Professor Rosalind Thomas, Balliol College.
COVID-19 has prompted reflection on many previous pandemics, above all the outbreaks of plague in the 17th century and the Black Death in the 14th. I want to go still further back to the great plague of Athens in the fifth century B.C., which hit the Athenians shortly after they began the great Peloponnesian War against Sparta and her allies in 431 B.C.
The Athenian plague prompted the historian Thucydides to offer in his History a full medical and secular description, so that if it occurred again, people ‘would not fail to recognise it’, as he cautiously put it. Thucydides also offered a brilliant and searing analysis of the plague’s social and mental effects, a devastation of the social order which has been noted after other pandemics. As a survivor himself, he offered as his own observation that survivors acquired immunity, the first attested (written) observation of this phenomenon. This was an absolutely catastrophic plague with a massive death-toll; the precise disease is not clearly identifiable. Can we learn anything from his account?
The death rate was far higher, of course, than our current pandemic: of the 4,000 Athenian soldiers who sailed to northern Greece, 1,050 were lost in 40 days
The ‘Athenian plague’ was not only Athenian, though we have the account of its impact only for Athens. It also hit Egypt and much of the Persian King’s territory, according to Thucydides, and it came to Athens via the Piraeus, and to the northern Aegean. The death rate was far higher, of course, than our current pandemic: of the 4,000 Athenian soldiers who sailed to northern Greece, 1,050 were lost in 40 days.
Thucydides tells of the symptoms of high fever, inflammation, sneezing, retching and spasms, and unbearable thirst, with people throwing themselves into rain-tanks, others recovering but losing extremities and even their sight or memory. He describes the dying gathering around wells, and piles of the dead lying in the streets and even in the temples. Thucydides spoke from personal experience.
There are aspects of the Athenian plague which touch our own current experience, and others which Thucydides as a student of human nature meant future generations to ponder – and to look out for again. First, there was no cure: what worked for some failed for others, and the doctors could not help.
Thucydides refers somewhat acidly to the treatment by regimen (diet etc.) which was the new Hippocratic method of the time: it had no effect and doctors died even more frequently than their patients. Second, it was made worse by the crowded conditions in Athens and in ‘the most populous places’, as Thucydides carefully pointed out.
The leading statesman Pericles had persuaded the Athenians at the outbreak of war to evacuate the countryside to within the walls of Athens, and not venture out to fight the invading army; ironically, his determination on war with Sparta but not engaging on land made the plague more destructive. Moreover, it was entirely unexpected. Even Pericles, praised for wisdom and forethought, could not foresee it, and he urged on the Athenians their hard-line stance to protect the Athenian empire, at the very height of their confidence. The plague was no respecter of persons – rich and poor died. Pericles himself died. The hoplite soldiers (fairly well-off) died and infected others. Thucydides was careful to make clear, against Hippocratic medical theory, that this was infection and had little to do with one’s way of life, medical care, or humours; nor was it affected by religious remedies.
There are aspects of the Athenian plague which touch our own current experience...First, there was no cure: what worked for some failed for others, and the doctors could not help
Thucydides offered an entirely secular vision of the plague. Its cause was terrifyingly unknown: he would leave speculation as to its causes to others, ‘if causes can be found adequate for such an upheaval’. Its nature was ‘beyond logos’ (beyond description or understanding). Many Greeks, however, would have believed that it was the god Apollo who sent the plague as punishment, and by offering a full-scale scientific description of symptoms and the course of the disease, as in the new Hippocratic methods of objective observation, Thucydides was saying that it was amenable to human enquiry and observation, and the new science of medicine (he says there was no cure, but perhaps one might hope for one eventually). His emphasis was on this detailed description, and on the social and moral effects.
Thucydides offered an entirely secular vision of the plague. Its cause was terrifyingly unknown...‘if causes can be found adequate for such an upheaval’. Its nature was ‘beyond logos’ (beyond description or understanding).
For he stresses first that the most dangerous element was the despair or dejection (athumia) which hit whenever someone felt themselves sickening, weakening their power of resistance. He stresses that those who tried to nurse the sick fell ill themselves, while those left alone died of neglect.
