Do the same lessons apply every time?
Covid-19 is not the first pandemic to have graced the earth – humans have been afflicted with plagues and diseases for millennia. In fact, the word “epidemic” (an outbreak that covers a smaller geographical area than a pandemic) can be traced back 2,500 years and derives from the ancient Greek. The first pandemic that we know of began in Athens in 430BC.
However, whilst each epidemic or pandemic is similar in characteristics – disease spreads and infects people, causing widespread fatalities – the responses to these phenomena have been very different.
People, over time, have ascribed pandemics to religious punishment, human moral decay, scientific malpractice, and even the ‘deliberate’ actions of scapegoated groups. But one thing unites each of these perspectives: blame.
In every single pandemic throughout history, the finger has been pointed to someone, or something. People often try to pinpoint the origin of a phenomenon because it takes something nebulous (and therefore frightening) and makes it more concrete (therefore, less frightening). Because of this, the party that is ultimately blamed for the outbreak is often deeply connected to the contemporary socio-political situation. Justinian Plague 541 AD – blame God. Black Death – blame human sin. Coronavirus – blame a pangolin in Wuhan.
So, what factors have been blamed for pandemics throughout history? And what can this blame game teach us in the modern day?
To answer these questions, we must first explore the different pandemics, and the different perspectives on who, or what, should be held responsible for them.
Laying the Blame: On Religion
Historically, supernatural religious powers have frequently been deemed to have caused negative phenomena. Religious believers often feel that disease and suffering arise as a result of human sin, and that God is punishing people for their transgressions. This perspective derives from the Bible, which describes numerous plagues sent by God as punishment for immorality or sin.
As the Bible claims plagues were an act of God, people throughout time have seen pandemics as a supernatural sign. The Justinian and Bubonic Plagues were both believed to have religious causes, with people fearing that they had displeased God through sinning. The Justinian Plague claimed 50 million lives – a quarter of the world population – and the Black Death claimed a third. The terror that these pandemics caused further drove people towards religion; by believing that the epidemic was part of a wider supernatural plan, they could give it meaning and then find solace in prayer.
Laying the Blame: On Immorality and Human Behaviour
In contrast to attributing pandemics to God’s displeasure, many citizens in the ancient world believed that pandemics or disease outbreaks were caused by people’s selfishness and greed. Thucydides and Lucretius did not support the idea that plagues were acts of God, instead feeling that diseases had human origins. They ascribed pandemics to social issues, such as people acting in self-interest. They believed that the fear that arose during pandemics led to greed which in turn led to infection and social collapse.
This more humanist perspective was upheld again in medieval times, with Chaucer and Boccaccio both believing that human behaviour was the cause of disease, and therefore “moral and physical death”. This idea is central to many novels, which look at plagues as the result of immorality. Often, the lack of faith in science and the failure of medical treatment created fear in the public. With the absence of a concrete answer, they turned to blame each other for the wrongs of the world.
Laying the Blame: On Scapegoats
Finding fault in the social ‘other’ is another common phenomenon during times of crisis; fear and hysteria can drive people towards less rational conclusions, and this often results in scapegoating of marginalised groups. For example, many blamed the Bubonic Plague on the Jewish population, believing Jews had contaminated the water supply and led to the spread of disease. This scapegoating subsequently gave rise to antisemitism and discrimination throughout the afflicted areas.
Here, the terror of disease metastasised into terror of a socio-political other, giving rise to a secondary pandemic: racism.
The irrational belief that Jews caused the Black Death led to pogroms and violence towards these communities. As people were unable to solve the pandemic, they refocused their efforts onto something with an immediate solution. In this case: ethnic cleansing.
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By mathilda heller: culture Columnist
By blaming the political other, people can feel secure in the knowledge of the disease’s origin, and also confirm their belief that this social group is morally corrupt.
This teaches us a lot about how humans respond to pandemics. Frequently, we turn to blame, and scapegoat a marginalised group because it helps to quell the fear (albeit temporarily). These blame games have set a significant precedent for modern times, where pandemics continue to give rise to racism and xenophobia (see this article discussing Covid-related hate crimes towards Asian people).
Laying the Blame: On Science
At times, during the emergence of a pandemic, people may assume that the disease has been caused by human engineering. Some have the perspective that a complex and lethal virus would not come about naturally, and therefore must be the result of scientific experimentation gone wrong.
Whilst most people view the current COVID-19 pandemic as a result of natural events, some ascribed the blame to Chinese scientists, believing Coronavirus was engineered in a laboratory.
When someone does not understand complicated scientific theory, it can seem that the people who do understand it must be the ones responsible for the issue. So prevalent was this perspective that The Lancet had to state that the COVID-19 virus was indeed a result of nature, and not human actions. They say: “conspiracy theories do nothing but create fear, rumours, and prejudice that jeopardise our global collaboration in the fight against this virus,” which links strongly to the idea that pandemics give rise to blame and sociocultural discord.
Laying the Blame: In the Context of Corona
So, are there still people who think that pandemics are caused by God? Do people still feel that our moral failings have resulted in disease? The current religious perspective would suggest that this is not actually the case. An article in Christian Today wrote: “COVID-19 Is Not God’s Judgment […] for two reasons. First, biblical judgments through disease are supernatural in origin […and] second, biblical judgments are against specific sins and sinners.” This suggests that we cannot ascribe this pandemic to God, because Corona is not discerning – everyone is at risk – and it is not possible that everyone is the target of divine punishment.
Furthermore, the pandemic appears to have natural causes and not supernatural ones, which again indicates the lack of divine involvement.
However, some religious articles claim that human actions do have a significant impact on these types of phenomena. One article says that we must “recognise that the brokenness of creation ultimately causes us harm”. Rather than COVID-19 being a result of a specific sin, it is the result of worldly “evil”, and therefore inextricably linked to human behaviour. Another article states that “disease and death is a fact of life in a fallen world”, suggesting that all crises can be traced back to original sin, and despite not being direct punishments from God, it is because of our religious disobedience that such crises occurred in the first place.
What does this teach us?
“One dramatic aspect of epidemic response is the desire to assign responsibility. From Jews in medieval Europe to meat mongers in Chinese markets, someone is always blamed.” The problem of pandemic blame is summated perfectly in this quote by David Jones. Covid-19 is yet another example of society blaming people or things for the rise of an otherwise inexplicable issue.
Throughout history, people have claimed that pandemics were the result of God or human sin or scientists or minority ethnic groups, because this provided an outlet for their terror.
And it is still happening.
The Coronavirus pandemic has given rise to xenophobia, hate-crimes, racism and civil tumult. People continue to blame instead of working together, and this sets a damaging legacy for future generations. The same discourse has been played again and again throughout history, and yet no one has learnt from it.
This means that pandemics have doubly negative effects; not only to they lead to literal fatalities, but they also lead to figurative fatalities, whereby there are severe implications for social relationships and dynamics. Alongside the rise in infection, we see a surge of racism and violence and distrust, which is just as infectious as the virus itself.
It is only through learning and rectifying the mistakes of historical pandemic responses that we can truly solve the crisis. And this refers to both pandemics – the biological one, and the social one.