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What’s in store for 2021? Epidemics are often followed by social unrest

Since the start of the pandemic, COVID-19 has highlighted and exacerbated inequalities in our world—from who manages to make money during economic downturn to who is forced to risk their health as essential workers. Now researchers looking at the periods following historical epidemics are warning that these worsening inequalities could boil over into global protests, as they have many times in the past.

In a study recently published in the journal Peace Economics, Peace Science and Public Policy, Massimo Morelli, a political science professor at Bocconi University in Milan, and Roberto Censolo, an economics professor at Italy’s University of Ferrara, looked at 57 epidemics—between the Black Death, which started in 1346, and the Spanish flu, which began in 1918—and how many revolts, rebellions, uprisings, and protests occurred in those same time periods. Major diseases of the past, they write, have often led to uprisings because of how those epidemics heightened social tensions.

For instance, in looking at history’s five cholera pandemics, the researchers identified the main geographical areas hit by the disease, and then looked for any any episodes of revolt in the region in the 10 years before and 10 years after. There were 39 rebellions before an epidemic, they found, and 71 after, showing how these epidemics were “incubators” for unrest.

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