The book that caught my attention was called Rats, Lice, and History. It sat on the shelf at eye level where I used to sit and study in the public library. I thought the title was hilarious. After a few years, it occurred to me that I could check it out and read it. To my surprise, it was not a dense scholarly tome but rather an engaging piece of darkly comic commercial nonfiction.
The premise: Epidemiology has a huge impact on history and human culture.
By that we mean the spread of contagious diseases. You know, like now.
I’ve been getting worried notes from friends and I thought I might as well share my perspective as an historian with a long-standing fascination with epidemics. It’s pretty bleak, I won’t lie, but humanity has bounced back from mass plagues many times.
Justinian plague - and now we have the internet
Black Death - and now we have, well, now we have streptomycin
Spanish Flu (actually from Kansas) 1918 - and now we have a Mars rover
Did you know that leprosy and bubonic plague are endemic? These contagions were absolutely terrifying in the past, and they are still here as pathogens, so what happened?
As usual, a number of things: increased knowledge, better sanitation, better nutrition, antibiotics... and simply the fact that we are descended from the survivors. Two hundred years from now, our progeny probably won’t even know what COVID-19 was. For them it will be weak sauce.
What about today, though?
I’m sorry to say that we have plenty of evidence available from living memory. (‘Living memory’ means that someone is alive right now who can tell you about something from direct personal experience).
At worst, an epidemic, just like a war, leaves a deep and dark stain on history. Every person loses at least one person from their closest circle, and sometimes an entire family can be taken out in days. Burials become a serious logistical problem. Supply chains collapse and it becomes very difficult to find food or any other material goods.
Britain did austerity for eight years after the end of WWII.
In the Nineteenth Century, tuberculosis was responsible for something like 30% of all mortality. (Depending on where and when). It mainly hit people in their youth, 15-44. That doesn’t include all the other contagious diseases like smallpox or measles. For most of human history, chances of a baby living to age 7 were so poor that a lot of cultures didn’t bother naming their kids until they were toddlers.
In many ways, we in the Twenty-First Century are wildly, unfathomably lucky. Not only did we survive infancy, but our lifespan is double what it would have been in the Victorian era. DOUBLE!
Nobody wants to hear perspective on forced gratitude, though, in general and especially not when everyone is in grave danger. History doesn’t really matter on the individual level. Your personal risk of dying from something is either zero or 100%.
Now for the interesting news.
Okay, an argument could be made that the Justinian plague plunged Europe into the Dark Ages (500 words, due Friday, cite your sources). Remember, readers of these words are not only literate but benefiting from the existence of the internet. We made it through.
Extra credit question: What made the Dark Ages dark?
There is another argument that the Black Death was what finally ended feudalism.
So many people died that labor became scarce. Survivors could negotiate for legal rights, higher pay, and better working conditions. Aristocrats who didn’t like it could either come to the table or start doing their own scutwork. Serfs up.
Here we are again. Service workers are either being barred from going to work, or required to go in even at mortal risk. We depend on them and we also give them the least rewards, such as access to health care, paid sick time, or financial security in old age.
That’s, ah, probably going to change.
Broad social currents are really only observable in hindsight. We can guess at what future humans will think about our era, if they think about us at all, but we can’t really know unless we’re there to experience it ourselves.
I can say right now, though, that Boccaccio would have recognized the blindingly foolish behavior of everyone who went out to go buckwild the weekend before St. Patrick’s Day during the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s what people do. They run amok like a bunch of morons, rioting, fornicating in the streets, getting falling-down drunk, running around naked. The wheels always fall off the party bus.
Again, though... we survive this stuff. Humans are resilient. Culture is too. Stoic philosophy, for instance, has been in constant use for millennia. (It’s what works in harsh times).
What am I expecting to see in my little household?
Ugh, I don’t even want to tell you, but I promised. It’s BS to wait until after the fact to say that you saw something coming. Future predictions are almost always completely wrong, nay, ludicrously wrong. Maybe it’s good luck to put my concerns into print?
Rationing (i.e. one per customer), including food, medical supplies, and other material goods
Total unavailability of certain categories of product
A thriving black market
People waiting in line all day for something like a single loaf of bread
Economic, um... opportunities? 😬
On the other hand, I also expect to see incredible resilience and feats of courage. Times of crisis are often the making of the greatest among us. There’s a strong correlation, for instance, between major achievement and people who lost a parent in childhood. Crisis deals out trauma with one hand and builds strong families and leaders with the other. Grit, resilience, and thrift could be ours.
Can’t trade them in for bread or toilet paper, but hey.
The other good news is that it looks like surviving childhood illness and/or famine may actually contribute to greater longevity. There are a record number of centenarians alive today, and they all survived some rough decades, including the Great Depression of the 1930s.
It could be that a month from now, we’re all laughing off what was a very scary first quarter of 2020. Or, it could be that this is just the beginning of a major watershed, after which everything will be totally transformed. We are in the middle of the Place of Uncertainty. Those who do not understand history will be condemned to repeat it. When we are prepared to learn our lessons, though, we can move forward quite rapidly.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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