Can America Benefit from Covid? Ask 14th-Century Florence

The Covid pandemic has wreaked havoc on the U.S. economy. Around 33 million unemployment claims have been made, and hunger stalks millions more Americans—and that’s aside from the ravages from the disease itself.

Yet big disruptions can bring big opportunities. Thinkers have already been considering how the world could emerge better, or smarter, from the Covid plague. And there’s real historical precedent for this: The Italian Renaissance may have begun before the 14th-century plague known as the Black Death, but there’s a strong case the disease—in both its ravages and the social changes it enabled—helped accelerate its progress, especially in the city of Florence. For a time, Florence’s economy bounced back with remarkable social mobility, and it became Europe’s premier center of artistic, cultural and scientific creativity.

Can we really hope for the coronavirus to usher in a golden age of economic mobility, creativity, learning and artistic achievement? The story of Florence was recently the topic of a sweeping article making this argument. But the example of Florence, while encouraging in some ways, also suggests there are signs we are doing it wrong. The Florentine approach to the Black Death is a helpful model as the world looks to rebuild after Covid, and if we look closely, we can see it contains some warnings for us—and some lessons we are already missing.

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