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Alexander Samson discusses the resilience of people to disease through the ages

As we struggle to find a language adequate to voice our feelings about the COVID-19 pandemic and the radical changes to our everyday lives it has forced upon us, it may be worth remembering that ‘unprecedented’ as it may seem to us, most of our history has been lived in the shadow of epidemic disease.

Even in the 20th century, in addition to the much-referred-to Spanish influenza pandemic that infected as much as a third of the world’s population, there were flu pandemics in 1957 and 1968 each killing around a million people, not to mention HIV in the 1980s.

From the bubonic plague that killed as much as one third of Europe’s population, to waves of sweating sickness, quartain fever, smallpox, plague, typhoid, dysentery, syphilis and many others, pathogens have frequently reminded us of our vulnerability, especially in the period before microscopy.

The Black Death is generally associated in Europe with the wave that hit in 1347, but that was in fact the second pandemic. The first, in the 6th century and lasting two hundred years, may have claimed 25 – 50 million lives. Other epidemics have had huge consequences. While in the Americas smallpox may have decimated populations with no immunity, the mysterious killer cocoliztli, a still unidentified pathogen, perhaps some form of haemorrhagic fever, killed many more in Central Mesoamerica.

Human populations experienced constant waves of epidemic, deadly disease before the 20th century. Their resilience and survival in the face of death on a massive scale is a part of the human story that should give us hope and remind us how short-termist and amnesiac our modern world is in danger of becoming.

There was a time when ‘society’ and ‘experts’ were dirty words. Not any more. Now both seem more necessary than ever. Despite the end of history and the iconoclasm of our time, nature has just reminded us that how far we have come as a species should perhaps not be measured in terms of our successes on average as individuals but how well we are able to come together as societies to confront the greatest challenges facing us, the extent and limits of our collaboration and cooperation.

In Ingmar Bergman’s film The Seventh Seal (1957 Swedish and Latin) the knight returning from the crusades to a land ravaged by plague plays chess with death to buy time for a young couple and their child, in one final redemptive act. Its apocalyptic title contrasts with the single act of kindness and care at the heart of the film. That we are all interconnected and interdependent has become clearer in the light of this existential challenge that can only be comprehended on a human scale, in our everyday acts of kindness and goodness to one another.   

See Emma Smith’s article ‘What Shakespeare Teaches Us about Living with Pandemics’

Dr Alexander Samson, University College London. Vice Dean Education in A&H. Director of the Centre for Early Modern Exchanges and the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters