By Stephen Knapp
“Perhaps the most notable victim of the Black Death was the feudal system of government.”
They sickened by the thousands daily, and died unattended and without help… How many valiant men, how many fair ladies, breakfast with their kinfolk and the same night supped with their ancestors in the next world!
—Giovanni Boccaccio, 1353
Interestingly, the earliest evidence of pandemic can be found not too far from the source of the latest one.
Sifting through the buried remains of a prehistoric Chinese village, archaeologists came upon a jumbled trove of human bones. It’s believed that sometime around 3000 B.C., a large number of men, women and children died nonviolently and all at once. Their bodies were hastily piled inside a vacant house, the house was burned to the ground, and the village was abandoned forever. The subsequent discovery of a similar cache at the site of a village more than a hundred miles away, that appears to have been abandoned at about the same time, sounds a lot to the scientific ear like the stealthy hoofbeats of galloping pestilence.
Epidemic is as old as civilization, and pandemic has spared no century, place or people. In 430 B.C., the Plague of Athens—possibly typhoid fever—reduced the city’s population by 100,000 citizens and 25 percent; six hundred years later, smallpox cut the heart out of Rome’s sturdy legions and killed perhaps five million throughout the Empire. During the Plague of Cyprian in 250 A.D., a gastrointestinal complaint that has never been satisfactorily identified claimed up to 5,000 lives a day within the walls of Rome alone.
His vast city’s considerable resources swiftly overwhelmed by victims of the bubonic plague in the year 541, Byzantine Emperor Justinian ordered the tops removed from Constantinople’s dozens of 60-foot defensive towers and their spacious columns filled with the dead, a last-ditch expedient that got the problem out of sight, if not out of mind. “An evil stench pervaded the city and distressed the inhabitants still more,” noted sixth century Byzantine scholar Procopius, “especially when the wind blows from that quarter.”
England was battered by plague several times between 1563 and 1665. The last and worst of that century, remembered as the Great Plague of London, accounted for nearly 20 percent of the population and only began to abate when a large portion of the city’s flea-ridden rats were immolated by the Great Fire of London in 1666.
A pocket full of posies
We all fall down.
—English children’s verse, 1665
Across the pond, successive waves of disease acted as the accidental vanguard of European expansion in the New World. The Cocoliztli Epidemic of 1545 was powered by a form of hemorrhagic fever that’s believed to have killed up to 15 million in Mexico and Central America, and it was followed at regular intervals by everything from measles to mumps, from typhus to pertussis, and from smallpox to syphilis, endemic Old World ailments against which the natives had no defense and which, depending on who’s doing the math, killed anywhere from 30 million to 50 million people, or some 60 to 90 percent of the indigenous population.
Pandemic-wise, the Big Event remains the Black Death, an outbreak of bubonic plague that originated in, yes, China in 1346, and followed the trade routes west. By 1353, at least 50 million, and possibly as many as 200 million, had died, about a third of those residing upon the Asian continent and up to half of the residents of Europe. It would be more than 300 years before the Old World recovered its pre-plague population.
It’s tempting to try to draw parallels between pandemics of the past and that of the present, but it’s not really helpful. Despite whatever alarmist doomsday prediction was selected to lead this morning’s news broadcasts, coronavirus is not bubonic plague. And transformations in medicine, nutrition, sanitation and communication, more flexible social and political institutions, and a better understanding of how disease spreads, have combined to eradicate many of the conditions that made the pandemics of yore so deadly, and they make direct comparisons problematic. Even so, pandemics still have consequences, and it’s interesting to examine how changes wrought by the Black Death stack up against trends now shaping up under COVID-19.
People in good health were all of a sudden attacked by violent heats in the head, and redness and inflammation in the eyes, the inward parts, such as the throat or tongue, becoming bloody and emitting an unnatural and fetid breath.
—Thucydides, 430 B.C.
It’s fun to dismiss ancient doctors as a clueless pack of bloodletting leech freaks. In fact, most physicians of the Middle Ages were serious scientists who adhered to a fairly rigorous empirical method to surprisingly good effect. Even so, their inability to deal with bubonic plague led to widespread public disillusionment with the profession and a general embrace of mystical therapies and magical treatments that would leave professional healers mistrusted and marginalized for centuries. Likewise, the failure of the Church to stop the Black Death caused a pronounced swing away from Catholicism and toward esoteric and occult religious practices.
Fast-forward 700 years, and mainstream medicine, which has proven equally ineffective at halting pandemic, is being showered with the kind of reverential esteem once reserved for gladiators in the arena. And far from abandoning established religion, Americans are attending “virtual” church services at nearly the same rate they attended the in-person kind, and nearly 20 percent profess that the advent of COVID-19 has actually strengthened their faith.
The Black Death killed 80 percent of those who contracted it, virtually depopulating vast regions of Europe. In England alone, more than 1,000 villages simply ceased to exist. Thanks to COVID-19’s low mortality rate, America is in no danger of running out of people. Businesses, on the other hand, are dropping like flies. More than 150,000 small businesses have permanently closed their doors, and they continue to fall at a rate of almost 20,000 per month. Entire industries have been laid waste, particularly those providing essential quality-of-life services like hospitality and entertainment.
Perhaps the most notable victim of the Black Death was the feudal system of government. Deprived of so much of the peasant workforce upon which their wealth and status depended, Europe’s landed elite were forced to compete with each other for labor. Finding their labor suddenly valued and valuable, the surviving serfs weren’t shy about leveraging their advantage to win financial rewards, legal freedoms and political rights. Common folk went into the Plague as chattel and came out of it middle class.
The response to COVID-19 hasn’t been nearly so kind to the modern laborer. Forced out of work by government mandated shut-downs, up to 30 million idled employees—about 47 percent of the American workforce—find themselves forced to compete for a ruinously diminished menu of jobs being offered by cash-poor employers who can ill afford to fill them. The most notable victim of coronavirus may yet turn out to be economic independence.
Medical authorities predict it will be at least a year before a COVID-19 vaccine is ready for market, and another year after that before everybody who wants some gets some. If that sounds like a very long time to forego movies, travel and ballgames in favor of masks, contact tracing and quarantine, be informed that, like Dorothy and her ruby slippers, we’ve had the power to escape this bizarre Oz all along.
Historical authorities tell us that every pandemic has two endings: one medical and one social. The medical ending occurs when the disease has finally run its course and death rates return to pre-pandemic levels. The social one occurs when enough people decide that living in constant fear is worse than the disease and simply go back about their normal business. Our power rests in the fact that, as often as not, a pandemic’s social ending happens before the medical one, and sometimes long before.
Any time we collectively resolve that happy, productive, fulfilling lives are preferable to fear, poverty and isolation, we’ll have put the worst of this pandemic behind us.
But Lord, how empty the streets are, and melancholy… everybody talking of this dead, and that man sick, and so many in this place, and so many in that… but there are great hopes of a great decrease this week. God send it.
—Samuel Pepys, London 1665