Pandemics of the Past AKA A History Lesson No One Asked For – Issue 3
No one really wants to write an article about coronavirus. The last twelve months has seen variousmedia buttlickers band together to overexpose us good and proper, a side effect of eating the pandemic pie. They pump endless statistics across the bottom of our screens in ‘Oh Fuck Off Red’ (a new Resene colour I’m workshopping). The virus is bad, so we go into lockdown, but oops wait,lockdown is bad too. The economy stinks, our mental health stinks and even better, people on the radio argue over the survival of fish n chip shops vs the survival of your nan. Oh baby it’s bleak.
For the most part, however, we have been supremely fortunate. Being a small, often overlooked green speck at the bottom of the world has never been so trendy and to date we’re doing pretty
good. Kiwis have been free all Summer to travel about and take pictures of pink clouds, marry their mates, shit themselves at music festivals and have a good go at it.
So why on earth would I ruin all the fun with another episode of Covid blues? Well maybe because despite this beautiful bubble we find ourselves in, the world outside us is burning. And right next to that dumpster fire is the fact that there’s no guarantee our sexy bubble will last. Sure, vaccines are poised for a roll out and there are government precautions round every corner, but either way Covid is sticking around in some capacity for a decent chunk longer.
Here’s what I’m thinking, let’s stop looking at raw numbers and lockdown dates and instead look to the past. Let us dust off the history books, you know the ones with penises drawn in sharpie on the back pages, and try to learn something about pandemics from back in the day. Maybe we can begin to understand what kind of impact all of this is having on us and our behaviour.
So let’s take it back, way back.
For this field trip down memory lane we’ll need a tour guide and I can’t think of anyone better than Angelos Chaniotis. Chaniotis, a Greek historian and Professor of Ancient History and Classics at the Institute of Advanced Study is one smart Greek butter cookie. He knows a bit about the social, cultural, religious and economic history of heaps of old stuff. For historical context we’ll refer to an interview he had with fellow but vastly superior journalist
Joanne Lipman in April last year for all things ancient and pandemic.
Ebola Back in the Day
The first ever detailed account of a major pandemic dates back to around 430 B.C.E. by Thucydides. Thucydides was an Athenian historian who earned his Greek statue by recounting the beef between Sparta and Athens at that time. During all this hoopla he caught a nasty disease that came from Egypt to Athens and although it was limited to a relatively small area, it had a devastating impact on the locals. By recording his symptoms modern doctors guess it may have been typhoid fever or possibly a viral disease similar to Ebola.
What’s most fascinating about Thucydides’ account is how it details the impact on human behaviour
at the time, in particular everyday behaviour. At the peak of the plague people stopped paying
attention to burial practices. In the place of once sacred ritual was now just the disposal of corpses.
In his interview our tour guide Chaniotis remarked on the similarities between this and what
happened in Italy and Spain last year. Images of transport convoys taking away the dead without a
chance for loved ones to say a real goodbye, no sign of a real funeral.
A New Death
Already a parallel between one of the oldest recorded pandemics and our very own Covid. This
forced disregard of such a sacred ceremony could have potential lasting effects on our relationship
with death and has already begun to create some rather strange behaviours in the United States.
An article from Insider describes how funerals are now being held on zoom instead of more
traditional methods. This sudden modification to ritual and the new proximity of death seems to
have impacted the way in which people discuss and engage with the idea of mortality.
The article by Lauren Vespoli talks about how a traditionally taboo topic is now seeing a cultural
shift. Outlets such as ‘Death Cafes’, a dedicated space for discussing demise, and ‘Living Funerals’, a
guided meditation that asks the participants to visualise their own deaths, have both seen an
increase in popularity.
What do we make of this new relationship with death? Is it now some strange fascination or an
appreciation for the complete cycle of natural life? Whichever way the dead cookie crumbles history
would suggest that where death goes, religion likes to follow.
In his interview Chaniotis talked about how a few years after the ‘plague’ there was a return to
religion. Around ten years after the epidemic Athens found itself the new home to the cult of
Asclepius, an ancient fan club of ‘the god of medicine’. The idea was that the god was going to cure
people and stop further suffering.
This slightly unnerving example shows how much a pandemic can reshape behaviour, particularly
within larger groups. Perhaps we should expect a new Destiny Church expansion pack in the next 5-
The Best of Us, The Worst of Us
Ancient diseases it would seem put human behaviour into a cocktail shaker and cooked up a whole
round of espresso martinis. Some rather conflicting behaviours were born. On the one hand people
turned to religion because they saw it as a punishment for their sins, while others saw that if both
good and bad die, then gods probably weren’t the ones making cocktails.
Parallel to these two beliefs were another set of opposites that emerged. Some people showed great
solidarity and care, the first people to actually die were the ones who cared for the sick, for others
outside of themselves. And then there were those who had an opposite response, those who
thought, “fuck it bro if I’m going to die, I’m kicking it until I kick it”.
In his interview Chaniotis touched on this contrast by mentioning egoistic behaviour vs solidarity. In
the 2020’s this has manifested in the form of sweaty panicked dickheads buying every single can of
Mexican beans in the country and fuck man I just really wanted some Mexican beans for dinner, like
Stewart I see you at self-checkout with the mount Everest of tin you actual fuckwit.
But for every bean exploiting Stewart there is someone out there who is helping. Someone checking
in with their neighbours, reconnecting with their family and making someone laugh.
Some Things never Change
Chaniotis finished up his interview with what he regards to be the biggest parallel between ancient
pandemics and our very own Covid when it comes to human behaviour…
It would seem that tinfoil hats have been on heads well before tinfoil was even invented. Crazy to
think that flat earthers were breeding back in ancient times, although they were probably known as
round earthers back then.
Suppose it really just comes down to people wanting to escape their reality which Chaniotis
articulates perfectly. An effort to attribute the disease to something that is beyond their own
control, something they could have never foreseen. That way of course we can’t be held responsible.
So what did we actually learn from all this?
Well we know that this strange feeling of a world upside down has been felt before. We know that
death will always be deeply confronting but maybe now have an opportunity to start a new
conversation about it.
We know that if death is a YouTube chess tutorial then religion is the 30 second unskippable ad that pops up halfway through. And we know that people will always get scared and do dumb shit likehoard enough toilet paper to wipe their butt a thousand lifetimes over and come up with enoughmicrochip conspiracies to power like five solid Facebook groups.Maybe we know what we already knew, but I guess what I’m trying to say is we’ll be ok if we can justlearn from our history. That seems like a totally reasonable thing that the human race is capable of,