Consider what happened after the double shot of disease that struck the Roman Empire: the raging Antonin plague between 165 and 180 and the Cyprian plague that struck in 249 and continued into the 260s. At least one or both of these are believed to be the ancestors of the modern variola virus, known as smallpox.
When it comes to these pests, Christianity is an edge religion. Sociologist and theologian Rodney Stark argues that the response to the spread of this small category has led to the domination of Christianity, destroying old, pagan beliefs.
Stark argues that, unlike fleeing pagans, Christians responded to the disease with religious generosity. They played sick, pagan and Christian alike. Food, water and basic amenities – they provided a compelling case for a better religion by converting while providing palliative care – which often makes the difference between living and dying.
Stark research suggests that Christians – especially young, women who give birth – have fundamentally surpassed their pagan counterparts; They survived. Consider the fact that state-sanctioned religions primarily caused people to die and the reasons for the asteroid rise of Christianity during this period are even more apparent.
The Black Death, or bubonic plague, killed a quarter of Europe’s population in the 1300s, making it one of the worst outbreaks in human history. It also unleashed unspeakable persecution on the Jews. Many of the survivors have now fled to Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe, beginning the next phase of Jewish exile.
This plague left more positive legacies. Although historians have argued for a definite impact, pandemic feudalism has left Europe with a severe shortage of peasant labor, increasing the bargaining power of survivors. It has all sorts of unintended consequences, the first minimum wage was established in the wake of the epidemic and further consequent challenges to the social order.
Nearly a decade after the first wave of the Bubonic plague, popular uprisings shook Europe. A recent study by medieval Samuel Cohn found that these disturbances were not the work of people protesting food shortages or working conditions. Instead, the demands of the survivors were political, targeting the hardships of feudal life. The plague, he called “a new belief that even farmers, artisans and workers can change the world.”
The recent outbreak of the disease has been less catastrophic, but as a consequence. Consider a bacterial disease called cholera that invades the intestinal system, often killing victims within hours. Although it originated in India, it caused a great deal of damage to the industrial cities of the West, thriving on polluted drinking water.
Initially, public health officials did not understand the connection, believing it to have been spread in the air by a mysterious “myasma”, and in London, at the site of some of the worst cholera outbreaks, the oppressive odor of sewage prompted the widespread construction of a sewage system to flush human waste out of the city.
As the new system took shape, the British physician John Snow recognized that cholera came from contaminated drinking water, giving scientific importance to the new sanitation system. With the acquisition of Snow’s theory currency, modern sewers became mandatory in the war against the disease and cities around the world began to get rid of their waste without entering their drinking water.
If cholera gave us modern plumbing, tuberculosis would have inspired the construction of “sunrooms” in homes across the US, with doctors suggesting “heliotherapy” as a way to “disinfect” the body, so Americans found ways to increase their UV exposure. Tans have become a symbol of health and beauty – and basking in the sun has become a common pastime.
Ironically, this has given new priority to hygiene and sanitation, which has led to another epidemic: polio. When the disease began to kill children with disabilities in the early twentieth century, doctors noticed something odd: white, wealthy children had the worst cases.
One theory is that babies in poor (and dirty) environments are exposed to the polio virus, but they are protected by maternal antibodies – and a very mild case has been reported. Children who grow up in super clean homes designed to protect them from germs such as tuberculosis usually get polio when the mother is not immune.
This theory has been challenged in recent years, but it is not possible to predict or easily understand the consequences we have encountered with microorganisms.
In the case of Kovid, it is still too early to realize the full implications. If we are lucky, historians in the twenty-fifth century refer to our encounter with Kovid to describe the unexplained death of handshakes and the rise of elbow-bumping – or it fueled the rise of a mysterious new religion. “Zoom.”
And if we are not so lucky? Think of the Romans.
Contributing to the opinion of Stephen Mihm Bloomberg, Associate Professor of History at the University of Georgia.