Thucydides then traces the corrosion of the social order and moral values as people abandoned the proper formalities of burial. There was the onset of ‘anomia’, literally ‘lawlessness’ or unconcern for customs and tradition. This passage has had deep influence on later plague descriptions: ‘men dared to do what formally they had done in secret’, seeing the same disaster hitting all alike, ‘those of good fortune dying suddenly and those with nothing taking their possessions’.
Bodies and possessions were alike ephemeral and so men turned to enjoyment: ‘neither fear of the gods nor human law held people back’, no one feared eventual coming to justice, for they would probably not live to see it. And so in this darkest of passages, Thucydides re-calibrates contemporary debates about the nature of religious belief and the purpose of punishment to trace the beginnings of the decline of social order.
In this darkest of passages, Thucydides re-calibrates contemporary debates about the nature of religious belief and the purpose of punishment to trace the beginnings of the decline of social order
It should be stressed how remarkably original this analysis was at the time: no writer had tried to analyse the collapse of social norms in this way. It is such an uncompromising picture that some scholars have thought it must be a little exaggerated, but that denies the value of the astute eye-witness. We recall that this occurred at the height of Athenian prosperity and confidence: the era of the Acropolis temples and the intellectual ferment visible in Athenian tragedy, comedy, philosophy and the radical democracy. Not everything collapsed, though there was an immediate effect of acute demoralisation, while longer-term effects might be harder to calibrate - what Thucydides saw as a long-term malaise and loss of integrity.
The contrast with our own experience is stark. The Coronavirus has brought out a vast reservoir of individual sacrifice for others, mutual respect and responsibility for the greater good (some, no doubt, taking advantage also). But two points stand out. Even in Thucydides’ dark description, there was humanity: he does say that the doctors tried to tend the sick (only they died too – as now); he does say that friends and family tried to look after each other (only they died). Indeed in a ray of hope, he explains that people were best tended and cheered by those who had the plague and survived, for they ‘knew in advance’ and were unafraid, and indeed the survivors entertained the ‘empty hope’ that they would never again fall ill. So there were numerous self-sacrificing and pitying helpers and they were only brought low by the disease itself. He hints perhaps that at least if you know in advance, it might not be so unbearable next time.
There was no state response, no health system, no public health knowledge or policy: the Athenian democracy was sophisticated, but on the matter of the plague, this was a do-it-yourself...response
And finally, there was no state response, no health system, no public health knowledge or policy: the Athenian democracy was sophisticated, but on the matter of the plague, this was a do-it-yourself, entirely private response. As far as we know, the only public, official response on the part of the Athenians was to purify the sacred island of Delos and introduce the cult of the healing god Asclepius.
It was through close observation that Thucydides deduced the operation of what we call ‘acquired immunity’
It was through close observation that Thucydides deduced the operation of what we call ‘acquired immunity’, and he was surely offering a rival theory to the nascent science of medicine around Hippocrates.
The other lasting lesson from this historian who wished readers to interpret the future by means of an accurate knowledge of the past, was about human nature: the reactions of human beings in the face of catastrophe and inexplicable death, and the wider effects on social values, morality and the scaffolding of justice. He was careful to say later that war itself also had corrosive effects, but that was humanly contrived and in some respect avoidable; the plague was completely unexpected and a force of nature. So in the end he teaches us to expect profound changes on the level of individuals’ reactions and wider social values in the face of huge upheaval; and on the state level to expect the unexpected – and hope for good government when it hits. The Athenians continued the war anyway.
COVID-19 sent the global public back to more trusted news sources and more people than ever are paying for news from leading organisations, according to this year’s Digital News Report from Oxford’s Reuters Institute. But, the Institute believes, a shift to social media and mobile platforms remains the underlying trend in news consumption.
Based on research in 40 markets around the world, the Reuters’ report gives a snapshot of the state of news before and during the pandemic. The Institute found that COVID-19 saw a major increase in all age groups watching TV news, as people sought reliable information. The report shows, social media and online sites also saw significant increases, although newspaper sales – adversely affected by the lockdown have declined. But trusted brands have done ‘disproportionately well’ online.
