I have to date remained silent here about the COVID-19 pandemic, because for the most part I haven’t had anything constructive to add to the discussion, and because I thought that our parents and students would probably prefer to read about something else. I also try, when possible, to discuss things that will still be of interest three or even ten years from now, and to focus largely on issues of education as we practice it.
Still, COVID-19 has obviously become a consuming focus for many—understandably, given the extent of the problem—and what should be managed in the most intelligent way possible according to principles of epidemiology and sane public policy has become a political football that people are using as further grounds to revile each other. I’m not interested in joining that game. Knaves and cynical opportunists will have their day, and there’s probably not much to do that will stop them—at least nothing that works any better than just ignoring them.
But there is one piece of the public discourse on the subject that has shown up more and more frequently, and here it actually does wander into a domain where I have something to add. The adjective that has surfaced most commonly in public discussions about the COVID-19 epidemic with all its social and political consequences is “unprecedented”. The disease, we are told by some, is unprecedented in its scope; others lament that it’s having unprecedented consequences both medically and economically. The public response, according to others, is similarly unprecedented: for some that’s an argument that it is also unwarranted; for others, that’s merely a sign that it’s appropriately commensurate with the scope of the unprecedented problem; for still others, it’s a sign that it’s staggeringly inadequate.
As an historian I’m somewhat used to the reckless way in which the past is routinely ignored or (worse) subverted, according to the inclination of the speaker, in the service of this agenda or that. I’ve lost track of the number of people who have told me why Rome fell as a way of making a contemporary political point. But at some point one needs to raise an objection: seriously—unprecedented? As Inigo Montoya says in The Princess Bride, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” To say that anything is unprecedented requires it to be contextualized in history—not just the last few years’ worth, either.
In some sense, of course, every happening in history, no matter how trivial, is unprecedented—at least if history is not strictly cyclical, as the Stoics believed it was. I’m not a Stoic on that issue or many others. So, no: this exact thing has indeed never happened before. But on that calculation, if I swat a mosquito, that’s unprecedented, too, because I’ve never swatted that particular mosquito before. This falls into Douglas Adams’ useful category of “True, but unhelpful.” Usually people use the word to denote something of larger scope, and they mean that whatever they are talking about is fundamentally different in kind or magnitude from anything that has happened before. But how different is COVID-19, really?
The COVID-19 pandemic is not unprecedented in its etiology. Viruses happen. We even know more or less how they happen. One does not have to posit a diabolical lab full of evil gene-splicers to account for it. Coronaviruses are not new, and many others have apparently come and gone throughout human history, before we even had the capacity to detect them or name them. Some of them have been fairly innocuous, some not. Every time a new one pops up, it’s a roll of the dice—but it’s not our hand that’s rolling them. Sure: investing in some kind of conspiracy theory to explain it is (in its odd way) comforting and exciting. It’s comforting because it suggests that we have a lot more control over things than we really do. It’s exciting, because it gives us a villain we can blame. Blame is a top-dollar commodity in today’s political climate, and it drives more and more of the decisions being made at the highest levels. Ascertaining the validity of the blame comes in a distant second to feeling a jolt of righteous indignation. The reality is both less exciting and somewhat bleaker: we don’t have nearly as much control as we’d like to believe. These things happen and will continue to happen without our agency or design. Viruses are fragments of genetic material that have apparently broken away from larger organic systems, and from there they are capable of almost infinite, if whimsical, mutation. They’re loose cannons: that’s their nature. That’s all. Dangerous, indisputably. Malicious? Not really.
The COVID-19 pandemic is not unprecedented in its scope and ability to be lethal. Epidemics and plagues have killed vast numbers of people over wide areas throughout history. A few years ago, National Geographic offered a portrait of the world’s most prolific killer. It was not a mass murderer, or even a tyrant. It was the flea, and the microbial load it carried. From 1348 through about 1352, the Black Death visited Europe with a ferocity that probably was unprecedented at the time. Because records from the period are sketchy, it’s hard to come up with an exact count, but best estimates are that it killed approximately a third of the population of Europe all within that little three-to-four-year period. The disease continued to revisit Europe approximately every twenty years for some centuries to come, especially killing people of childbearing age each time, with demographic results that vastly exceed what we might determine from a sheer count of losses. In some areas whole cities were wiped out, and the death toll in Europe alone may have run as high as two hundred million: the extent of its destruction throughout parts of Asia has not been ascertained. Smallpox, in the last century of its activity (1877-1977), killed approximately half a billion people. The 1918 Spanish influenza epidemic killed possibly as many as a hundred million. Wikipedia here lists over a hundred similar catastrophes caused by infectious diseases of one sort or another, each of which had a death toll of more than a thousand; it lists a number of others where the count cannot even be approximately ascertained.
