The Pandemic and Epidemic diseases don’t only bring with death and infection. The chaos and helplessness that is causes expose the selfish and ugly face of humanity. The history of these diseases show us a glimpse into their era and help us draw parallels between the past and the present.
What is the present and the future, if not a repetition of history? Unfortunately, we are so deeply involved in the present and in the idea of the future that we fail to learn from the past. COVID-19 or the novel Coronavirus is not the first pandemic that the human race is going through. We have been through and survived a lot more pandemics and epidemics. Today, while we are facing this global threat, and aiming to overcome it by keep aside all our differences and fight together for humanity, let us dive back into history and look at the previous victories of “humanity” against such widespread diseases.
Pandemics and epidemics weren’t simply phases in human history, they brought about huge changes so much so that they shaped this society that we live in today. Germs that are invisible to the naked eye have played as much a part in writing history as the pens and swords.
Fear and hatred are strong emotions of a human being that fuel each other and overpower a person in such a way that the obvious becomes invisible and, inhumane, impossible things become normal. The fear of death or infection fuels immense hatred towards the one person or community that the mind believes is responsible for it. This leads to the creation of an imaginary wall between the person’s “own” people and the “others”. The mind then wants to convert this imaginary wall into a physical one, by whatever means. And, it doesn’t stop there.
The history of these widespread diseases show that they are not just about death and survival, they are uglier than that. Ostracizing, scapegoating, victim-blaming, and marginalisation is some part of that ugly scenario. Killing and burning an entire community based solely on the doubt that they are perpetuating the infection, are the others. For instance, during the Black Death of 1348, the Jews in Strasbourg were burnt alive because of the belief that they were poisoning wells and food supplies. Those that escaped this genocide, migrated to Europe, thus resulting in altering its entire demographic ratio.
The distrust and division are not only among different groups of people but also between the citizens and the government or the health authorities. During the Cholera Outbreak that affected the poor drastically, for instance, there was a popular rumour that doctors were poisoning and killing the infected to curb infection. In retaliation, riots broke out and doctors were burnt and killed. Cholera and Tuberculosis were identified as the diseases of the poor and therefore, there was increased hatred fueled by fear among the rich and well-off for the entire class.
During the outbreak of the AIDS Epidemic in both the USA and India, it was believed that the disease is a punishment for those who sin against God. In light of this, homosexuals and sex workers were believed to acquire the illness because of their activities that were against religious scriptures. However, when later it was revealed that such beliefs were baseless, it didn’t make much of a difference. The prejudice developed was too strong and, people believed only what they liked to.
In already disturbed administrations or war-like situations, the disease can flip coins and lead to absolutely unprecedented results. The Plague in 1948, is held responsible by many for silencing the revolution that was raging. On the other hand, it is believed that the Cholera Outbreak set the stage for the infamous Russian Revolution of 1917.
Having looked at these traces of history, a pattern is visible. With the outbreak, begins the blame game. Everybody protects themselves above all and the most vulnerable suffer tremendously, be it economically or by being held responsible for the disease. Those in a position of privilege look at the situation only through the glasses of that privilege and those in power, use their power to turn things around. The police and the armed forces are given increased authority and, many a time this authority is used for purposes other than controlling the spread of the disease. Where there is already distrust between the leaders and a community, things get worse and uncontrollable.
Comparing it to the pandemic that we are going through and the effects that it has had on our country, we have seen discrimination on various levels. Initially popularised as the Chinese virus, because it originated from there, the people of China in other countries were looked at with suspicion and blame. In India, there were accounts of the people from the North-East being bullied and called “coronavirus”. Next, the migrant workers that were returning to their states as a result of being rendered homeless and jobless, were seen as carriers of the virus. Finally, what seems like a continuation of an attempt to demonize the Muslim community, the virus became a “Muslim virus” after numerous attendees of the Tablighi Jamaat were tested positive. Presently, we get to hear about incidents of discrimination against these communities daily. Moreover, with the anti-CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) protests that were happening all over the country before the Pandemic, the government is using this lockdown to suppress voices of dissent.
The human psychology is much more than what it is given credit for, and fear makes it naïve and vulnerable. In the form of the ‘masses’, it takes a dangerous form. The past has lessons in store for us. However, whatever the future holds, we shall wait and be witnesses to it when we have to.
Alfisha Sabri is a student pursuing Literature from University of Delhi.