Will this pandemic bring out the worst in us, turning us into selfish ego-driven monsters? Or the best, triggering all that is generous in our nature? Historian Kaj Brens visits past plagues to answer these and other questions raised by the corona outbreak. Looking at them from both historical and contemporary perspectives, he arrives at a position of hope.
Pandemics and other crises have ways of changing us. They change the way we interact; the way we structure and govern society; and, more importantly, the way we view and understand the world. As people struggle to create order out of chaos they turn to faith, fatalism or finding something or someone to blame; all in an effort to deal with uncertainty. Right now we are in the middle of this change process, and don’t yet know where we’re heading. What is our likely course? And how does our perception, and reaction to, a pandemic on this scale compare with those of our predecessors?
The Black Death
At the onset of the Black Death in the 14th century, Italian author Boccaccio wrote of what would become the most devastating pandemic recorded in human history: ‘The era of the fruitful Incarnation of the Son of God arrived in the year 1348 when the deadly plague reached the noble city of Florence, of all Italian cities the most excellent. Whether it was owing to the action of the heavenly bodies or whether, because of our iniquities, it was visited on us mortals for our correction by the righteous anger of God, this pestilence… moved without pause from one region to the next until it spread tragically into the West.’ With his limited knowledge he saw two possible causes: the actions of ‘heavenly bodies’ or God, teaching us a lesson.
The actual cause was very probably the fleas travelling on 12 rat-infested merchant ships that sailed from the Central Asian steppes and made their way to Constantinople and then to Europe, reaching the islands of Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica in the winter of 1347. The plague spread throughout the mainland with terrifying speed; it is estimated that it killed around one-third of Europe’s population. People died within days, sometimes even hours after being infected. By the time the Black Death had peaked, in 1351, its malnourished and traumatised survivors, like Boccaccio, went looking for answers. What on earth (or in heaven) could have caused it? And what could be done to prevent a new outbreak?
Boccaccio and his description of the Black Death
Bocaccio describes, in his collection of novellas The Decameron, the symptoms of the Black Death (also known as the Great Pestilence and Bubonic Plague) in chilling detail: ‘… a swelling in the groin or beneath the armpit, growing sometimes in the shape of a simple apple, sometimes in that of an egg. Before long this deadly bubo would begin to spread indifferently from these points to crop up all over.’ (A ‘bubo’ was the name commonly given to such a swelling, hence the term ‘bubonic’.) ‘The symptoms would develop then into dark or livid patches that many people found appearing on their arms or thighs or elsewhere.’ People would die within days, sometimes even hours after being infected.
‘Soaking up booze like spunges’
With little to no knowledge of biology – let alone the microbes that caused the outbreak – the people of the late Middle Ages turned to other explanations for the deadly pestilence. Some said it was caused by a bad odour in the air (the obsolete ‘miasma theory’) and bathed in rosewater and vinegar in an attempt to banish it. Boccaccio describes how others turned to a ‘temperate life-style and eschewed all extravagance’ and still others, who were uninfected, locked themselves in their houses to avoid contact with the infected. Some turned to debauchery, going from tavern to tavern ‘soaking up the booze like spunges’, while others abandoned friends, family, possessions and social obligations and headed for uninfected places. The sick were left to die alone. All of these extreme measures ultimately led to the collapse of any social cohesion whatsoever.
“Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change”
Milton Friedman, American economist
Some three centuries later the Great Plague hit the city of London, leading to the loss of one-fifth of its population, and its citizens came to a similar conclusion about its causes as Boccaccio had about the Black Death. They imagined the outbreak must have been some form of divine judgement for their collective sinfulness and immoral behaviour and that the only way to halt it would be to please and appease God and seek his forgiveness. Turning to the example set by the Israelites in Pharaoh’s Egypt, who had marked their doors with the blood of a lamb to avoid the wrath of God, the infected inhabitants of London marked their doors with a red cross and the words ‘Lord have mercy upon us’.