Nor is the COVID-19 pandemic unprecedented in its level of social upheaval. The Black Death radically changed the social, cultural, economic, and even the religious configuration of Europe almost beyond recognition. After Columbus, Native American tribes were exposed to Old World disease agents to which they had no immunities. Many groups were reduced to less than a tenth of their former numbers. Considering these to be instances of genocide is, I think, to ascribe far more intentionality to the situation than it deserves (though there seem to have been some instances where it was intended), but the outcome was indifferent to the intent. The Spanish Influenza of 1918, coming as it did on the heels of World War I, sent a world culture that was already off balance into a deeper spiral. It required steep curbs on social activity to check its spread. Houses of worship were closed then too. Other pubic gatherings were forbidden. Theaters were closed. Even that was not really unprecedented, though: theaters had been closed in Elizabethan London during several of the recurrent visitations of the bubonic plague. The plot of Romeo and Juliet is colored by a quarantine. Boccaccio’s Decameron is a collection of tales that a group of people told to amuse themselves while in isolation, and Chaucer’s somewhat derivative Canterbury Tales are about a group of pilgrims heading for the shrine of St. Thomas à Becket for having given them aid while they were laboring under a plague. People have long known that extraordinary steps need to be taken, at least temporarily, in order to save lives during periods of contagion. It’s inconvenient, it’s costly, and it’s annoying. It’s not a hoax, and it’s not tyrannical. It’s not novel.
So no, in most ways, neither the appearance of COVID-19 nor our responses to it are really unprecedented. I say this in no way to minimize the suffering of those afflicted with the disease, or those suffering from the restrictions put in place to curb its spread. Nor do I mean to trivialize the efforts of those battling its social, medical, or economic consequences: some of them are positively heroic. But claiming that this is all unprecedented looks like an attempt to exempt ourselves from the actual flow of history, and to excuse ourselves from the very reasonable need to consult the history of such events in order to learn what we can from them—for there are, in fact, things to be learned.
In responding to the plagues and calamities of the past, it is perhaps unsurprising that people responded, then as now, primarily out of fear. Fear is one of the most powerful of human motivators, but it is seldom a wise counselor. There have been conspiracy theories before too: during the Black Death, for example, some concluded that that the disease was due to witchcraft, and so they set out to kill cats, on the ground that they were witches’ familiars. The result, of course, was that rats—the actual vectors for the disease, together with their fleas, were able to breed and spread disease all the more freely. Others sold miracle cures to credulous (and fearful) populations; these of course accomplished nothing but heightening the level of fear and desperation.
There were also people who were brave and self-sacrificing, who cared for others in these trying times. In 1665, the village of Eyam in Derbyshire quarantined itself with the plague. They knew what they could expect, and they were not mistaken. Everyone in the town perished, but their decision saved thousands of lives in neighboring villages. Fr. Damien De Veuster ministered to the lepers on Molokai before succumbing to the disease himself: he remains an icon of charity and noble devotion and is the patron saint of Hawaii.
The human race has confronted crisis situations involving infectious diseases, and the decisions they require, before. They are not easy, and sometimes they call for self-sacrifice. There is sober consolation to be wrung from the fact that we are still here, and that we still, as part of our God-given nature, have the capacity to make such decisions—both the ones that protect us and those sacrificial decisions we make to save others. We will not get through the ordeal without loss and cost, but humanity has gotten through before, and it will again. We are neither entirely without resources, but neither are we wholly in control. We need to learn from what we have at our disposal, marshal our resources wisely and well, and trust in God for the rest.