According to the Institute, ‘The change of underlying preferences is even more clear when we ask people to choose their main source of news. The UK shows a 20-percentage-point switch in preference from online to TV between the end of January and the start of April.’
The report reveals, ‘Industry data also indicate strong traffic increases for online news with the most trusted brands often benefiting disproportionately. The BBC reported its biggest week ever for UK visitors, with more than 70 million unique browsers as the lockdown came into effect.’
Although most surveying was done at the beginning of the year, the Institute carried out additional research in April, to see the impact of the pandemic. It reveals, ‘At around the peak of the lockdowns, trust in news organisations around COVID-19 was running at more than twice that for social media, video sites and messaging applications where around four in ten see information as untrustworthy.’
However, the Institute found, subscriptions soared to well-known news organisations, which have gone behind ‘paywalls’, even before the virus. In the US, during 2019, there was a 4% increase to 20% of people paying for online news, while in Norway there was an 8% rise to 42%. On average, some 26% in Nordic countries now pay for news subscriptions.
In the UK, the biggest subscription brand is The Times, which was first to go behind a paywall, with 39% share of the subscription market. The Telegraph has a 20% share. Meanwhile, in the US, where local papers are important players in the news market, the New York Times has a 39% share of the market and the Washington Post holds 31%, just ahead of local papers on 30%.
In the UK, the biggest subscription brand is The Times, with 39% share of the subscription market. The Telegraph has a 20% share. Meanwhile, in the US, the New York Times has a 39% share of the market and the Washington Post holds 31%
But, according to the report, ‘A large number of people remain perfectly content with the news they can access for free and we observe a very high proportion of non-subscribers (40% in the US and 50% in the UK) who say that nothing could persuade them to pay.’
Rasmus Nielsen, the report co-editor, says, ‘We see clear evidence that distinct, premium news publishers are able to convince a growing number of people to pay for quality news online. But most people are not paying for online news, and given the abundance of freely available alternatives, it is not clear why they would. In such a competitive market, only truly outstanding journalism can convince people to pay.’
Nic Newman, senior research associate, at the Reuters Institute, writes ‘Journalism matters and is in demand again. But one problem for publishers is that this extra interest is producing even less income...it is likely we’ll see a further drive towards digital subscription and other reader payment models which have shown considerable promise in the last few years.’
Journalism matters and is in demand again
He adds, ‘Looking to the future, publishers are increasingly recognising that long-term survival is likely to involve stronger and deeper connection with audiences online.’
A major concern among the Institute’s responders was misinformation, but while Facebook was seen as unreliable by a third, accredited journalists are not generally perceived to be the problem. Before the peak of the pandemic, more than half of Reuters’ global sample said they were ‘concerned about what is true or false on the internet’. Globally, journalists were seen as unreliable by 13%, but at the top of the list were politicians, with 40% believing they provide false or misleading information. And Facebook aroused concern among 29%.
Trust is a major issue. According to the report, ‘In our January poll, across all 40 markets, less than four in ten (38%) said they trust ‘most news most of the time’
Trust is a major issue. According to the report, ‘In our January poll, fewer than four in ten (38%) said they trust ‘most news most of the time’ – a fall of four percentage points from 2019. Less than half (46%) said they trust the news they use themselves while trust in search (32%) and social media (22%) is even lower.’
Finland is most trusting, with some 56% saying they trust most news most of the time. Ireland registers 48% trust, Germany 45% Australia 38%. But US responders registered news trust levels of less than 30% and the UK, following Brexit and a bruising General Election, registered 28% – with trust levels in France at just 24%. According to the Institute, ‘Our survey shows that the majority (60%) still prefer news that has no particular point of view.’
A significant minority (28%) prefer news that shares or reinforces their views
But it found a significant minority (28%) prefer news that shares or reinforces their views, ‘Partisan preferences have slightly increased in the United States since we last asked this question in 2013 but even here a silent majority seems to be looking for news that at least tries to be objective.’
In the US, ‘Both politics and the media have become increasingly partisan over the years, we do find an increase in the proportion of people who say they prefer news that shares their point of view – up six percentage points since 2013 to 30%. This is driven by people on the far-left and the far-right who have both increased their preference for partial news sources.
