If you reflect on life right now, I’m sure you’d find a mixture of good and not so good. For example, I’m enjoying the slower pace of life, even though my workload has increased. On the downside, people have lost jobs, businesses have closed, and some people are doing it tough. There’s also the question of what’s on the other side of the COVID Crisis.
This question has led me to dig into history (I LOVE history) and see what happened after previous pandemics. By writing this blog, I am not intending to downplay the negative side of COVID-19. I acknowledge that people are getting sick, dying, losing work, experiencing loneliness, and myriad other adverse effects. But every cloud has a silver lining, and that is borne out by history.
A Look Back in Time
For example, the Antonine Plague (165-180), which may have been Smallpox, ended the Pax Romana and destabilised the Roman Empire, but also led to an increase in the popularity of the Christian faith. In unstable times people look for something firm to cling to. I pray this will be true of the current crisis too.
The Black Death (1346-1353) wiped out half of Europe’s population and changed the course of Europe’s history ending the feudal system. With so many dead, workers were harder to find. This led to better pay and conditions. Survivors also had access to higher-quality bread and to meat. Not as much land was needed to grow crops for a diminished population. So, more land was dedicated to livestock. These changes led to an increase in health and lifespan. The labour shortage also contributed to technological innovation.
“The taste of better living conditions for the poor would not be forgotten. A few decades later, when lords tried to revert back to the old ways, there were peasant revolts throughout Europe and the lower classes maintained their new freedoms and better pay.”
The Black Death became the catalyst to improve hygiene and introduce quarantine procedures. Although the Black Death would reappear about once a decade, outbreaks were much smaller because of lessons learned and practices implemented. Mobility increased, and, for a time, wars ceased.
The Lasting Effects of an Epidemic
Isaac Chotiner, the author of Epidemics and Society, says, “Epidemics are a category of disease that seem to hold up the mirror to human beings as to who we really are. That is to say, they obviously have everything to do with our relationship to our mortality, to death, to our lives. They also reflect our relationships with the environment.” He goes on to explain that Pandemics remind us that what affects one person affects us all. In the current pandemic, we are experiencing a greater sense of social cohesion that we’re all in this together.
Chotiner speaks about the end of chattel slavery in the New World as a direct result of the yellow fever pandemic. “When Napoleon sent the great armada to restore slavery in Haiti, the slave rebellion succeeded because the slaves from Africa had immunity that white Europeans who were in Napoleon’s army didn’t have. It led to Haitian independence. Also, if one thinks from the American point of view, this was what led to Napoleon’s decision to abandon projecting French power in the New World and therefore to agree, with Thomas Jefferson, in 1803, to the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the United States.”
Pandemics, as with all crises, see an increase in creativity with art, music, books, movies, and plays all springing from themes of social solidity, life and death, pain and sorrow, and even comedy. Indeed, the Black Death paved the way for the Renaissance and the Reformation, as well as the rise of a Middle Class.
What About the Environment?
Then there are the environmental benefits. According to one study published last year, European colonisation killed so many people in the 16th and early 17th centuries that the reduced human footprint in one hemisphere of the planet may have actually led to temperatures dropping in a period of global cooling.
While I’m not suggesting that this tragic loss of life was a good thing, it is interesting how we humans have such a vast and often destructive influence upon our environment. Already in the current pandemic, photos have circulated online about the transformation of cities, countries, and rivers due to decreased human activity. Whether this has long-term benefits awaits to be seen, but it’s astonishing to witness a “decrease in the level of global air pollution, water pollution has begun to clear and natural wildlife is starting to appear as if they are coming out of hiding.” “Air pollution provokes around 8.8 million premature deaths which has led experts to believe the reduction in pollution may have helped save more lives during the coronavirus threat, especially in China.” The current pandemic has taught us that we can change our behaviour and that the environment responds quickly to some love and care. The entire world can benefit from these changes.
What the Church Can Do
Today, “We are starkly facing our fragility and mortality,” according to Cristina Bicchieri, a professor of philosophy and psychology from the University of Pennsylvania, and an expert on social norms. “During our wars, our enemies were 3,000 miles away.” Today, Bicchieri said, the foe is fighting us on our own soil. “And that is a much different experience.” She stressed that some good can be derived from hard times: “We are spending more time with family, and we can rediscover the important things that made us families in the first place. In the end, that can bring positive feelings we take with us as we learn to survive this unusual moment.”
Historian Gary Ferngren points out that the only care for the sick during a smallpox-like epidemic in 312 A.D. was provided by Christians. The church even hired grave diggers to bury those who died in the streets.
For centuries, Christians have extended hospitality toward minorities and the potentially infected. This is a central expression of the Christian faith and undergirds the practice of modern medicine. There was a time when people did not unconditionally take care of the sick. The word hospitality (from which we get hospital), comes from the Latin lospes meaning “host” or “guest.” The first example of a hospital arose from medieval monasteries. These institutions were centred around the principle that to serve the suffering stranger was to serve Christ himself (Mathew 25:31-46). May we emulate their care and concern for others during the current crisis.