The Spanish flu
And then, much later, another pandemic struck. The ‘Spanish flu’ infected some 500 million people, about a quarter of the world’s population, between 1918 and 1920. No-one knows exactly how many people died; commonly believed to be between 17 and 50 million, some people put the figure as high as 100 million. In an attempt to keep up morale, the US government, and the press, lied about its gravity. Ironically, yet predictably, morale collapsed. A 2017 article in the Smithsonian Magazine investigating the possible origin of the Spanish flu pandemic states: ‘Without leadership, without the truth, trust evaporated. And people only looked after themselves.’ Indeed, pleas from emergency aid organisations failed to recruit volunteers. Orphaned children were left alone. Sick family members were once again left to fend for themselves. Again, the fabric of society fell apart.
Self-seeking and abandonment
So on the evidence of the past, existential crises on the scale of the one we are witnessing now could be seen to bring out the worst in us. French polymath Gustave Le Bon argues in Psychologie des Foules that in times of crisis man descends several rungs on the ladder of civilisation. And indeed, self-seeking, the abandonment of the needy and excessive alcohol consumption were all rife during these pandemics and plagues. During the current crisis we can also see evidence of such traits in our collective behaviour. Fights break out over toilet paper in supermarkets. Alcohol sales are rocketing. The elderly are left to die alone in their beds in Spanish care homes and the less well-off have no choice but to keep working in high-contact jobs while the super-rich leave them to get on with it, jetting off to their island getaways.
Origins of the Spanish Flu
The origins of the Spanish Flu are unclear, but one possible cause could lie in Haskell County in Kansas. The county sits on a major migratory flight path for birds such as cranes and mallards and it is quite credible that these birds spread the flu virus to hogs on local farms, and the hogs passed it on to humans. In January 1918 a Kansas physician reported ‘unusual influenza activity’, and two months later a nearby US Army training camp recorded the first official case of what became known as ‘Spanish Flu’. In the following weeks, some 200,000 American troops crossed the Atlantic to fight in WWI, potentially spreading the virus to Europe; at first it received little attention, but the king of Spain became gravely ill. Since Spain was neutral, the press was free to write about the outbreak, giving the false impression the country was particularly hard hit; hence the name ‘Spanish Flu’.
Mass outbreaks of altruism
Yet, for every example of selfishness and bigotry (Trump called Covid-19 the ‘Chinese virus’), there are dozens of people calling it out and condemning it. People gather at pre-ordained times to applaud healthcare workers; churches ring their bells for 15 minutes at a time, signalling hope and consolation; volunteers rise en masse to help those in need. On March 20, 180 radio stations in more than 30 European countries simultaneously played You’ll never walk alone. Global corporates are adapting production lines to make much-needed ventilators while others donate money, services and products to the corona cause.
Dutch historian Rutger Bregman would not be surprised. In his book De Meeste Mensen Deugen (soon to be published in English as Humankind. A Hopeful History), which was written before the corona outbreak, he argues that civilisation isn’t just a thin layer that will disappear as soon as the proverbial shit hits the fan. He suggests that it is precisely in times of crisis that humanity shows its best side, provoking mass outbreaks of altruism and solidarity, not some free-for-all that 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who believed that all human beings were selfish at their core, would have predicted.
“Hopefully this crisis will make us rethink our current way of life, and the drastic disruption to the world’s natural order it brings with it in the name of perpetual economic growth”
It is too soon to draw absolute conclusions, but this time of global crisis does seem to be bringing people together. All over the world, the reaction to the outbreak – less travel, working from home, less exploitation of natural resources – has shown us the impact of free-market capitalism and neoliberal policies on the climate and the natural world and people are taking notice.
Potential for change
What new insights might the corona crisis give us, that could create positive change in global economics, world politics or climate science? Maybe this is the wake-up call we needed, a sudden and radical solution to the crises in climate, pollution and bio-diversity. American economist Milton Friedman wrote: ‘Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change’. This crisis has the potential to make us rethink our current way of life and the drastic disruption to the world’s natural order that way of life has brought with it in the name of perpetual economic growth. Some historians have dubbed the Spanish flu the ‘Forgotten Pandemic’. Let’s not forget this one.
All is well, practice kindness, heaven is nigh.”
– Jack Kerouac, writer