About the author: Dr. Margaret Carlyle, SIFK Research Associate, is a historian of early modern Europe, with a focus on the history of science, technology, and medicine. In 2019, Margaret and Dr. Brian Callender co-curated a Special Collections exhibition at the University of Chicago's Regenstein Library on the visual history of "The Fetus in Utero". See our previous SIFK blog post on the fetal ultrasound. Learn more about Margaret here.
The coronavirus outbreak is one in a long line of pandemics in human history. Some have remarked that we were due for an outbreak given that they strike with noteworthy regularity: every hundred years or so. The great plague of Marseille in 1720, the cholera outbreak of 1817 in India, and the Spanish influenza of 1918 appear to provide the proof. This pattern might be compelling were it not for the recurring nature of plagues like cholera or the numerous outbreaks that it doesn't take into account, such as polio in the 1950s and Ebola in the mid-2010s.1
The search for plague precedents—and possible patterns—tells us that there is a collective desire to grapple with coronavirus today by looking to the past. At the most basic and idealistic level, the past is instructive. Whether we are humanists or scientists, it is hoped that knowledge of human experiences of plague will provide us with a clear narrative of how we can expect coronavirus to play out. The impulse to dig into the past also tells us that there is a deep-seated yearning to empathize with the plight of our ancestors, while giving us something to rally around: the knowledge that all plagues, no matter how stubborn, come to an end.
Of course, this impulse is entirely understandable given that the world as we know it has been turned upside down. A trip down memory lane to look at the historical, literary, and artistic outputs of plagues past tells us that we share much in common with our forebears who experienced game-changing pandemics. But of the past's ability to answer burning questions like "why plague and why plague now?," we are left with the much less satisfying: it's complicated.
Let's begin with Albert Camus's La Peste (The Plague, 1947), a piece of historical fiction that taps into our most primal fears. It provides a fictionalized WWII-era take on the real-life cholera outbreak that ravaged Oran, Algeria in 1849 at a time of French colonization. The great uncertainty surrounding the early days of a mysterious pestilence is captured in the narrator's yearning to pinpoint its origins: Dr. Rieux treats Oran's first victim and identifies the illness as "la peste."2 While the concept of a "patient zero"—the first person to be infected during an epidemic—is not a new one, the term is. It was first deployed in the 1980s in the context of the AIDS outbreak, when the Québécois flight attendant Gaëtan Dugas was posthumously scapegoated as the first disseminator of the virus.3 The AIDS virus in fact has much deeper origins; it is an example of cross-species viral transmission, from African primates to humans.4 Recent research, meanwhile, calls into question the age-old notion that rats scurrying through ship galleys were the propagators of the fabled Black Death. Fleas, it appears, were in fact responsible for human-to-human transmission.5
To pinpoint any plague's first victim is an attempt to regain control in a collectively terrifying situation. After all, every good story needs its villain. A search for geographic origins is another leitmotif in the history of plague, if only as a strategy to assign blame on "the other." Outbreaks in the ancient world, such as the Great Plague of Athens recounted by Thucydides and the Plague of Justinian, were blamed on Ethiopia and Egypt.6 The Black Death that broke out in the fourteenth century was understood to have originated in China before being carried to Western Europe by Italian merchants trading in the Crimea. Today, President Donald Trump has insisted on labelling COVID-19 the "Chinese virus." Internet trolls immediately jumped at the chance to utter "make China pay" as their rallying cry, as if the virus had been concocted in a bioterrorism laboratory. Trump's escalating paranoia has led him to brand coronavirus a global conspiracy that justifies cutting American funding to the World Health Organization (WHO).7
Rats, apes, and "the other" have thus taken their turns as whippings boys in times of pestilence. Religion has meanwhile steadfastly provided another rationale for the advent of pandemics. Plague is an apocryphal scourge sent by God to those who have turned their backs on him. The English writer Daniel Defoe recounts in A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) of a neighbor hell bent on convincing him that she has seen the angel of Death.8 While Defoe was not amused by such pleas, plenty of Londoners interpreted the return of bubonic plague in 1665 as a form of divine intervention aimed at condemning the metropolis' moral excesses. This notion of collective punishment was redoubled when the Great Fire of London broke out in 1666. Witchcraft trials were not entirely a thing of the past and death by fire was still viewed by many as a form of spiritual purification.
