Three years into the COVID-19 pandemic, we still have no fixed idea of how to deal with this damned pathogen. That’s less a reflection on the science than it is on the nature of pathogens. And people. It’s hard enough fighting an actual pandemic. Having to battle misinformation, deliberate propaganda and genuine, honest confusion at the same time? People wanting black and white answers is understandable. Being handed a delineated tick tock of how to solve a problem beats having to figure it out for oneself. Alas, pathogens don’t play nicely. They’re intensely single-minded. Bigger problem? They’re adept at adapting. For a creature that’s no more than a clump of RNA, incapable of reproducing itself by itself (it needs another creature’s host cells and their DNA in order to do that), COVID-19 has been remarkably savvy. It has evolved continually, always looking for a way to improve its ability to infect us and our cells (saliva, lung, heart, brain, blood or whatever) and spread more explosively. Like most viruses, COVID-19 evolves on the fly because it can – and because it has to in order to survive. That’s why pinning it down is so challenging. That’s why as a way to cull the human herd, pandemics are even more efficient than war.
Consider our relationship with COVID from COVID’s point of view. COVID has one “mission” built into its being: make more of itself. That’s it. That’s its entire mandate – reproduce at all costs. That reproduction will require penetrating our cells and converting our DNA into their RNA. In essence, viruses see human beings as cheap sex hotels where they go to boink like bunnies. Considering what a mess COVID makes of its lodgings – it does to us what Who drummer Keith Moon used to do to hotel rooms – what kind of idiot “lodging facility” would open its doors to monstrously rude guests like these? In America, it turns out, plenty of idiots.
Like war, pandemics cause massive disruption to nearly ever facet of normal life. We are now part of a data set that proves the point. We ache for life to return to normal because we assume life CAN still return to “normal”.
History says “normal” died the moment COVID appeared. History says pandemics not only kill, they leave the survivors with a “new normal”. The first pandemic that provided a viable data set for us to consider is the Black Plague that swept through Europe, when a Genoese trading ship unwittingly transported plague from Kaffa (in the Crimea) to its Italian base in 1347 . Along with trade goods, these ships carried sailors sick and dying from pestilence. Imagine how much more terrifying a pandemic would be if we had zero idea what was causing it and even less of a clue how to stop it. The sars-cov-2 virus, so we keep learning, is remarkably at home inside our bodies. It finds purchase not just in our lungs but in virtually every one of our organs. Long term COVID has only just begun to present itself. It’s going to be torment millions of the disease’s survivors for the rest of their lives. But, sdars-cov-2 – as bad as it is – pales in comparison to what the plague bacillus does to human (and animal) bodies.
Bubonic plague arrived in two forms at the same time: one infected the bloodstream and caused egg-sized buboes to form in its victims’ armpits and groin. The buboes oozed dark blood and foul-smelling pus. This form of plague – spread via physical contact – caused severe pain, internal bleeding and organ failure that could kill a victim within five days of being infected. The second form of plague killed even more brutally and quickly. Pneumonic plague infected the lungs and spread via infected bodily fluids. This form could kill in three days; sometimes within 24 hours or less. Its victims coughed and sweated heavily. Everything flowing from them – sweat, saliva, blood, urine, shit – smelled foul and spread infection.
Depression and despair accompanied both forms of plague. As historian Barbara Tuchman describes in her magnificent work “A Distant Mirror”, “before the end, ‘death is seen seated on the face’.”
Just as COVID-19 has massively impacted the world’s economy – being as so much of it is now tied together – plague disrupted the Medieval economy. In fact, bubonic plague destroyed feudalism. Feudalism relied on a kind of slavery at its core. Peasants farmed the land for the benefit of their immediate lords. Those lords owed the lords above them taxes paid in the form of the farm products grown on their lands by the peasants. Most of everything flowed upward to the king, the “lord’s lord”. But, after the plague wiped out anywhere from 20% to 100% of the people in any particular place, every part of the economic process ground to a halt. Dead peasants couldn’t pick anything. Unpicked crops didn’t get to market and didn’t get up the food chain to the higher lords and the king. And it’s not like the lords were going to do something as crazy as farm their own fields.
“When death slowed production, goods became scare and prices soared. In France, the price of wheat increased fourfold by 1350. At the same time, the shortage of labor brought the plague’s greatest social disruption – a concerted demand for higher wages. Peasants as well as artisans, craftsmen, clerks and priests discovered the lever of their own scarcity. Within a year after the plague had passed through northern France, the textile workers of St. Oman near Amiens had gained three successive wage increases. In many guilds artisans struck for higher pay and shorter hours. In an age when social conditions were regarded as fixed, such action was revolutionary.”
See any contemporary echoes? COVID has disrupted our supply chains and caused inflation. But, it’s also given exceptional power to workers over their bosses. The Great Resignation happening now owes everything to the pandemic.
Just like now, conservative forces attempted to minimize labor’s power. In 1351, the English Parliament passed “The Statue of Laborers” which (Tuchman again) “…denounced not only laborers who demanded higher wages but particularly those who chose ‘rather to beg in idleness than to earn their bread in labor’. Idleness of the worker was a crime against society, for the medieval system rested on his obligation (emphasis mine) to work”.
The conservative forces lost the fight then just as they’ll lose it again now. Tuchman gets to the heart of it: “Once people envisioned the possibility of a change in a fixed order [like feudalism], the end of an age of submission came in sight; the turn to individual conscience lay ahead. To that extend, the Black Death may have been the unrecognized beginning of modern man.”
That’s a pretty significant disruption. Something a lot like it is coming our way. But, that’s just history talking.