Coronavirus – and panic in history

There have been moments in history when the whole of society seemed to be seized by a communal panic. Since mid-March 2020 this year, almost our entire news output from TV, newspapers and online has been Coronavirus related. We have been in a communal panic of epic proportions.

That’s not to say Coronavirus is fake as some have claimed. But the virus has shaken us all severely. It’s altered every aspect of our daily lives. As widespread panic goes – this is probably the most fundamental episode of collective anxiety I’ve ever seen.

In my lifetime – and I was born in 1963 – there have been what I can only describe as unsettling moments – where life couldn’t carry on as normal. The current Coronavirus pandemic is certainly one of those moments.

The streets of my home city, London, are noticeably emptier than usual. The tube train and buses have empty seats. In fact yesterday I found myself in an empty train carriage that would normally be full on a Saturday.

Which made me think about when had I experienced similar episodes of panic in my lifetime where the world seemed a more dangerous place?

PANIC IN HISTORY: The aftermath of 9/11

Well, for a panic on the scale of the Coronavirus, I’d have to go back to the aftermath of 9/11 back in 2001. In the days that followed the Al Qaeda attack on the Twin Towers in New York, people in London were worried that similar terrorist outrages could happen on our streets.

There were fears of so-called “dirty bombs” – a radiological dispersal device (even held in a suitcase) – being released in public places. On TV, we had dramatised scenarios where a terrorist would knowingly infect people with a deadly virus by brushing again them in a lift.

Reports circulated of nuclear facilities in the former Soviet Union being robbed of lethal chemicals and we wondered if London could be made uninhabitable for a century or more.

PANIC IN HISTORY: Chernobyl

Back in 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear reactor went into meltdown. Radioactive material was scattered all over the Ukraine and eastern Europe. I was living in Liverpool at the time and recall being locked out of my flat and caught in a downpour.

A friend “joked” that as sheep in nearby north Wales had been shown to have higher than usual levels of radiation, I had probably absorbed some radiation too!

I must admit that for us in Britain, the health panic around Chernobyl was nothing compared to the fear in places closer to the nuclear site like Ukraine and the Balkans. And it certainly didn’t match the huge impact of the Coronavirus in 2020.

Chernobyl unsettled all of us back in 1986

If I look back on the unsettling moments that affected society around me in my life – two big themes are disease and terrorism. These moments have sometimes created a sense of panic similar to what we’re feeling today about the Coronavirus.

On the disease side of things, there was the outbreak of “mad cow” disease in the late 1980s and early 1990s (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy or BSE for short) – which led us to shun British beef in favour of Argentinian or not eat beef at all.

PANIC IN HISTORY: HIV/AIDS

There was the horror and anguish of the HIV/AIDS virus and the loss of people to that terrible disease, which first emerged very publicly in the early 1980s.

It struck terror into the gay community but affected other groups as well. What shocks us now is the lack of sympathy in the tabloid press back then that dubbed the virus – the “gay plague”.

I guess one difference between the panic around Coronavirus today and the fear of AIDS back then is that most people in the 1980s thought they were completely immune to AIDS. They assumed it was a virus only affected LGBT people and certain parts of the world.

FIND OUT MORE: A warning to anti-vaxxers from history

PANIC IN HISTORY: Terrorism

On the terrorism side, there have been the ISIS bombings in recent years in London, Paris and Brussels. I was in Paris shortly after the 2015 atrocities and saw heavily armed troops patrolling outside Notre Dame.

While outside the Bataclan concert hall where terrorist shot up the audience at a rock gig, thousands of young people lit candles and wept.

Back in my childhood – in the 1970s – the terrorist threat came from the Irish Republican Army who in the middle of that decade carried out two notorious and bloody bombings in Guildford and Birmingham.

That was a spill over of the conflict raging in Northern Ireland between Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries. There were periods when more vigilance was required and the public was noticeably more tense and anxious.

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PANIC IN HISTORY: Threat of nuclear war

Outside of terrorism and disease – the only other thing that comes to mind is the threat of superpower conflict. Forty years ago, we worried about the Soviet Union and the United States blowing each other up.

Now – in a more multi-polar world – that’s not such a looming threat. The political danger instead comes from multiple sources and is far less predictable.

In short – these periods of heightened risk happen every so often in human history. Plague, war, famine….we’ve been here before. It’s when we realise that despite our modernity and technology – we are still very vulnerable to things beyond our control.

Maddest rulers in history

Who were the maddest rulers in history? We’ve not been short of a few in my lifetime. Though some have been insane but wily while others had become incapacitated through mental illness. Colonel Gaddafi is a good example of insane but wily. While poor old Boris Yeltsin seemed increasingly unstable in his last years.

