How Pandemics Shape History

Roughly a year on from the beginning of the Covid-19 Pandemic, and most of us are still in lockdowns, living masked up and 6 feet apart. Once the pandemic is over (if it ever does end, this is feeling ever less likely), it is fair to say, the world will never be the same. Every pandemic in history from the plague to Tuberculosis to HIV has changed our world and made history, not always for the better. Diseases alter, shape, and reshape the course of social and political history. That can be taken literally — Typhoid allegedly killed Alexander the Great, the plague seemed to catalyse the end of the Byzantine Empire, and measles may have done the same to the Romans. But pandemics also kick start everything from sexist morality laws to public health infrastructure to government surveillance. Therefore, one could argue, that diseases have created the modern state we live in.

Take, for example, the 2nd Plague Pandemic (a.k.a. The Black Death). Beginning roughly in the 14th Century, the Plague was on again, off again for approximately 500 years, killing 50% of Europe. It is fair to say that societies were unprepared and ill-equipped to handle such a brutal disease. The cramped conditions of new cities and international trade meant that disease spread extremely easily, all the while physicians chalked it up to ‘Miasma’ — bad air. Of course, we now know that bubonic plague was spread by fleas which got onto rats and then onto us. Economies were destroyed, social orders were overthrown, and the world was forever changed.

Frank Snowden

As scholar Frank Snowden writes in his famous ‘Epidemics and Society’, “Every activity of normal life ceased amidst shuttered shops, unemployment and hunger.” Though Snowden was describing Medieval Europe, it is tragic that this description could just as easily be about our present times. 50% of the population of Naples was wiped out by the Plague of 1656, and Snowden notes that after awhile, there weren’t enough people left to bury the dead. Throughout Europe, suspected sinners (typically Jews, foreigners, other non-conformists or religious dissenters, and sex workers) were banished, or worse, murdered by scared, hysterical people, who thought they brought plague onto the land.

Governments had to act fast and thus the first form of institutionalised public health began. In 15th Century northern Italian city-states this meant drafting ‘Plague Regulations’, anointing new health magistrates who had full legislative, judicial, and executive power in all matters related to public health. By the 16th Century, these initially temporary posts had grown into permanent agencies, or what we now know as boards of health, marking, to quote Snowden, “A vast extension of state power into spheres of human life that had never before been subject to political authority.” The regulations ranged from meat to forced quarantines of entire populations, and everything in between.

A view by of Venice by Giovanni Antonio Canal. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In Venice, the office of health set up 2 ‘Lazzarettos’ — islands where ships coming from the Eastern Mediterranean were brought to be disembarked and fumigated. The passengers would then be isolated and guarded for 40 days, or ‘quarantine’ coming from the Italian word for 40 — if you thought the 2 week self-isolation was tough, the Lazzarettos were far worse. This number was chosen because in Christian Scripture, the number 40 is associated with purification (Moses spent 40 days on Mount Sinai before receiving the Ten Commandments, Christ was tempted for 40 days, he spent 40 days with his disciples after his resurrection etc.) Even though 40 days was based on theology rather than science, it worked because the incubation period (period between exposure to infection and the appearance of your first symptom) was less than 40 days. Once the ‘quarantines’ showed to stop the spread in Venice, other European courts followed suit.

Though not everyone travelled by boat, so vigilantes guarded the city walls against on-foot travellers. This would later become regulated and troops were deployed to form sanitary cordons (military barriers to stop people coming in and then putting them in quarantine). One such cordon in Austria was 1000 miles long, required mandatory service of basically all male peasants, and lasted 161 years. Mitchell L. Hammond in ‘Epidemics and the Modern World’ stated, “These kinds of actions became integral to the modern notion of a functioning state that assumed responsibility for the protection of borders and the preservation of health amongst its citizens.” Hammond argued that concerns about plague began to override concerns about independence among Italian city-states, leading to widespread cooperation to stem the disease.

But you couldn’t just keep people out — though they didn’t know it, as we’ve already mentioned, the plague was spread via fleas. How does one stop a pandemic from breaking out and spreading within city walls? Sanitary authorities went draconian, hiring municipal officials to track down plague victims, take them to the Lazzarettos and bury the corpses in special plague pits. In Venice, two-thirds of Lazzaretto patients died — if the municipal official brought you to the Lazzaretto, you were already dead. By the very slim chance you did survive, you’d be charged for your stay. People were forced to kill pets, stop selling clothes, and, unsurprisingly, all public gatherings were banned (we weep for the musical festivals). Isolation methods saw a sick persons house get marked with a red cross and in England the phrase ‘Lord have mercy upon us.’ Then the sick person and their entire household were confined with no medical care and left to die…good to see that things have only slightly improved since then.

