The Pandemic Anniversary

In looking back through the posts of this blog, I realize that I first mentioned the Coronavirus on January 26 of 2020, and by March 1 these posts were running hard on the subject–and we were also surmising that no one would be done with it as summarily as almost everyone was predicting. So many miseries later, we now are actually in a situation where we can at least imagine, if not seriously consider, where we go from here. The past is prologue, because history has a lot to teach us.

I’m glad to recommend two books here: one is Frank Snowden’s impressive Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present, and the other is Plagues and the Paradox of Progress by Thomas J. Bollyky. Interestingly, neither book prophecies what most people apparently seem to assume—that life will go back to approximating whatever “normal” was. Give that one up right now. It’s not going to happen, certainly not the way we imagine it, and most probably nowhere near the scale on which we imagine it. We think about working more from home, or job changes, maybe even career changes, or possibly residence moves, and we consider that Big Thinking.

We imagine our shopping habits shifting more online and toward deliveries. We look at the runaway success of companies like Amazon and Zoom, and some people do mull major shifts in entire industries. But that too doesn’t think nearly big enough, in the long or even the short run.

We lack a grasp of just how profound an effect pestilence, plagues, and pandemics have had on history. Our history.

Thucydides describes a plague in the second year of the Peloponnesian War that arrived in the port of Piraeus via Egypt and Libya, killing one quarter of the army and innumerable residents, and leaving Athens in unprecedented lawlessness. In 541 CE, the Plague of Justinian, now believed to be bubonic plague, spread along maritime supply lines into Constantinople, ravaging the Mediterranean world in 18 waves with an average of one epidemic every 12 years; by the end of the seventh century the recurring attacks had cut the population by half and hastened the collapse of the Byzantine Empire. When the same disease arrived in China’s seaports in 610, the weakened Tang Dynasty lost control over the Silk Road, and trade between Europe and Asia virtually disappeared. The Black Death depleted Europe of fully a third of its entire population over seven years in the 1330s, returning intermittently and lethally, so that the continent’s population couldn’t fully recover for nearly 300 years. The system of feudalism dissolved. Too many people had perished to subsist on the huge estates of great lords. So the peasants drifted off, to discover gradually that they could earn their own small livings in towns and cities—cobbling shoes, making barrels, being blacksmiths, hiring themselves out as carpenters, stonemasons, carters. From their labor and such emerging groups, which eventually became guilds, grew Europe’s middle class.

Such massive, seismic historical changes, my friends, that’s thinking really big.

We rarely stop to question the origins of different spurts of progress, but many, if not most, followed in the wakes of various plagues and pandemics. When society is shaken to its core, even leveled, desperation can become inspiration, and creative thinking gets an ironic boost.

The concept of quarantine was devised in 14th century Venice after pestilence. In the 1790s, when Napoleon Bonaparte tried to reestablish the institution of slavery in Haiti after uprisings by enslaved citizens, he was forced to abandon the campaign due to yellow fever—which slaughtered the French, although the Haitians had developed immunity. The germ theory of disease itself was another surprising result: in the early 19th century, the prevailing view had been that cholera stemmed from the loose morals of its sufferers and from poisonous gases emanating from dirty environments in standing water (and you can imagine the grief and suffering that those two wild diagnoses provoked!). Then physician John Snow’s 1854 study identifying a water pump on London’s Broad Street as the source of contaminated water that spread cholera blasted through such superstition. Subsequent discoveries by Robert Koch, Joseph Lister, and Louis Pasteur, provided the scientific basis for that observation, establishing microbes, not smells or morals, as disease agents. Collectively, these discoveries in turn established new fields–epidemiology and microbiology–and led to identifying the causative micro-organisms for tuberculosis, cholera, and typhoid, among other infectious diseases. Perhaps even more importantly, germ theory contributed to the emergence of public health systems to put such scientific ideas into practice for the public good.

Historian Mark Harrison has argued that infectious diseases even created the conditions in which the modern state and its machinery of government emerged. The types of measures undertaken—quarantine, vaccination, housing reforms, sanitation, and safe water systems–forced governments to wrestle with a challenging balance in social regulation, between ensuring public good and respecting individual rights. Consequently, that struggle set the precedent for other forms of social regulation, such as compulsory schooling, improved public administration, and investment in urban infrastructure. By the start of the 20th century, there were nearly 1700 public water systems in the US, and city governments spent more on them than the federal government voted for anything other than the Postal Service and the military. (Would that this had still been true for Flint, Michigan!)

Certainly pandemics have caused panic, havoc, and death—and have even been hideously weaponized. As noted before on this blogpost, within 200 years of first contact, three quarters of the native populations of the Americas had disappeared, mostly as a result of infectious disease. Historian William McNeil identified smallpox and measles as the reasons why, in 1521, Herman Cortez, with fewer than 600 men, was able to conquer the Aztec Empire, which numbered in millions. Certainly conditions of poverty, lack of sanitation, and lack of medical services, as well as a population’s ignorance, all these ingredients contribute to and foster epidemics. Certainly particular diseases–tuberculosis, for example—have been romanticized into 19th-century “wasting disease” mythic proportions, while others, like cholera, with its nonstop diarrhea, vomiting, and dehydration, or smallpox, have notoriously suffered the opposite fate.

Pandemics are more than what we make of them, but so are their outcomes. After a cholera outbreak in New York in 1866, the city established the Metropolitan Board of Health, and that was followed by similar acts in Chicago, Milwaukee, Boston, and other large US cities. Among the first duties undertaken by these new urban public health boards was banning roaming pigs and goats and forcing property owners to connect to the new waterworks and sewers being built. A cascade effect began. Boards of health changed housing laws, which necessitated street cleaning. That demanded significant financing, which then required long-term loans and bonds, changing the financial system. This in turn was followed by urban investments like intercity railways, ports, highways, canals, and trolleys. Building all of this necessitated better education for more people.

General ignorance and superstition always resurrects itself in plague time, in the form of blaming—fill in the blank: refugees, immigrants, foreigners, Jews, Catholics, midwives (a big mistake because then you also demonize cats, their so-called familiars if they are witches, and the cats are killed by the hundreds, so they can’t catch rats, which spread bubonic plague)—anyway, blaming whomever, for bringing in the disease when 1) usually it’s a disease that’s been there all along, and 2) what does that matter? Today, immigrants, Muslims, and now Asian American citizens are bearing the brunt of the persecution in the US. We’ve seen this most recently and horrifically in the murders of Asian American women in Georgia—a domestic terrorist set of murders mixing misogyny and racism and proving yet again that male heterosexual white supremacist domestic terrorism is America’s current greatest threat, and has been for some time. And always at such moments versions of what we now know as the “Q-anon” phenomenon resurrects itself—belief in conspiracies, paranoid terror of “the other,” Nativism, jingoism, any form of hatred that fear can lay its claws on.

We can’t know what shapes the future will decide to arrive in, but this much we do know and already are acting on: we know we sure as hell better start thinking now, so we can have a voice, because we must have a voice in determining what shapes the future takes, and how those shapes get formed.