On 26 February, it had already been several weeks since I’d started closely following the news of what’s been called the novel coronavirus (technically, the virus is SARS-Cov-2, and the disease it causes is COVID-19). That was when I first became alarmed, as I realized that even the people telling me not to worry were predicting catastrophic scenarios. That was the day NBC News’ chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel tweeted that people shouldn’t panic because “98% of people will be fine, even if they get Covid-19.” It may turn out that the 2% fatality rate estimated at that time was too high, but the prospect of overrun hospitals and millions of deaths was hardly a comfort, even though I was personally unlikely to die. The coronavirus was already spreading around the world. Wuhan, China, where it had started, was on lockdown; the World Health Organization had declared a “global crisis”; and the disease had spread to France, South Korea, Iran, the US and elsewhere. Panic seemed better than complacency.
A little over three weeks later, everything had changed. My university had already stopped in person instruction, and both the city of Los Angeles and state of California had already been advocating social distancing measures, when the state governor issued stringent stay-at-home orders on 19 March. Other cities and states took similar measures, and millions of people are now working from home. Others are out of work or have had to shut down their businesses. Many of us have cut off physical contact with all but immediate family members. And in the US there are now more than 80,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases, and there have been more than 1,000 deaths.
We’re fortunate to live in a world where scientific advances—vaccines, hygiene, antibiotics—have reduced suffering and extended lifespans to an extent our forebears couldn’t have imagined. We’re also fortunate to have the knowledge and technology that allow us to address the COVID-19 threat in a way that’s never been possible during any other pandemic. Whatever happens, the death rates almost certainly won’t compare to those of the plagues of past centuries. But, by modern standards, some of the envisioned scenarios are sobering—even catastrophic—and we may end up reacting in some of the same ways people have responded to other calamities.
Death and contagion aren’t new to humanity. Disease was common in the crowded, dirty cities of the Roman Empire and outbreaks of plague (perhaps smallpox) in the second and third century led to the deaths of perhaps more than a quarter of the population. Things were much the same—or worse—in the medieval era, when the bubonic plague (the Black Death) killed about a third of Europeans: more than 23 million people. People have sometimes responded to these tragedies in horrifying and sometimes in inspiring ways. In both cases, perhaps we can learn from their examples.
One common response to suffering and death is blame, and, as sociologist Donald Black points out, the more extensive the suffering, the more extensive the blame: “Whereas a single death might be blamed on a single individual (such as a witch or sorcerer), many deaths might be blamed on an entire group (such as another tribe or nation).” In the aftermath of the fourteenth-century Black Death, Christians massacred whole communities of Jews, whom they falsely accused of deliberately spreading the disease. Later outbreaks of the plague led to the blame of Scots by the English, Protestants by Catholics and socially marginal people, such as gravediggers and vagrants, by those of higher social standing.
People also blame themselves for suffering and death. The Flagellants believed that the bubonic plague was divine punishment for their sins and that the remedy was penance so they beat themselves publicly in atonement. Tens of thousands of them joined traveling groups and went from town to town, practicing self-flagellation and encouraging others to do the same. This didn’t end the plague, but, as sociologist Rodney Stark has written, the Flagellants “did often have rather pronounced moral effects on communities through which they passed, as locals became stricken with guilt: adulterers made public confessions; thieves returned stolen goods.”
People have already started looking for scapegoats for the present crisis. Just as in the medieval era, some outgroup is often blamed. The New York Times has blamed evangelicals, and there have been verbal and physical attacks on Asians. If we’re bothered by the hatred and blame of groups in the past, we must resolve not to be drawn into the same behaviours now. We may need to hold the people in power responsible for their missteps, but, given how easily conspiracies, false accusations, hatred and violence arise in these situations, we should be skeptical of our ability to attribute blame correctly.
A response like that of the Flagellants is less likely today, but we can see a version of it in statements like that of the United Nations’ environment chief, who has said that “nature is sending us a message,” and of actor Idris Elba, who has said, “We’ve damaged our world and it’s no surprise that our world is reacting to the human race.” Blaming ourselves might seem like a better option than blaming others, but trying to atone for pollution and other evils isn’t going to stop COVID-19. Of course, such attitudes might have other good consequences, just as the Flagellants did good in many communities. And we might use this time—as we or our loved ones may be facing suffering and death—to reflect honestly on our faults. But we can do this without repeating the Flagellants’ errors.
Blame—of others or of oneself—is a common reaction to plague, but it is not the only one. Disease and death may also occasion altruism and compassion. During the plagues of second- and third-century Rome, the pagans, quite rationally worried about contagion, would abandon those who fell ill, often throwing them into the streets and letting them die. The early Christians cared for the sick, and, while this was risky, it enabled many of the afflicted to recover. “What went on during the epidemics,” Stark says, “was only an intensification of what went on every day among Christians. Because theirs were communities of mercy and self-help, Christians did have longer, better lives.”
We can try practicing compassion, as the early Roman Christians did. This means, as it did for them, not abandoning the marginalized, sick, suffering or dying. It means resisting those who say that only the weak, sick and elderly die from the virus, so the rest of us shouldn’t worry. For many of us, it might mean putting ourselves at risk, as doctors and nurses are doing now. What it means for most of us, though, is staying inside and interacting much less with others. It’s counterintuitive that compassion for others means staying away from them, but we have to respond based on our circumstances, knowledge and abilities, and the nature of this virus and the danger of overrunning hospitals means that, for now, that’s what we must do. This is a challenge. It means we must find other ways of connecting to one another, and other ways of helping not just those suffering from COVID-19, but those suffering from our attempts to stop its spread—the people who’ve lost their jobs and incomes, those who have had their social connections severed, those who are lonely or depressed, and those in chaotic or dangerous living situations. These are uncertain times, full of social upheaval, and we can expect conflict, blame and anger, no matter what happens with the virus. But this is also an opportunity to learn new ways of organizing ourselves and caring for one another. How we respond is up to us.