Michel Foucault ( Photo: Jean Pierre FOUCHET/RAPHO/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Michel Foucault called a town under plague, “an exceptional disciplinary model.” Pandemics, both then and now, allow governments to experiment their exercise of social control. Wearing a mask, enforcing social distance, these are all minor experiments, the banning of peaceful protest via Priti Patel’s Police, Crime, and Sentencing Bill are the more major results. Citing the 17th Century French archives, Foucault detailed the way local government separated each plague ridden town into districts, then into quarters, then into roads, in a new process of segmenting public space, as well as the literal segmenting of people. Every person was required to register themselves in centralised records, and then get provisions and get into lockdown. They were not allowed to leave for any reason, so I suppose we are lucky in that we are both allowed to keep our dogs alive, and bring them on walks.

Foucault argues it was here that government surveillance was born. Each town had a syndic (road supervisor) who would take all the keys to every house on his block and lock the door from the outside. It is funny that there are still people saying wearing a mask is an infringement on their civil liberties, when the people of Florence were locked inside their homes by the prison guard-like figure of the syndic, who also took daily roll calls. The syndic would call out the name of each inhabitant who one-by-one went to the window to describe their current health condition. Lying about your fever could get you the death penalty, and breaking quarantine was punishable by death too.

Foucault notes that under these circumstances, “Inspection functions ceaselessly. The gaze is alerted everywhere.” Within the 4 walls of your crappy 17th Century hut, you were constantly under surveillance — privacy was over as every update about your health went into the towns permanent record, the same records which historians still use today as primary sources to examine the period. Foucault reiterates, “The plague is met by order; its function is to sort out every possible confusion.” In this process, the draconian measures adopted during pandemics see people subject to “omnipresent and omniscient power.” According to Foucault, public health was born out of a means to control public space and expanded political power drastically. This significant proliferation of power created what Foucault dubbed the “Utopia of the perfect city”, ‘perfect’ here meaning perfectly controlled.

Reflecting on these measures, we might think ourselves very lucky — we are allowed go for a walk, meet limited amounts of people, we get to keep our pets and our keys, and nobody invades our homes. But on the other hand, a year on, and our far more lenient measures have not seen the end of Covid-19 (save for in a few places), whereas the draconian measures of Medieval Europe did work to end the plague, right? Snowden notes that draconian measures were but one aspect of the plagues disappearance — climate, hygiene, and genetic mutation may have also helped. However, their apparent success has seen the measures replicated by subsequent governments, extinguishing civil liberty in the name of the ‘greater good’, pandemic or no pandemic. Epidemics cause intense laws that if dealt with badly can seriously infringe on life and liberty.

One such example would be Britain. In the 3rd wave of the plague, Bombay (then a colonial possession) was met with enforcement of draconian measures. British colonial powers ignored local religious, cultural, and medicinal practices, which would have been all well and good…if it had worked. The British divided people from their families and burnt effected houses to the ground in what Snowden calls “public health by eviction and destruction”. So brutal was the effort that it caused half of Bombay to flee, paradoxically spreading the plague further. Now look at Britain’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, or should I say mishandling. By the end of June 2020, the UK had the highest excess mortality in Europe, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics, yet Britain’s handling of the pandemic has been the opposite of its treatment of Bombay in the closing years of the 19th Century.

Though the Tory government talk a big talk, and media outlets and people everywhere call their measures ‘draconian’, they are in fact the opposite — they are inadequate. It is agreeable that police crackdown on peaceful protests and vigils is draconian, but the UK didn’t close its borders or have any sort of testing/self-isolation for people coming into the country until January of this year, nearly a year on from the beginning of the pandemic. If you asked a 14th Century member of the Venetian health board whether he would have allowed for people to have subsidised meals during the plague, he probably would have laughed in your face and have you sent to the Lazzaretto. If you asked Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak, well… you wouldn’t have to because they already did it. Other than the repression of public discontent, Britain’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic has not been draconian, it has been woeful, foolish, and tragically embarrassing.

Pandemics aren’t just opportunities for a consolidation of sovereign power, but can incite positive and meaningful change. Take for example the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381. With most of the peasants laying dead in a ditch due to the plague, serfs realised that they were now a rarity and so should charge more, and should certainly not have to be paying ridiculous taxes to their king to wage more wars instead of protecting them from the horrendous epidemic. This eventually led to the end of feudalism. Pandemics catalyse social change: Syphilis introduced safety legislations in regards to sex work, cholera led to indoor plumbing, and TB led to an increase in personal hygiene (though tragically making male facial hair seem unhygienic for a short time). Diseases change our perspectives of society, and so the question remains, and this is the one we all must consider: how will Covid-19 change our perspective of society? And what will we do with that new perspective?

I am a young writer interested in providing the intellectual tools to those in the political trenches so that they may fight their battles well-informed.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store