Essay by Mark Honigsbaum: “Few events are as compelling as an epidemic. When sufficiently severe, an epidemic evokes responses from every sector of society, laying bare social and economic fault lines and presenting politicians with fraught medical and moral choices. In the most extreme cases, an epidemic can foment a full-blown political crisis. Thus, Thucydides describes how the repeated visitations of plague to Athens in 430-426 BC provoked widespread social disorder and the breakdown of civic norms.
‘Men, not knowing what was to become of them, became utterly careless of everything, whether sacred or profane,’ writes Thucydides. ‘All the burial rites before in use were entirely upset and… many had recourse to the most shameless sepulchres.’
As the plague progresses, Thucydides describes how Athenians were swept up in a wave of hedonism and lawlessness, threatening the foundations of Athenian democracy: ‘Men now coolly ventured on what they had formerly done in a corner… fear of gods or law of man there was none to restrain them.’
The resulting crisis, Thucydides claimed, undermined Athenians’ faith in the rule of law and the democratic principles that underpinned the Greek city state, paving the way for the installation of a Spartan oligarchy known as the Thirty Tyrants. Even though the Spartans were later ejected, Athens never regained its confidence.
Covid-19 appears to have engendered a similar crisis in our world, the main difference being in scale. Whereas the crisis Thucydides describes was confined to Athens, the coronavirus pandemic has destabilized governments from Brazil to Belarus, not just that of a 5th century city-state. The political reckoning has been particularly rapid in the United States, where Donald Trump’s inability or unwillingness to check the spread of the coronavirus was a key factor in his recent election defeat. Now, the lockdowns and social distancing measures look set to plunge the world into the worst economic depression since the 1930s, raising the spectre of further political instability.
Given the wide-ranging social, economic and political impacts of Covid-19, it is natural to assume that the same must have been true of past epidemics and pandemics. But is this the case? Do pandemics really have the historical impacts that are often claimed for them or are these claims simply the product of particular narratives and readings of history? …(More)”.