The remains of the Smallpox Hospital on Roosevelt Island in New York City. Photo: Getty
The remains of the Smallpox Hospital on Roosevelt Island in New York City. Photo: Getty

SocietyMarch 30, 2020

History, hope, and Covid-19

The remains of the Smallpox Hospital on Roosevelt Island in New York City. Photo: Getty
The remains of the Smallpox Hospital on Roosevelt Island in New York City. Photo: Getty

Covid-19 will transform society, just as the plague and smallpox transformed nations centuries ago. This time, however, we have something they didn’t, writes historian Ayelet Zoran-Rosen.

Throughout history, epidemics and pandemics have been a threat to people and states. They strike societies with little or no notice, upend their social and economic patterns, seep through political, ethnic, and linguistic borders, and rob individuals of control over their lives and fate.

While present-day experiences of the Covid-19 pandemic provide us with a painful glimpse into past experiences, they also show us how much the world has changed. Advances in science and the speed at which we enjoy global communications are perhaps the most obvious. But the political and social aspects of pandemics, which also affect how they spread, how they are understood, and how people react to them, are less straightforward.

The global nature of highly contagious diseases is not new. The spread of disease has always been connected to the movement of people; be it during maritime trade, colonisation, armies marching to war, or refugees fleeing conflicts.

The plague pandemic of the 14th century, for example, was first recorded in 1346 in the Khanate of the Golden Horde, a Mongol territory in today’s southern Russia. The following year, maritime trade carried it across the Black Sea to Constantinople. From there ships carried it again across the Mediterranean to Greece, Italy and France. In 1349 it reached as far as Tunisia, Egypt and Algeria in North Africa and England and Norway in Europe.

By 1350 it had affected the Netherlands, Scotland, Sweden and Germany; by 1351 it spread to Poland and the Baltic States and by 1353 to Muscovy. This pandemic, which became known as the Black Death, receded in 1353, but outbreaks of the plague continued throughout the centuries. The disease was last recorded in Western Europe in 1722, but persisted in Eastern Europe until 1771 and in Egypt until 1844. Even in times when – compared to our own age – travel and communication were limited, such a deadly disease engulfed much of the world, and for long periods of time.

There is, however, a distinctly new aspect of our encounter with Covid-19, and it has to do with a sense of human hope and collective agency. When the plague hit the Mediterranean basin in the sixth century, people were helpless in coping with a disease that had, in the words of the Byzantine author Procopius, “no cause which came within the province of human reasoning”. The main task performed by governments was to arrange and fund the burial of the dead. When it struck Italian city-states in the 17th century, their governments established boards of public health, which used extreme measures to control the spread of the disease. Authorities imposed quarantines, isolated the sick and rapidly disposed of the corpses of victims and of their contaminated possessions.

Family members of sick people were confined to their houses, whose doors and windows were sealed, and the possessions of the sick were seized and burnt. Sometimes, the authorities would even condition entrance to the city on the display of a health pass confirming the person carrying it was not ill.

The practice of isolating the sick was also in place in Boston in the early 18th century, but a lack of scientific knowledge rendered it imperfect: in April 1721, for example, a British merchant ship approached Boston carrying people who had smallpox. The known cases were isolated, but some of those who were infected but not yet showing symptoms disembarked the ship and spread the disease. More than half of the people of Boston fell ill during this major smallpox epidemic. In an attempt to prevent the spread of the disease, sick people were isolated in their homes, which were marked with a flag pleading “God have mercy on this house”.

For centuries people died without knowing what was killing them, and the response governments and communities could offer was dictated by what they knew and limited by the means they had. Today’s response to the new pandemic is the result not only of an improved scientific knowledge but also of cooperative global efforts to control travel, support individuals and families, and find a cure or a vaccine to this disease.

Some of these efforts are coordinated by international organisations such as the World Health Organisation, as countries and institutions share their findings and coordinate their policies. With our advanced scientific understanding of diseases and their causes, governments and international organisations can make informed decisions as to the measures that should be taken to slow down the spread of the disease.

The role governments and institutions play in our lives has changed dramatically in the last century. We now expect the state to help us find our way through this difficult time. Rather than merely reacting to disaster by burying the dead and burning their possessions, we expect the modern welfare state to take proactive measures, to provide us with health services during the epidemic, and to support us during the economic hardship that it might bring. Citizens also expect their governments to communicate their decisions clearly, share the data on which their decisions are based, and give reasons for their actions. These high expectations are a testament to the unprecedented capacity of humanity to pull together and take an active role in fighting pandemics and their consequences.

The Covid-19 pandemic has become part of our lives, and also part of our collective history. The effect that it will have on our politics, societies, and economies is not yet known to us, just as the people who suffered from the plague or smallpox could not imagine the ways their societies would be transformed by it. But we do know that good science and strong social structures that we have developed throughout the centuries can help us as we work together to meet this challenge. Our democracy, the welfare state, an evidence-based medical system, and global collaborative enterprises are all a source of hope that we will see this thing through. They also give us a sense of human agency; an agency of which, in their own times of turmoil, our predecessors were deprived.

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