Initially at least, COVID-19 did provide a boost for news but this fell away, once news organisations turned to more critical reporting, ‘Subsequent polling...shows that the COVID-19 crisis did temporarily increase trust levels in the news media in the early stages of lockdown...this has fallen almost as quickly as the media has stepped up its criticism of government and official handling of the pandemic.’
The report emphasises, ‘While the COVID-19 crisis has reinforced the need for reliable and trusted news, the report argues that the next 12 months are likely to see significant changes in the media environment as severe economic pressures combine with political uncertainty and further consumer shifts to digital, social and mobile environments.’
But it concludes, ‘The COVID-19 lockdown has reminded us both of the value of media that bring us together, as well as the power of digital networks that connect us to those we know and love personally....’
The COVID-19 lockdown has reminded us both of the value of media that bring us together, as well as the power of digital networks that connect us to those we know and love personally
However, ‘The biggest impact of the virus is likely to be economic...The coronavirus crisis is driving a cyclical downturn in the economy hurting every publisher, especially those based on advertising, and likely to further accelerate existing structural changes to a more digital media environment...Reader payment alternatives such as subscription, membership, and donations will move centre stage, but as our research shows, this is likely to benefit a relatively small number of highly trusted national titles as well as smaller niche and partisan media brands....
‘Despite this, there are some signs of hope. The COVID-19 crisis has clearly demonstrated the value of reliable trusted news to the public but also to policymakers...and others who could potentially act to support independent news media. The creativity of journalists has also come to the fore...Fact-checking has become even more central to newsroom operations, boosting digital literacy more widely and helping to counter the many conspiracy theories swirling on social media and elsewhere.’
The figures are from a YouGov online survey conducted at the end of January, early Feburary in 40 countries of 80,155 adults (around 2,000 per country).
The COVID-19 pandemic has increased public awareness of the extent to which society - from farms to care homes - relies on the availability of a low-wage workforce.
The COVID-19 pandemic has increased public awareness of the extent to which society - from farms to care homes - relies on the availability of a low-wage workforce
Media coverage during the coronavirus crisis has, in many cases, highlighted the risks to which these workers are exposed, alongside the low pay and difficult working conditions they endure (such as lack of personal protective equipment). In recent months, delivery drivers, food producers, and supermarket staff have been recognised as ‘key’ workers. Many of those lower-waged occupations, which have been acknowledged as essential in the crisis, are heavily dependent on migrant workers.
Many of those lower-waged occupations, which have been acknowledged as essential in the crisis, are heavily dependent on migrant workers
In this context, it is important to ask if, and how, future immigration policies should take account of the lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic? This question is important for countries around the world but, at the moment, it is particularly relevant for the UK.
The COVID-19 emergency comes at a time when the UK is on the verge of shifting to a new immigration system, when the Brexit transition period comes to an end.
The selection process of immigration systems and essential workers
Immigration systems in high-income countries are typically more open towards workers in higher-paid jobs, while imposing restrictions on those coming to work in lower-paid occupations.
For example, work visas for high-skilled jobs are less likely to be restricted by numerical caps and requirements to look locally first for workers. They will often have a path to permanent residence and citizenship. By contrast, employers recruiting migrant workers in low-skilled jobs will face more complex bureaucracy, such as detailed regulations on pay and working conditions. There may be a maximum stay and no path to permanent status. So, in many cases, immigration into ‘essential’ but low-pay jobs is strongly restricted.
In many cases, immigration into ‘essential’, but low-pay jobs, is strongly restricted
Currently, the UK imposes strong restrictions on immigration for work purposes from outside the European Union, while EU nationals enjoy free movement for work purposes. As a consequence, during the pandemic, EU nationals have played major roles in ‘essential’ low wage sectors of the economy. For example, a large majority of seasonal harvest workers in the UK come from the EU. This workforce is essential, since significant labour shortages in the sector could threaten the UK food supply.
However, free movement will soon end and the UK Government is proposing to restrict substantially the immigration of EU nationals into jobs that are not considered high-skilled.