Today, the televangelist Jim Bakker reassures his late-night flock that they will be among the elect to survive end times—but only if they order vats of his dry foodstuffs.9 Those of us who are not religiously inclined may instinctively turn to prayer as a form of secular solace, as historian Jason Opal has mused.10 Then there are those who have taken matters into their own hands by administering apparent panaceas. Take the example of the ill-fated Arizona man who took a dose of fish tank chloroquine phosphate after Trump touted its properties as an antidote to coronavirus.11
While today's medical personnel who risk their lives on the frontlines of the virus will rightly go down in history as plague warriors and heroes, the path has not been easy or straightforward. Expert medical advice too often falls on deaf ears. In a cruel twist of fate, the Chinese whistleblower, Dr. Li Wenliang, lost his life to the novel virus that he sought to warn the world about: COVID-19.12 Free discourse isn't always fostered in the West, either, as Dr. Anthony Fauci has found out the hard way. Faced with Trump's falsehoods at press conferences, Fauci has made his frustrations clear: "I can't jump in front of the microphone and push him down."13
Of course, Fauci is not the first expert to find himself beholden to the whims of statesmen in times of plague. In turn, COVID-19 has proven to be a special test of politicians. Some, like the French President Emmanuel Macron, have opted for the bygone playbook of wartime leaders like British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Macron has relied on martial rhetoric in his televised appeals to justify the measures that he has enforced to combat the "the invisible enemy."14 New York's Democrat Governor Andrew Cuomo has meanwhile received bipartisan praise for his no-nonsense daily press briefings, while the Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro's coronavirus denial has led to his near-universal condemnation—and the unlikely alliance of organized crime and the military to safeguard communities.15
There is also a long-held notion that plague is the great social equalizer. The mid-fifteenth-century fresco, "The Triumph of Death," features a skeleton on horseback firing arrows from his bow. He—or she—shoots indiscriminately at all members of society, from popes to paupers. And yet, the fresco's top right quadrant depicts healthy hued Italian nobles who have retreated to their country villas, where they will ride out plague in the company of musicians. Such is the prerogative of the upper echelons of society to defy a certain death.
A mere glance at daily paparazzi shots of A-listers who are taking refuge in the Hamptons tells us that the well-to-do still have the wherewithal to flee plague. Even the do-gooder couple Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson couldn't hide some imprint of 'celebrity' when they flew back to Los Angeles in a private jet following their Australian quarantine. Then there are those who outright profiteer from plague, like Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and the morally dubious American Senators who unloaded stock in the face of a virus-ridden economy.16
While the 1% dabble in various acts of social solidarity and economic opportunism, the masses that were once referred to as the "great unwashed" are in fact cleaning ourselves just as fast as we can—with hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes. In the absence of stocks to dump, we are dumping rolls of toilet paper into our grocery carts. This, we are told, is our psychological coping mechanism.17
Of course, the 1% and the 99% share in hoarding practices. And much more. We share in our grief over the loss of loved ones as we collectively contemplate our innermost fears around dying and death. All the while, religious and secular rituals surrounding death have been put on hold to clear the way for the new realities of COVID-19. Just as in the times of Daniel Defoe's London, when parishes overrun with coffins were deemed a matter of public health, we are faced with the ghastly sight of mass burial trenches in New York City and the solemn procession of military trucks bringing coffins from Bergamo, Italy to remote crematoria.18
The pre-plague way of life has been rewritten in other ways that challenge what we hold dear. Many of us have been called upon to reconcile our notions of individual rights with some uncomfortable truths. Most societies have agreed to temporarily curtail some personal freedoms in a bid to "flatten the curve" and save lives. Critics of these shutdowns and self-distancing measures have drawn on eugenics to make a very different argument. For example, the Texas Lieutenant governor Dan Patrick claims that sacrificing the elderly at the altar of pestilence is a necessary evil in a bid to save the American way of life.19
Another central tenet of this way of life that the pandemic appears to compromise is "productivity." As essential workers take on longer hours at great personal risk, the rest of us are now camped at home trying to fulfill notions of productivity while navigating new challenges. For the intelligentsia, quarantine should be a perfect time to soar. Just look at the now-familiar anecdote making the rounds about Isaac Newton's tremendous productivity during months of quarantine from the bubonic plague. Yet, it's a misleading one. Newton spent much of his life actively socially distancing himself from his peers; it is not very helpful from a biographical standpoint to attribute his best revelations to a few months spent in quarantine.20 The overwhelming question now being asked befits a time of plague: why are we supposed to be productive, again?
Human experience of plague has presented opportunities for collective uncertainty and reflection at all moments in history. It has been occasion for fear mongering, a heightening of religiosity, the recalibration of our moral compass, and grand political gestures. In other words: plague is complicated. Frustratingly so for politicians and policy makers who seek to drive forward narratives that they believe the public is seeking: those full of clear villains and heroes. But nobody, to date, has provided the definitive dénouement of how and when this will all end. In the meantime, we will continue to be in search of plagues past for the comfort of certainty.
