COVID Through the Eyes of Historians: Kathryn Reyerson

Professor Kathryn Reyerson discusses COVID-19 and its relation to pandemics through the ages

COVID-19 joins a variety of infectious diseases that have attacked humankind throughout history: smallpox, tuberculosis, cholera, yellow fever, typhus, typhoid fever, influenza, AIDS, and, most recently, viruses like MERS and SARS. Plague in the form of the bacillus Yersinia pestis has been particularly devastating over time, coming in three pandemics in the Common Era. The human suffering from the plague was tremendous. At the time of the Black Death, 1347-1353 CE, one bereaved father stated that he had buried his five children with his own hands. Bodies were abandoned as whole households died, and the call echoed through the streets of European towns “Bring out your dead.” Some of the responses during the Black Death are repeated today: flight from cities, quarantines, social distancing. There is the tale of a notary in Provence who climbed a tree to write a last will and testament for a client. Mortality in Europe was 50-60%, depending on the location. Othering, scapegoating, paralysis, despair, pleas for divine mercy, Flagellants, and the dance of death characterized the European response. Aesthetics shifted to the macabre with a focus on death. But Europe also changed in ways that were positive. There were more resources to support the survivors. Where five people had lived at the beginning of the fourteenth century, three were present at the end of the century. Wages were higher, GDP went up, at least for England and the Low Countries, and there was more available land for the previously landless. There were more material goods per capita and a sense in this otherwise hierarchical society that all were made equal in the face of the plague which was essentially indiscriminate in its attack on rich and poor. Crisis was an impetus for creativity and invention with the Renaissance and the Age of Discoveries.

The plague is now recognized to have occurred in three pandemics. The first pandemic, the Justinianic plague of the mid-sixth century, persisted into the eighth century. The second pandemic or Black Plague manifested in at least three forms, bubonic (buboes near lymph nodes), pneumonic (respiratory) and septicemic (blood poisoning), with the first visitation in the years 1347-1353, followed by intervals of return every ten to fifteen years in some areas continuing in Europe until the 1720s and in the eastern Mediterranean possibly into the nineteenth century. A third pandemic began in the 1890s, spreading across the world from Asia by steamship and continuing into the twentieth century. (Gastrointestinal and pharyngeal versions have been discovered more recently.) Some individuals survived the bubonic plague, but the other forms were fatal. Plague became treatable in the twentieth century with the development of antibiotics. It persists today in burrowing animals of the American Southwest and elsewhere. In Madagascar, there appears to be an antibiotic-resistant type of plague, suggesting genetic mutation, but one of the characteristics of Yersinia pestis is the little mutation it has experienced over the centuries. The genetic code of Yersinia pestis from the time of the Black Death, reconstructed from the dental care of plague victims discovered by paleo-archeologists in plague cemeteries in London, the south of France, and elsewhere, is not significantly different from that of the bacillus of the late nineteenth century. It remains to be seen how COVID-19 behaves, whether the virus will mutate, whether antibodies will provide immunity and whether there will be subsequent waves of the virus, hopefully, controlled in virulence by the development of effective vaccines.

A pandemic like COVID-19 exposes the strengths and weaknesses of a victimized society. In my view the most significant takeaway is change. There will be no going back to normalcy, to the world we knew. With problems exposed, we will have the opportunity to make changes in health care, social services, and the economy overall. Hopefully, we can rise to the occasion and institute positive change. Hopefully, we can nurture strong social bonds and become a more caring world.

This story is a part of a larger series, "COVID Through the Eyes of Historians," in which faculty experts reflect on what we can learn from past epidemics and how we might change in response to this one.
Share on: