Plagues and Their Aftermath: How Societies Recover from Pandemics
Plagues and epidemics, in various forms, have been a feature of recorded human history for over 3000 years. Their power to terrorize and destabilize societies has been dramatized in literature as old as Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and as recent as Albert Camus’ The Plague.
Epidemics present a two-pronged threat. They devastate public health through mortality, serious illness, and strains on the healthcare system. And they disrupt the social and political order as competing strategies for response provoke argument, confrontation, hysteria, and occasional violence.
In this report on the global effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, Brian Michael Jenkins documents how COVID-19 has played out in both these arenas, and he analyzes how COVID-19’s impacts on contemporary society, and our responses to it, compare with previous epidemics, such as the Black Death and the Spanish Influenza.
Jenkins finds numerous parallels that suggest epidemics do not bring out the best in human beings. Fear, ignorance, denial, and distrust often overwhelm efforts to deal rationally and cooperatively with the existential threat that epidemics pose. He is especially alarmed by America’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. “At times, there have appeared two pandemics: the coronavirus, which immunization can prevent, and collective madness, for which there is no vaccine.” The principal spreader who comes to mind for this latter form of the virus is, of course, Donald Trump.
Jenkins sees in our response to COVID-19 a cautionary tale. “The pandemic revealed attitudes and behavior that raise questions about America’s ability to address future national and global challenges.” One thinks immediately of two challenges now facing us: assaults on the electoral process that is the bedrock of our democracy, and global warming, a threat apparent to scientists for decades, that our political class has met with denial, delay, and disinformation.
Plagues and epidemics, by threatening the social order, remind us of the tenuousness of our civilization, from which civility is rapidly disappearing. It’s no wonder that denial is the preferred political response.
Jenkins has organized his book around themes, and as he explores them, he leads the reader back and forth through history, pointing out parallels in humankind’s responses to different epidemics. This structure reinforces his central point: epidemics are invariable and inevitable, and so are human responses to them. The book thus implicitly raises the question: faced as we are now with an existential threat to the viability of the planet for human habitation, can we break our patterns and rise to the occasion?
The book opens sluggishly, with a chapter on the mortality rates from COVID-19 and previous epidemics. The text is mired in data that numb. Chapters on the social, economic, and political effects follow, covering ground that will be familiar to readers who keep up with the daily news. The comparisons with previous epidemics let us know that in our responses to COVID-19 we are repeating history.
Plagues and Their Aftermath is thoroughly researched and cogently written, but reads like a white paper designed to inform policymakers about the trade-offs that accompany possible responses to an epidemic like COVID-19. As with many issues that require political discussion to resolve, economic imperatives contend with wider considerations of the public welfare, in this case, public health. The fault lines in our society become starkly visible as proponents of these competing values strive for control.
What Jenkins finds missing in America’s response to COVID-19 is a collective will to solve the problems it presents. Instead, COVID-19 has further fractured us. This does not bode well for our response to a threat graver than any epidemic—the prospect that global warming, if not checked, could make the planet Earth uninhabitable for human beings.
“We have the science to address the pandemic,” Jenkins notes. “We lack the social accord.” This might also be said about global warming. The discord stirred by the threat of global warming was nowhere more evident than in the debate over the recent Inflation Reduction Act, which passed the Senate without a single affirmative vote from a Republican.