How plagues can inspire social revolt – and a potential reaction against it.
There’s one thing I better understand after reading and researching for this essay on plagues through history. It is that epidemics like the one we’re in cannot be seen as merely medical events. Diseases like cancer or Parkinsons or hypertension are medical events. Plagues are social and cultural and political events. (The very word “epidemic” is derived from the Greek epi, meaning “among,” and demos, “the people”.) Unlike other diseases, epidemics require concentrated groups of humans to survive and prosper, which means they rely on our social interactions, our cultural traditions and our political systems to transmit themselves. And in that transmission, they insinuate themselves into every nook and cranny of our lives and psyches—from sex to shopping, from work to religion, from politics to journalism—and thereby alter them.
When people look back on this surreal election year, I suspect they will see plague as the core actor. If you take a normal, functioning society and then force it to go underground for months, freezing it in place, forcing its members into long and unnatural mutual isolation, suspending the usual ways in which people make a living, ratcheting up financial insecurity … well, that’s a recipe for serious social upheaval. And that’s what you find everywhere in history that you look. An epidemic is not something a society can compartmentalize. It’s part of everything. Some, usually the wealthy, can avoid the worst, but even they are part of a broader world undergoing a profound upheaval. The bell tolls for them in the end as well.
Andrew Sullivan – The Weekly Dish – July 24, 2020.