Pandemics as paradigm shifts
Looking back at the European Black Plague as an archetype of a pandemic, which ravaged human lives in the 14th century, and drawing parallels to the coronavirus pandemic of the 21st century.
Father abandoned child, wife, husband, one brother another; for this illness seemed to strike through the breath and sight. And none could be found to bury the dead for money or friendship. And they died by the hundreds both day and night ... And as soon as those ditches were filled more were dug ... And I, Agnolo di Tura…buried my five children with my own hands. And there were also those who were so sparsely covered with earth that the dogs dragged them forth and devoured many bodies throughout the city. There was no one who wept for any death, for all awaited death. And so many died that all believed it was the end of the world.1
This is an account of the Black Death as given by the Italian chronicler Agnolo di Tura. His perspective plunges us immediately into the atmosphere of 14th century Europe as it was ravaged by some monstrous vermin even as another vermin animates itself today; this vermin now going by the name of SARS-CoV-2.2
While Italy was severely affected by this pandemic as well in its initial stages, the virus has since gone on to cause global havoc. Today, the USA holds the dubious distinction of having the greatest number of infections at over 4 million cases, and over the world, over 15 million people have been diagnosed as patients of the disease. At over 6 lakh deaths worldwide, the human mind gives up on attempting to evoke empathy and merely views it as a cold and unfeeling statistic.
When we turn a scientific eye towards the iconographic value of all this apocalyptic symbolism, we see that all these vaguely catastrophic descriptives seem to unite in the idea that mankind is being punished for its various sins.3 We rationalized the ongoing pandemic to be our punishment for our sins towards planet Earth4; to be our punishment for our practices of animal cruelty.5
The men of the Middle Ages had their own ideas about the reason behind the Black Death: "Many believed the epidemic was a punishment by God for their sins, and could be relieved by winning God's forgiveness."6 The specific reasonings differ from misfortune to misfortune, but there is a clear, underlying, invariant theme.
The next move man makes in his struggle against such cataclysmic forces of nature is one borne by vengeance. The collective consciousness of society deems the punishment unfair, and the desire for revenge raises its ugly head. The enormity of the event is scaled down; the image of the tragedy is in turn demonized and punished.
Thousands of Jews faced persecution in many vile forms during the maniacal frenzy of the largely scientifically illiterate populous of the Middle ages.7 In more recent times, Russell Jeung, professor of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University compiled a tally, were more than 1,000 incidences of xenophobia and racism against Asian Americans between January 28 and February 24, 2020, in the wake of the COVID19 pandemic.8
In our own country, there are disheartening accounts of the coronavirus triggering racist towards people from the North-East on the basis of their appearance. A Manipuri woman spat on in public in Delhi; various others being harassed in public and derogatorily being called 'Corona'9. The most shocking manifestation of all this bigotry is perhaps the prejudiced treatment being meted out towards doctors.10
But let us not make the mistake of concluding that such progressions manifest themselves only in certain groups of fanatics. The malady is more widespread, with each group having their own villains. For the scientist, it may be the group of religious zealots who disregard safety laws. For the vegan, it may be the non-vegetarian who has, according to him, abused Mother Nature. All of us bring forth this flavor of retribution in our own ways.
A reaction parallel to vengeance, mirroring its apparent aggression with an apparent calmness, is one characterized by the movement towards salvation. The receiver of punishment is here not some villainized group; rather, it is implicitly taken upon the self by prayer.
Despite its obvious inadvisability during a pandemic, one does not have to look far to find evidence for the numerous frenzied prayer meetings conducted during the height of the Black Death. The Brotherhood of Flagellants were a group of people who would reportedly publicly inflict physical punishment upon themselves in an attempt to redeem themselves and the world.11
One has to look even less to find the various violations of the law during the coronavirus epidemic in the name of such esoteric endeavors.12
But once again, let us not make the mistake of limiting these ideas to be in the minds of a certain frenetic minority. For the modern-day scientist, salvation is analogous to working tirelessly on vaccines and relevant biological data, to find a cure. Certainly, the working hours of the biologist are pregnant with such emotion; he is forever aware of his position as the savior and the harbinger of salvation. It is no detached activity. So high is the investment that PTSD therapy is being considered for the doctors of the most heavily hit regions.15
In a way, however, such attempts are perfectly understandable. We know only just enough about the virus and even less about a reliable cure. To be clearer, what we do know is the following: This is a respiratory disease primarily spread between people during close contact, most often via small droplets produced by coughing, sneezing, and talking. It remains asymptomatic for the first couple of days, after which the common symptoms-namely, fever, cough, fatigue, shortness of breath, and loss of smell and taste-appear. A patient with mild symptoms may recover in around 2 weeks, but in case of complications such as pneumonia, the condition becomes serious and often fatal.16
To make matters worse, most predictions seem to be telling us that we are at the brink of absolute disaster, suggesting that we may see lakhs of cases by the day as 2020 comes to a close.
The connection of historic and societal paradigms to science must be duly acknowledged if one wishes to carry out a holistic scientific analysis of any phenomenon. The emotive significance of such incidents often overrides the intellectualist in even the best of us. One must bring to conscious reflection the iconographic values of our psychological reactions towards such phenomena to better understand ourselves and optimize the way in which we handle such calamities.
The Black Death had various irreversible effects on life and society and the same is inevitable in the aftermath of the coronavirus as well. A mask may become as much a part of our attire as a pair of trousers! Perhaps stricter laws will be enforced regarding our treatment of natural resources, considering how abusive this treatment is perceived to be. But eventually, time will normalize all such changes.
The coronavirus pandemic is but one of many disasters that nature threw at man. It is our duty to recognize it as the paradigm shift in human history that all such disasters are, and ensure that through our handling of this pandemic, we leave behind a lesson of kindness and acceptance for the posterity, and not hatred and persecution.
Aditya Dwarkesh is a second-year undergraduate student pursuing the integrated BS-MS degree at IISER Kolkata and an editor of Cogito137. He has a long-standing interest in literature, philosophy and physics.
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