How would this affect the supply of essential workers in the UK?
Many essential workers from the EU, including NHS nurses and doctors, are likely to be eligible for visas under the proposed immigration system. Obviously, there is a question of whether as many would still be interested in living in the UK, given the different immigration status conditions. We will soon find out. But many other essential workers from the EU, such as those in social care or food manufacturing, are less likely to qualify for a visa.
Many essential workers from the EU, including NHS nurses and doctors, are likely to be eligible for visas under the proposed immigration system...But many other essential workers from the EU, such as those in social care or food manufacturing, are less likely to qualify for a visa
Estimates vary of the share of current workers in essential occupations who do not meet the proposed post-Brexit visa requirements. The discrepancy comes, in part, because there is no unique definition of an ‘essential’ worker.
In a recent paper, I wrote with colleagues Madeleine Sumption and Marina Fernandez-Reino, we find that 53% of EU-born and 42% of non-EU-born full-time employees, in essential occupations in the UK, do not meet the proposed requirements for a work visa. The Migration Observatory updated these numbers using a slightly different definition provided by the UK’s Office for National Statistics and found similar shares: 58% for EU-born and 49% for non-EU-born workers.
Will the pandemic change UK policymakers’ views about how essential workers should be treated in the post-Brexit immigration system?
The current pandemic might convince some policymakers that some industries have strategic value and need special access to a sufficient workforce - so they are in a position to provide essential goods and services in case of a new pandemic or a second wave.
The current pandemic might convince some policymakers that some industries have strategic value and need special access to a sufficient workforce - so they are in a position to provide essential goods and services in case of a new pandemic or a second wave
This could see support for that rationale in post-Brexit immigration policy planning. But the current pandemic provides little guidance on more fine-grained questions, such as which industries should be considered ‘strategic’, in terms of the immigration system.
Others might point out that the current emergency has led to worker lay-offs in other industries – so there is more potential than usual to hire within the domestic labour market. But, while this sounds like a straightforward solution, in the past, even in periods of high domestic unemployment, many employers have still preferred to recruit from abroad. The reasons behind those preferences are complex, but there is evidence that migrants are particularly targeted for jobs that are riskier or require greater physical intensity.
Deciding between these, and other options, is not straightforward and involves a major degree of subjectivity. Expect much more debate on these issues over the next few months.
Carlos Vargas-Silva, Director and Associate Professor, Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS), University of Oxford
A legion of aspiring novelists may have written it. But who is going to read the fiction of the lockdown? It is painful. It is personal. And, we have all lived it. Will we want to read about it, wonders Oxford Literature Professor Marina Mackay? It may be a very long time, she says, before we want to read about the pandemic – or before the definitive work is written.
But the stuffed inboxes of literary agents stand testament to a creative surge among the population, as thousands of aspiring writers have eschewed learning a language or practising the piano during lockdown, in favour of writing literature. In the last few weeks, agents report, a tsunami of long-neglected manuscripts has fallen on a stunned publishing industry, which weakly predicts a second wave in the autumn, as ‘great coronavirus novels’ are completed.
In the last few weeks, agents report, a tsunami of long-neglected manuscripts has fallen on a stunned publishing industry, which weakly predicts a second wave in the autumn, as ‘great coronavirus novels’ are completed
A few new writers, maybe even some literary stars, could emerge from the pandemic, having had the time to write. But it is a notoriously fickle field, with the chances of a first time novel being published traditionally ‘very slim’.
A pantheon of poets, including Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves, emerged from the First World War, speaking of the senseless sacrifice of a generation and of something bigger than themselves. There could be parallels with under-protected NHS staff. But while much of the language around COVID-19 has been of war – particularly, the Second World War, Professor Mackay says, in terms of literature, the current pandemic has more potential links to catastrophe stories, rather than traditional war fiction.
War writing is usually set against the background of conflict – energy and action are central to the experience and there is often a question lingering as to whether someone had a ‘good war’. Frequently, there is also a focus on whether the Government is handling the war well, whether they could do something different to make it all go away. In the case of COVID-19, although different measures could and have been taken in different countries, the pervading sense of powerlessness in the face of a pandemic, lends itself more to catastrophe fiction.