Cite this article:
"Carlyle, Margaret. 2020. In Search of Plagues Past, April 27, 2020. Formations, The University of Chicago. https://sifk.uchicago.edu/blogs/article/in-search-of-plagues-past/"
1 Tom Kertscher, "Pandemics like COVID haven’t hit exactly every 100 years, despite claim," Politifact: The Poynter Institute, April 9 2020, https://www.politifact.com/factchecks/2020/apr/09/facebook-posts/pandemics-covid-havent-hit-exactly-every-100-years/.
2 Albert Camus, La Peste (Paris: Gallimard, 1947).
3 Richard A. McKay, Patient Zero and the Making of the AIDS Epidemic (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2017).
4 Katharine R. Dean et al, "Human Ectoparasites and Spread of Plague in Europe," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115:6 (February 2018): 1304–1309.
5 Paul M. Sharp & Beatrice H. Hahn, “Origins of HIV and the AIDS pandemic,” Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Medicine 1:1 (2011).
6 Katherine Kelaidis, "What the Great Plague of Athens Can Teach Us Now," The Atlantic, March 23 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/03/great-plague-athens-has-eerie-parallels-today/608545/.
7 Ishaan Tharoor, "It's not just Trump who's angry at China," The Washington Post, April 14 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2020/04/14/its-not-just-trump-whos-angry-china/.
8 Daniel Defoe, A Journal of The Plague Year (London, 1722), https://www.gutenberg.org/files/376/376-h/376-h.htm.
9 Kylie Mohr, "Apocalypse Chow: We Tried Televangelist Jim Bakker's 'Survival Food,'" NPR, December 3 2015, https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/12/03/456677535/apocalypse-chow-we-tried-televangelist-jim-bakkers-survival-food.
10 Jason Opal, "I'm not religious. Yet in the face of coronavirus, I seek solace in prayer," The Globe and Mail, March 20 2020, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-im-not-religious-yet-in-the-face-of-coronavirus-i-seek-solace-in/.
11 Astrid Galvan & Jonathan J. Cooper, "Arizona Man Dies After Taking Chemical in Coronavirus Treatment Touted by President Trump," Time, March 23 2020, https://time.com/5808688/chloroquine-phosphate-coronavirus-death/.
12 Stephanie Hegarty, "The Chinese doctor who tried to warn others about coronavirus," BBC News, February 6 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-51403795.
13 Arman Azad, "Fauci on Trump: 'I can't jump in front of the microphone and push him down,'" CNN, March 23 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/23/politics/fauci-trump-science-interview/index.html.
14 "Coronavirus: 'We are at war' - Macron," BBC News, March 16 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/av/51917380/coronavirus-we-are-at-war-macron.
15 Caio Barretto Briso & Tom Phillips, "Brazil gangs impose strict curfews to slow coronavirus spread," The Guardian, March 25 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/25/brazil-rio-gangs-coronavirus.
16 Isobel Asher Hamilton, "Jeff Bezos Dumped $1.8 billion in Amazon stock after its share price skyrocketed," Business Insider, February 5 2020, https://www.businessinsider.com/jeff-bezos-dumps-almost-2-billion-amazon-stock-2020-2; Jon Christian, "US Senators Accused of Profiting Off Coronavirus Stock Crash," Neoscope, March 20 2020, https://futurism.com/neoscope/us-senators-accused-profiting-coronavirus-stock-crash.
17 Bryan Lufkin, "Coronavirus: The psychology of panic buying," BBC News, March 4 2020, https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20200304-coronavirus-covid-19-update-why-people-are-stockpiling.
18 Adam Gabbatt, "Why Coronavirus burials are just the latest chapter in New York's plague history," The Guardian, April 12 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/apr/12/new-york-city-burials-parks-coronavirus-plague; Jason Horowitz & Emma Bubola, "Italy's Coronavirus Victims Face Death Alone, With Funerals Postponed," New York Times, March 16 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/16/world/europe/italy-coronavirus-funerals.html.
19 Lois Beckett, "Older people would rather die than let COVID-19 harm US economy - Texas official," The Guardian, March 24 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/24/older-people-would-rather-die-than-let-covid-19-lockdown-harm-us-economy-texas-official-dan-patrick.
20 Thomas Levenson, "The Truth About Isaac Newton's Productive Plague," The New Yorker, April 6 2020, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/the-truth-about-isaac-newtons-productive-plague?fbclid=IwAR0W2bcdTqj0hrIyghb2G9mUFFPXFvhan29cDHI8vtytXhfmh0yP6CwsOpU.