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History I: Life During a Pandemic

I’ve written before about my interest in history. As every scholar (and politician) knows, it’s crucial to learn what you can from the past, to avoid repeating earlier mistakes.

We’re all living with the COVID-19 pandemic (more or less successfully), and it appears we’ll continue to be suffering through it for some time to come. (2022 – can we bear the thought of two more years?) Thus, anyone with a inquisitive mind will want to look back to past experiences to learn what they can.

My wife and I have been reminiscing (not so fondly) about outbreaks we’ve personally experienced or can recall: polio, measles and meningitis (along with quarantines), not to ignore the more recent AIDS and SARS epidemics. We’ve also been reading up about the 1918 Spanish flu and the Black Death/bubonic plague outbreaks of the Middle Ages.

The Spanish flu, the deadliest pandemic of all – coming so soon as it did after the tragedy of World War I – disappeared from public consciousness (or was at least ignored by most people) in the latter half of the 20th century. Now, things have changed. Thankfully, it was well documented by media of the time, and thus a plethora of local and international stories have found their way online.

Despite its name, the pandemic seems to have originated not in Spain but in a US military base. The website History explains it as follows ( :

“Scientists still do not know for sure where the Spanish Flu originated, though theories point to France, China, Britain, or the United States, where the first known case was reported at Camp Funston in Fort Riley, Kansas, on March 11, 1918. Some believe infected soldiers spread the disease to other military camps across the country, then brought it overseas. In March 1918, 84,000 American soldiers headed across the Atlantic and were followed by 118,000 more the following month.”

From there it spread round the world.

Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, which provides an account of fourteenth-century Europe, is one of the few books I own that deals in some depth with the plagues that afflicted the continent. (See chapter 5, “‘This Is the End of the World’: The Black Death”). I am struck by the many parallels between those times and what we are (or may soon be) experiencing in 2020/21:

  • The pandemic came in waves, “rooting into the close-quartered population,” abating and then reappearing the following year.
  • The mortality rate was erratic, ranging from 20 percent in some places to 90 percent in others.
  • Enclosed spaces, such as monasteries and prisons, were much more affected.
  • Some people (even family members) were shunned, and “exaggeration and literary pessimism” were commonplace.
  • Flight was the chief recourse for “those who could afford it or arrange it.”
  • Although some of the noble classes (even a king and a queen) were struck down, the “anonymous poor” bore the brunt of deaths.
  • Economic impacts began to take hold once the plague had cut a swath through the peasantry, reducing the working population. It wasn’t long before grain fields were left to rot and villages disappeared.
  • The clergy and the medical profession (the caregivers of the day) suffered from high rates of infection and death.
  • Although it was believed the original source of the plague (spread by rats and fleas) was China, the answer turned out to be less clear-cut. According to Tuchman, it is now considered to be somewhere in central Asia, from where it “spread along the caravan routes.”
  • Quarantines, the banning of outsiders, expulsions, persecutions and the shutting down of borders became commonplace.
  • Behavior among certain groups grew “more reckless and callous” and brawls would break out.
  • Education suffered because of the great losses among the clergy, the teachers of the day.
  • The plague broke out six more times “over the next six decades in various localities at varying intervals,” reducing the population of Europe by nearly 50 percent by the end of the fourteenth century.
  • The population decline led to both wage and price inflation and reduced tax revenue, causing cash-strapped rulers to push back with repressive measures and raise tax rates for the remaining population. This deepened the antagonism between rich and poor and created “resentment that was to explode in repeated outbreaks in coming decades.”

In other areas, fortunately, there were sharp differences between the Black Death and COVID-19, for which we have to be thankful:

  • The manner of the contagion remained a mystery in the fourteenth century due to ignorance and superstition, and this lack of knowledge was “the most terrible of all the terrors.” Among the general population, only one explanation made sense: it was “the wrath of God,” punishment for terrible sin.
  • During the three-year period covering 1348–50 (more or less), efforts to cope with, contain and cure the disease were largely ineffectual. This was because of a combination of useless medical practices (bleeding, recourse to relics, enemas) based on what we now see as bizarre (fake?) notions, hysteria, prejudice (Jews – one of history’s usual scapegoats – being blamed), minimal sanitation (especially for the poor) and outright lack of medical knowledge.

Tuchman concludes (and warns):

“An event of great agony is bearable only in the belief that it will bring about a better world. When it does not, as in the aftermath of another vast calamity in 1914–18, disillusion is deep and moves on to self-doubt and self-disgust. In creating a climate for pessimism, the Black Death was the equivalent of the First World War, although it took fifty years for the psychological effects to develop.” (p. 124)

Is it possible that Covid-19 can bring about a “better world”? Or will the world be left demoralized and doubtful, and an era of pessimism prevail? And how long will the psychological effects last? Will world leaders get their act together? Will we get a successful vaccine? And how soon? And how many will get access to it?