In terms of literature the current pandemic has more potential links to catastrophe stories, rather than traditional war fiction
Previously, it has also taken decades for classic war novels and memoirs to emerge. And war literature often comes from a sideways angle, says Professor Mackay. The Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene was published in 1943, but was set against the background of the war, rather than being a personal account. Memoirs of harrowing events often come decades later. Some, such as The Forgotten Highlander, Alastair Urquhart tale of the Far Eastern war, were published 70 years later.
There is always a lag with a novel,’ says Professor Mackay. While the First World War is renowned for poetry, it took many years before what we think of as the definitive fiction appeared. It was a decade before All Quiet on the Western Front, by Eric Remarque, was published, detailing the impact of the Great war on German soldiers.
It is not just the time it takes to write a book, though. ‘After World War II, people didn’t want to read about it,’ says Professor Mackay.
And, for most people, the pandemic has been a time of inaction, ‘The drama has taken place behind closed doors,’ she says. ‘There have been personal tragedies, but they have been hidden away.’
There have been absurdities, says the professor, wondering what sort of fiction could emerge from this, but, ‘For the most part, for most people, it has been monotonous but not necessarily literary.’
There are precedents of writing of wearisome experience. Published in 1947, The Plague by Albert Camus, is a fictional account of an epidemic, which can also be taken as a symbol for the German occupation of France, ‘The furious revolt of the first weeks had given place to a vast despondency, not to be taken for resignation, though it was none the less a sort of passive and provisional acquiescence.’
There are precedents of writing of wearisome experience...The Plague by Albert Camus is a fictional account of an epidemic, which can also be taken as a symbol for the German occupation of France
Professor Mackay speculates that there could be stories ‘framed against the altruism and selfishness’ that has been exposed by the pandemic. But she says, ‘This will be unlike classic war writing...there is an unreality and an absurdity out there.’
‘There have been moments of bathos,’ according to Professor Mackay. ‘At the beginning we had the hoarding of loo rolls, then we heard about trips to Barnard Castle....We failed in all sorts of ways. It has not been our finest hour.’
Although there has been tragedy, a majority of people have not been heroic and have had no adventures, inside their own homes. And it is unlikely there will be an appetite to read about how someone feels about being locked-down, when we are relishing new freedoms. Professor Mackay, who has written extensively about war fiction, points out that, in catastrophe writing, people feel powerless in the face of ‘impending doom’.
Many books of the 1950s and 60s were framed against such a background, as the world lived through the nuclear build-up and the Cold War. It led to a whole genre, including The Day of the Triffids, by John Wyndham and, although HG Wells’s War of the Worlds was written in the 19th century, it was made into a radio play, a film and even inspired a musical in the second half of the 20th century, as expressions of powerlessness.
Maybe there will be a three-part mini-series about SAGE? Or, perhaps, we will return to cinemas to see the Rock find out Who caused Coronavirus? or Coronavirus: The Movie?
Catastrophe stories are very much in vogue. Recent years have seen numerous disaster movies, from Independence Day in 1996 to Contagion in 2011 and Geostorm in 2017.
Personal experience of the pandemic, written in these early days, may not be the stuff of literary agents’ dreams or Hollywood blockbusters. But agency and plot could be found in the search for a vaccine or in the political intrigue or scientific arguments and disputes. Maybe there will be a three-part mini-series about SAGE? Or, perhaps, we will return to cinemas to see the Rock find out Who caused Coronavirus? or maybe we will watch Coronavirus: The Movie?
Professor Mackay is the author of several books on war writing, most recently, Modernism, War and Violence and Ian Watt: The novel and the wartime critic.
Racial and class-based divisions, economic strife and extreme politics have all followed pandemics in history, as suffering populations and authorities have sought answers and scapegoats for their plight. Whatever tensions or problems existed, epidemics have found them, sharpened them and they have come into the open as the illness receded - from the Black Death in 1348 to the plague of 1665 from the 19th century cholera epidemics and the 1918 flu to HIV/AIDS. Many large-scale outbreaks of disease have resulted in scapegoating of minorities and been followed by prolonged civil unrest.
