Coronavirus – lessons of past plagues

Coronavirus has been a huge shock. But history is brimming with pandemics and plagues. So, what can we learn from them?

Here’s the bad news first.

Diseases like Coronavirus have an amazingly long history

Viruses have been part of our evolutionary history since we stood on two feet and spread out of Africa. Viruses are not strangers – they have been with us for millions of years – and more than likely, will be with us forever.

Coronavirus isn’t a wholly new phenomenon or a moral judgment on our species – as some seem to suggest (on Twitter for example) – it’s just the latest manifestation of a long running phenomenon.

Here’s the really freaky thing – because of the way in which viruses hijack our cells and mess us up – they have probably played a role in our evolution as a species. So close is our relationship to viruses, that they could even be manipulated in the future to cure cancer or genetic disorders. Small comfort now.

But while the Coronavirus is taking a terrible toll – we could one day harness viruses to be a force for good. Basically instructing a virus to do something useful in our bodies instead of harming us. That’s the science of tomorrow – so what about the impact viruses have had on us in history.

Ancient Greek history – disease with a Coronavirus like impact

A catastrophe like a plague can be absorbed by a civilisation in otherwise robust health. But at a critical moment, it can have a devastating impact. The trouble is – pandemics in history often seem to occur when or because of a broader crisis. So – we know that ancient Athens was racked by plague in 430BC at the height of the Peloponessian War – which killed the great Greek leader and statesman Pericles.

Pericles – died of plague

Plague after plague in the Roman Empire

History shows us that the greatest empire of them all could succumb to the equivalent of Coronavirus and its might and majesty provided no cure.

The Roman Empire saw two huge plagues at turning points in its history. The Antonine plague of the second century AD came at the end of a period of relative stability but now the eastern frontier with Persia was becoming increasingly problematic. And it’s possible that returning soldiers from those battlefields brought the disease back into the heart of Rome.

In the following century, the Plague of Cyprian (recorded by a bishop called Cyprian) bore all the hallmarks of an influenza-driven pandemic. Cyprian wrote about fevers, the passing of blood and aching limbs. When all factors are taken into consideration, it seems the Romans at that time succumbed to an Ebola type of disease. It came at a time when the empire was divided and at war on many fronts – when its usual reserves of vitality were severely depleted.

Spanish Flu – a Coronavirus type pandemic in history

Today in 2020, the British prime minister Boris Johnson contracted the Coronavirus. But he’s not the first leader of the United Kingdom to have fallen victim to a pandemic. In 1918, the news was hushed up that the then Prime Minister Lloyd George – who had just led the country to victory in World War One – had contracted the deadly Spanish Flu.

I was never told about this studying the “Great War” as a child in the 1970s. Britain had just beaten Germany after a four year war and the establishment didn’t want anybody to know that the Prime Minister was flat on his back in bed attached to a ventilator. Ironically, he may have picked up this disease during the many celebrations at the end of the war. And tragically, the Spanish Flu ended up killing more people than died in the trenches.

David Lloyd George – British leader who got deadly flu

The tragedy of HIV/AIDS

The societal impact of a virus can ultimately be positive despite the terrible human cost. HIV/AIDS was an appalling illness that ripped through the gay community in the 1980s. I knew two men who died of AIDS and that was immensely tragic. But the virus forced gay identity to the top of the media agenda. Initially that was a negative. Gay people were accused of spreading a plague.

But within the gay community it built a gritty determination and anger to break through and demand tolerance and acceptance. And among the wider population, gay people went from largely invisible to highly visible. Families were forced to realise that a son, father or cousin was gay – because they finally had the courage to come out.

The Coronavirus has up-ended our lives. There’s already a mass of academic content on how things will be different. The state looks set to play a bigger role. Populism in politics will be in the dock. Experts may come back into fashion. And so on. Let’s see!

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The First World War – through the eyes of Peter Jackson

The inspiration behind They Shall Not Grow Old 

Every day, I walk past the Imperial War Museum on my way to work. I was aware that in its vaults, the museum was sitting on huge amounts of black and white World War One footage. You know the kind of thing. Silent movie films where the troops look like extras in a Charlie Chaplin comedy only there are bombs going off and millions losing their lives.

To mark the centenary of the end of WW1 – or The Great War as it was called until WW2 came along – the Imperial War Museum asked film director Peter Jackson to do something amazing with all this footage. Jackson, as you all know, was the man who brought us The Lord of the Rings trilogy and some very interesting art house movies before that.

Jackson, it turns out, has a massive interest in the 1914-1918 conflict that engulfed Europe and drew in the United States from 1917. His grandfather fought in WW1 and he’s always wanted to know what it was really like. So, Jackson has taken the footage and done more than just colourise it. He’s used his technical production facilities in New Zealand to bring the soldiers back to life.

He also got access to masses of tapes from the BBC of interviews conducted with WW1 soldiers in the early 1960s for a documentary series that aired fifty years ago. Jackson used some of that audio to give us first hand testimonies from those who lived in the trenches and fought for King and Country (or the Kaiser for that matter).

How Peter Jackson made They Shall Not Grow Old

They Shall Not Grow Old is for those of us who ever met WW1 veterans (and I did as a much younger man) a very moving experience. There is something about the First World War that touches my generation much more than the story of WW2, even though it was closer to us. That’s unfair on those who fought Hitler but WW1 has its own very unique atmospheric. It’s no good denying it – we feel very deeply about those soldiers.

That said, Jackson found that the audio testimonies presented a surprisingly different picture to the one he expected. Many men (and they were men mainly) who enlisted to fight, were only too happy to get away from miserable lives back home. And when the war ended, it was like being fired from a job. Of course, there were also those whose lives were wrecked or ended by the war – but it’s an interesting perspective. Go see if you can!