This article was originally published on Ancient World Magazine. It is archived on this website with the kind permission of the author.
As COVID-19 seemingly brings the world to a halt (though the extent of “damage” to our social and economic systems remains to be seen), there is undoubtedly a temptation to look to plagues of the past for insight into what we should be doing.
At first glance, this may not seem like a bad idea. Afterall, the United States has itself dealt with major public health crises in its past, notable in our current context would be the Spanish Flu in 1918. In fact, humanity has been dealing with pandemics/epidemics for a very long time – presumably since our species has existed. But, these past experiences are not necessarily good sources of information for what to do against COVID-19.
I wrote this article in response to a number of posts I have seen circulating social media (some even published in well-known outlets). Many of these made claims as to how “insignificant” the current pandemic is because humanity has gone through worse. Some have tried to use examples of measures taken in the past as suggestions for what we should be doing now. There are problems with both of these views, and it is for this reason that I have not linked to any of the content.
Humanity is not the same as it was during the Periclean plague in Athens, or the Justinianic plague in the sixth century AD. We have come along way even since the H1N1 pandemic of 1918. Unlike in the past, we understand how these diseases spread. Afterall, it was only from the middle of the nineteenth century that the germ theory of disease was taken seriously (at least in Europe).
Of course, some measures taken in the past should be repeated, such as isolating people with the disease and avoiding large gatherings (which is the general course of the United States’ response to COVID-19). But, these are preventative tactics that are informed by modern science. While the ancients and medieval peoples may have done this, they did not necessarily understand why it helped.
While historical “insights” like these can be helpful – at least when understood through modern science – others can be rather harmful. In particular, the conclusion that COVID-19 is not a big deal because the death toll is nowhere near previous pandemics. I imagine that most people who reach this conclusion lack what I would describe as an historian’s mindset.
Making this comparison relies on a disconnect between modern and past humans. Time can be dehumanizing, and this effect is clearly at work here. “Why should I care about this pandemic when it probably won’t kill me. I mean, it’s not like the Spanish Flu, that thing was actually dangerous!”
I imagine that this non-sequitur is so common because there is little to no empathy for the victims of past pandemics. This absolutely must be avoided. Comparison with past events has no bearing on modern mortality. The death of a living human being should not be felt lightly simply because they are part of a much smaller statistic than in the past.
Alex Rosenberg (2018) has recently argued that we are preprogrammed to like stories, often in the form of historical – or perhaps better: historicizing – narratives. The phenomenon that I am criticizing in this article should probably be seen in this light. But while we can acknowledge that this is a basic human trait, and that these historical narratives can be very misleading in what they can “teach” us, we must actively fight against them.
I implore our readers to not share and spread these kinds of articles or social media posts that only fan the flames of denialism of how serious COVID-19 must be taken. While I don’t entirely agree with Rosenberg’s book (in fact, I disagree with much of it), his introduction makes it clear that “the real trouble with that love and attachment [to historicizing narratives] is that [they] get almost everything wrong, and the consequences are more often than not harmful” (p. 11). This is surely true of historical “lessons” in this vein being applied to 2020’s pandemic.
Learning from past plagues
If we are to learn anything from plagues of the past, it would be more ephemeral, and make us more cautious, rather than less. Perhaps the most dire warning from history that I can think of comes from the Periclean plague in Athens. This was caused by an unknown pathogen, though modern scholars have tried to identify it (e.g. Littman 2009).
A thorough narrative is given by Thucydides (2.47-55), and the situation inside the walls of Athens sounds very dire: “people in perfect health suddenly began to have burning feelings in the head; their eyes became red and inflamed; inside their mouths there was bleed-in from the throat and tongue, and the breath became unnatural and unpleasant.” Poor souls suffering from this littered the streets and homes of the city.
What is striking, however, is to be found in the first paragraph of Thucydides’ story: “At the beginning, the doctors were quite incapable of treating the disease because of their ignorance of the right methods. In fact, mortality among the doctors was the highest of all, since they came more frequently in contact with the sick” (Thuc. 2.47).
The lesson of this passage, though, is not that doctors are ignorant of how to help the sick, but that they were some of the most commonly stricken people in fifth century Athens. We cannot let this happen in our fight against COVID-19. And to protect doctors and nurses (and all of the other staff that make modern healthcare effective, like lab workers, custodians, schedulers, and all the others), we must take this disease seriously.
Although I have made a very brief argument against “learning” from history in terms of our response to the current pandemic, I will break my own rule. If any of our readers are looking to history for a reaction to COVID-19, look to Giovani Boccaccio. Don’t socialize, don’t deny the advice of public health professionals and scientists, but rather sit around telling stories with your friends – using modern technology like Facebook chat or Skype – and unite to defeat this awful virus.