But Oxford Professor of Medical History, Mark Harrison says, ‘When there has been extremism and tensions [following an epidemic], they have already existed....Epidemics in themselves don’t cause tensions, they expose them....The lesson of history is that epidemics accentuate problems and bring them into the open.’
When there has been extremism and tensions [following an epidemic], they have already existed....Epidemics in themselves don’t cause tensions, they expose them
The effects can be dramatic, as evident in even recent years: in 1986, the Duvalier family, which had ruled Haiti for nearly three decades, was swept from power after the country's economy was brought to its knees in the midst of the AIDs crisis. Jean-Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier, who took power after his father's death in 1971, had previously enjoyed overseas backing for his regime. But panic around the condition was widespread in the mid-1980s and the Haitians were made a 'special risk factor group'. The impact of that decision on the Haitian population and on 'Baby Doc' was enormous. The nation's travel industry collapsed virtually overnight and with it went the precarious economy. Haitians are perceived to have been doubly victimised: first by the import of HIV/AIDS from the US and then by the stigmatisation of Haitians. But the link with AIDs, and the action taken of naming the nation, saw the unpopular Haitian regime driven from power after nearly 30 years in charge and 'Baby Doc' leave for exile.
In earlier centuries, there have been a variety of responses to pandemics and epidemics - some have been extreme, even heinous, others have followed as a consequence of the illness and the loss of life. Six centuries before the Duvaliers were forced out of Haiti, the Black Death of 1348 saw anything from one third to a half of Europe's population wiped out, as plague raged across the Continent. The enormous magnitude of the crisis, saw a complete change in the social landscape and, in the aftermath, there were horrific anti-Semitic attacks across Europe. Rumours and wild accusations led to populations and their rulers looking for scapegoats - and to cancel debts and seize Jewish property - and there are records of appalling attacks on whole communities.
Scapegoating of communities or individuals, has followed in the wake of other pandemics, as people have sought answers or simply to punish those they hold responsible. But reports from 1349, also show that a penitent movement, the flagellants, developed, comprising survivors of the pandemic. They moved from country to country flogging themselves in public, to atone for their sins - which, it was feared, had caused the Black Death.
The Black Death of 1348 saw anything from one third to one half of Europe's population wiped out...and, in the aftermath of the plague, horrific anti-Semitic attacks across Europe
Long term impacts
After the initial horror, the Black Death had a long-term impact on the social fabric of Europe. With so many peasants losing their lives, the epidemic was followed by a labour shortage and wage inflation. Since the lower classes were able to command greater rewards for their work, the days of peasants being tied to a master's land were largely gone. It effectively proved to be the end to serfdom in England, with peasants, who were previously unable to leave their master's lands, seeking better opportunities and more money in towns. For those who survived the pandemic, it meant the possibility of mobility and a better standard of living. There was such concern among the ruling class, about the increase in wages and peasants roaming the country searching for better job opportunities, that the 1350 Statute of Labourers' Act was enacted. This made it illegal to receive higher wages than had been offered in 1346, ‘the twentieth year of our reign of King Edward III’.
There is also evidence, says Professor Harrison and fellow medical historian Dr Claas Kirchhelle, that suffering and epidemics bring communities together, across cultural and class divides, as they combine to fight illness and prevent outbreaks. Responses to the same pandemic have also differed in different countries, with some looking to blame while other populations reacted with cooperation. The Spanish were not held responsible for the Spanish Flu, which had not originated in the Iberian peninsula anyway. And, according to Dr Kirchhelle, 'The third plague pandemic saw different faiths and ethnicities in the cosmopolitan Egyptian city of Alexandria come together to take communal health action.'
Around the world, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has manifested in populations spontaneously coming together in song or in support of healthcare workers. In countries, such as Germany, where there was an effective initial response to the pandemic, recent opinion polls indicate a rise of trust in government parties and a decline in support for opposition parties and the far right - despite individual acts of militancy. But, in the US, some groups have been demanding the lifting of restrictions, in the face of lockdowns, and at the same time there has been criticism of the handling of the epidemic and inequalities.
