor in ending slavery in Saint Domingue in 1804, which led to the creation of the world’s first black republic of Haiti
  • The Spanish flu of 1918-20 contributed to a sense of crisis in Germany, fuelling the rise of Hitler and the eventual restart of slavery in slave labour camps in Europe during World War II.
A hospital in Kansas in 1918 during the Spanish flu epidemic.