What Literary History Has Taught Us About The Global Pandemic
The world has seen several pandemics throughout history. They have inspired writers from the time of Homer to record these events that transformed everyday life. Such stories have provided much in the form of catharsis, ways of processing powerful emotion, and political commentary on how humans respond to public health crises throughout the history of Western literature. These writings also allow us to consider how similar crises have been handled in the past, as well as suggestions for how we may structure our communities more equally in the aftermath.
The humanities, particularly history and literature, provide essential insight into how individuals have dealt with pandemic trauma in the past, as well as how to come to terms with a reality that is now, in many ways, beyond our control. Literature goes beyond worldwide death tolls and disease transmission data to explain how the crisis has impacted the lives of people who have been infected, as well as their friends, family, and neighbours.
When we consider the changes that the coronavirus may bring to us in the short and long term, we must recall that the world we live in today was influenced by previous pandemics. This realisation can assist us in coping with these trying times. Between 1347 and 1351, the pandemic known as the Black Death ravaged Asia, Europe, and North Africa, reshaping human history for centuries. It took more than a century for Europe’s communities to rebuild after losing half of their inhabitants.
This massive biological crisis ushered in major social and cultural shifts. The labour shortage it produced aided in the abolition of serfdom and the establishment of free peasants capable of bargaining for wages, so death and liberty marched hand in hand. What makes pandemics similar across human and literary history is not just the commonality of germs and viruses, but our initial reactions to them. The initial reaction to a pandemic has always been denial. Throughout history, as literary works show us, Governments at all levels have been slow to respond and have misrepresented facts to conceal the outbreak’s existence. As Daniel Defoe reports in the early pages of “A Journal of the Plague Year,” in 1664, local authorities in some London neighbourhoods attempted to hide the number of plague deaths by registering other, invented diseases as the cause of death.
The other universal response of humanity to pandemics has always been to propagate false information and spread rumours. During previous pandemics, rumours were generated mostly by ignorance and the inability to see the bigger picture. The Iliad begins with a plague that strikes the Greek army at Troy in retaliation for Agamemnon’s captivity of Chryseis. The Iliad uses a disaster as a narrative framing device, resulting from miscalculated actions on the part of all the characters involved. Maybe we can take a cue from these fictional heroes and learn from their mistakes. The best response, as we find from our experience of Covid-19, is never to take any given information at face value.
The extent of the affected populace’s fury and political discontent is determined by the intensity of their pain, fear of death, existential dread, and feeling of the uncanny, as evidenced by the literature and history of plagues. Unfounded rumours and charges have had a substantial impact on how the coronavirus outbreak has unfolded, much as they did during previous plague pandemics. The tendency of social media to magnify misinformation has also played a role.
However, we now have access to more trustworthy information on the epidemic we are experiencing than we have ever had during any prior pandemic. That is also what distinguishes the intense and justifiable terror we are all experiencing today. Our terror is fueled by accurate knowledge rather than rumours.
What can literature like this teach us about the impact of these dreadful times on mankind and how they affect our understanding of what it means to be human? We are the tales we tell, and in a pandemic, these narratives show how we will survive the crisis and, in the end, create a better future. We must embrace and foster the feelings of humility and compassion created by the current moment if a better world is to emerge after this pandemic.