According to Professor Harrison, much depends on how the pandemic is handled by governments and whether this is seen to be fair or furthering inequality. We are yet to see the aftermath of COVID-19 but, Professor Harrison says, there is already evidence of a ‘backlash’ with many attacks on 5G installations and online conspiracy theories receiving more-than-usual attention and support. He maintains, ’In some previous cases [in history], governments have inflamed tensions. [In other cases] it has been economic effects or class or racial/ethnic tensions.’
Professor Harrison adds, ‘The 5G attacks aren't simply based on conspiracy theories, but have been conducted by people who appear to see the communications infrastructure as a form of oppression and want to hinder a return to normality.’
The 5G attacks aren't simply based on conspiracy theories but have been conducted by people who appear to see the communications infrastructure as a form of oppression and want to hinder a return to normality
Throughout history, populations have sometimes responded dramatically to the problems faced by illness within their society. In London of 1665, which was riven by plague, there were riots and attacks on the authorities. People flouted restrictions on movement and deep social divisions were exposed as the wealthy classes fled, leaving poorer people in the plague-ridden capital. But, once the danger was over, people flocked back to London. According to Samuel Pepys, ‘Now the plague is abated almost to nothing… to our great joy, the town fills apace, and shops begin to be open again’.
‘Inequality became an issue in 1665,’ says Professor Harrison. ‘And the cholera epidemics of the 19th century exacerbated tensions between the working class and governments in Paris and Moscow.’
But what causes huge upheaval in one country, will not necessarily be reflected in others. According to Dr Kirchhelle, the cholera pandemics also inspired significant collective action for public health. While initial British responses to cholera were unstructured, the period between the 1850s and 1890s saw different cities, local authorities, and successive national governments decide to construct large-scale affordable water, sanitation, and hygiene systems throughout Britain. Financed by cheap credit and local taxation, citizens took great pride in their collectively-built and owned health infrastructure.
Responses and reactions
Ultimately, Professor Harrison maintains, ‘Situations in different countries, lead to different outcomes....What should concern us about the present pandemic is the longer term impact, the economic impact.’
He says, ‘Class and ethnicity can become an issue, if there is perceived to be an unequal impact of a disease and the way it is handled...If poor people are seen to be more at risk and if the lockdown is felt more by them, then it can lead to tensions.'
Key to the likely response, will be the measures brought in to deal with easing the restrictions. Sensitive ‘policing coupled with targeted aid for vulnerable communities becomes really important’
While public support of collective symbols such as the National Health Service is at an all-time high, we are already seeing significant concerns about the disproportionate effects of the pandemic in poorer urban areas and British Asian and Middle Eastern communities, says Dr Kirchhelle.
‘There could also be a perception of a generational divide, (which is already there in our society) and those most likely to break measures are youths and young adults,’ Professor Harrison maintains. ‘They already resent the lockdown and the economic measures. It is a toxic mixture.’
Key to the likely response, says Professor Harrison, will be the measures brought in to deal with easing the restrictions. Sensitive ‘policing coupled with targeted aid for vulnerable communities becomes really important’.
Rumours and theories are often rife in times of epidemics, more so now because of the easy international methods of communication. According to Professor Harrison, ‘In previous epidemics, rumours have expressed a social truth of marginalisation...and they can become a focus for action.’
He has concerns about potential for scapegoating communities, ‘There is disinformation on all sides at the moment...but in previous epidemics, countries have become concerned about other countries who were seen to be taking advantage of the situation.’
Professor Harrison says, ‘In the 1890s, the European powers imposed heavy quarantines and embargoes [because of cholera] against their competitors. But these became untenable over time. Their economies were interconnected and they had to work together....And it led to the first international sanitary agreements.’
Both academics hope for a similar response to the COVID-19 crisis, with the best way out of the current and future pandemics lying in rapid, transparent, and collective international action to coordinate public health interventions, develop effective diagnostics, vaccines, and therapeutics, and protect vulnerable communities. According to Professor Harrison, ‘This probably will come about because of shared economic interests, but it won't happen immediately in all sectors.’