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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Where are London’s plague pits?

Most Londoners are oblivious to the number of dead people under their feet – especially those buried in their thousands in plague pits.  And those plague pits are in some very unlikely places. Here’s a few that might make you shudder next time you stroll over them:

Vincent Square – enjoy your picnic in Westminster because you’re sitting on top of a heap of skeletons. The pits extend under nearby government buildings.

Green Park – when the Victoria Line was being built for the London tube in the 1960s, construction workers bumped into a lot of 17th century bones. Pits from the Great Plague of London!

Golden Square – I love the Nordic Bakery on Golden Square but had no idea that during the 1665 plague, the “Searchers” were bringing cart loads of corpses and dumping them here. Makes you think.

Marshall Street/Beak Street – I used to work round here and used the swimming pool at the Marshall Street leisure centre. Yep, there are bodies under that pool! There were several pest houses in the area surrounded by a brick wall to which plague victims were sent. When they died, they were put in pits around the modern junction of Marshall Street and Beak Street. Not tens of bodies…not hundreds…thousands!

Sainsbury’s Whitechapel – Next time you’re browsing the tinned food or veg, spare a thought for those under the supermarket floor whose shopping days are long gone.

Charterhouse Square – During building work for Crossrail in 2013, a plague pit dating back to the Black Death in 1348 was discovered. Historians believe that up to 50,000 medieval Londoners might have been interred in the area.