Dynastic systems breed the maddest rulers

When you have a political system where somebody inherits the top job, you’re not always assured of the best person for the role. That’s especially the case when the new king or queen is completely insane. Yet that’s exactly what has happened many times in history when the mad have taken over.

Charles VI of France (1368 to 1422) believed he was made of glass and wore protective clothes to prevent his body being shattered. Think what happens to the Night King in Game of Thrones and you get the idea. In one incident while out hunting, Charles was convinced he was under attack and killed four of his own retainers before being restrained.

The reign of Charles VI was very long because he took power when he was very young. And there seems to be a connection between assuming the throne in infancy and coming under tremendous mental strain. Think about it. You have had no preparation for absolute power and when things go wrong, it comes as an overwhelming shock.

Maddest rulers: Henry VI and his fits of deep depression

So, child monarchs don’t tend to have happy reigns. Henry III, Richard II and Henry VI in England are good examples of this. Henry VI suffered what looks like fits of depression that made him completely unable to rule for periods of time. Stress seems to have rendered him like a rabbit in headlights – he froze while his advisers around him panicked.

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Juana La Loca (literally Joanna the Mad) was Queen of Castille, part of modern Spain, in the early 16th century. This was when Spanish power around the world was reaching its height with colonies in the Americas, across Europe and Asia. But Juana was way too mad to be allowed to rule any of that so she was “secluded” (locked away) in a castle.

Maddest rulers from the bible and ancient Rome

The biblical monarch of Babylon Nebuchadnezzar exhibited symptoms of a disorder known as boanthropy where an individual believes they might be a cow! Now it’s hard to know if this was propaganda used against him or the truth. But the condition certainly exists.

The Roman Empire threw up an extraordinary number of mentally unstable emperors almost from the start. The second emperor, Tiberius, retreated to the island of Capri where he reportedly tortured people in some pretty horribly ways.

He was then succeeded by Caligula whose madness is disputed by some historians but accepted by most. One of his oddest acts was to announce the appointment of a new consul, which turned out to be a horse called Incitatus.

In the 6th century CE, the Byzantine Empire was ruled by Justin II. A chronicler called John of Ephesus described how he was possessed by an evil angel that made him impersonate animals!

For suddenly it destroyed his reason, and his mind was agitated and darkened, and his body given over both to secret and open tortures and cruel agonies, so that he even uttered the cries of various animals, and barked like a dog, and bleated like a goat; and then he would mew like a cat, and then again crow like a cock: and many such things were done by him, contrary to human reason, being the workings of the prince of darkness…

Ecclesiastical History – John of Ephesus – Book 3

The only way to calm Justin down was to have organ music played all day and night, which must have driven his courtiers round the bend. He also had to be pulled through the palace in what’s described as a throne but I think a baby cart would present a truer picture.

And then no blog post on mad monarchs could leave out the maddest of them all – King George III. The king of England who lost America and his mind. Experts are still debating what the nature of his disorder was and views seem to change every year.

But the poor man was completely incapacitated for periods and would do things like greeting trees and shaking their branches as if they were human. You will all be familiar with the famous stage play and movie on this life story.

Lewis Powell – the handsome assassin of Abraham Lincoln

Lewis Thornton Powell (sometimes known as Payne) was one of the four conspirators hanged for their part in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. He also looked like a GQ model. And his handsome features were rather tastelessly picked up by the new technology of photography.

Powell was tasked with killing US Secretary of State William H. Seward and managed to stab him several times but not fatally. Nevertheless, it was enough to earn him a place on the gallows with his fellow conspirators. And at the same time – he acquired a degree of celebrity which was quite modern.

In recent years, Lewis Powell has become noteworthy for the prison photographs taken at the time, which could easily grace the front cover of a men’s fashion magazine.

Lewis Powell – handsome but violent

Although Powell was a very striking young man (only 21 when he was executed), he did have a record of violence including a horrific attack on an African American maid. Powell had also supervised his father’s slave plantation before fighting with the Confederate side in the American Civil War.

The manner in which he tried to slaughter Seward suggested an unbalanced mind. Seward was already bed ridden after a carriage accident and Powell found his way into the great man’s bedroom and stuck a blade into his neck several times. Amazingly, the Secretary of State survived and indeed went on to serve under Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson.

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Lewis Powell was arrested very soon after his botched murder attempt. This led to the prison photos that included him dressing up in different suits. He struck cocky poses and stared dreamily into the lens.

Quite why this was entertained by his captors is beyond me.

The hanging of Lewis Powell was a gruesome affair with him taking at least five minutes to die. One eye witness claimed that he writhed at the end of the noose with such vigour that at one point his knees rose so he was in a seated position.

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Here is Lewis Powell in his 1860s male model glory!