Before March of this year, few probably thought disease could be a significant driver of human history.
Not so anymore. People are beginning to understand that the little changes COVID-19 has already ushered in or accelerated – telemedicine, remote work, social distancing, the death of the handshake, online shopping, the virtual disappearance of cash and so on – have begun to change their way of life. They may not be sure whether these changes will outlive the pandemic. And they may be uncertain whether these changes are for good or ill.
Three previous plagues could yield some clues about the way COVID-19 might bend the arc of history. As I teach in my course “Plagues, Pandemics and Politics,” pandemics tend to shape human affairs in three ways.
First, they can profoundly alter a society’s fundamental worldview. Second, they can upend core economic structures. And, finally, they can sway power struggles among nations.
Sickness spurs the rise of the Christian West
The Antonine plague, and its twin, the Cyprian plague – both now widely thought to have been caused by a smallpox strain – ravaged the Roman Empire from A.D. 165 to 262. It’s been estimated that the combined pandemics’ mortality rate was anywhere from one-quarter to one-third of the empire’s population.
While staggering, the number of deaths tells only part of the story. This also triggered a profound transformation in the religious culture of the Roman Empire.
On the eve of the Antonine plague, the empire was pagan. The vast majority of the population worshipped multiple gods and spirits and believed that rivers, trees, fields and buildings each had their own spirit.
Christianity, a monotheistic religion that had little in common with paganism, had only 40,000 adherents, no more than 0.07% of the empire’s population.
Yet within a generation of the end of the Cyprian plague, Christianity had become the dominant religion in the empire.
How did these twin pandemics effect this profound religious transformation?
Rodney Stark, in his seminal work “The Rise of Christianity,” argues that these two pandemics made Christianity a much more attractive belief system.
While the disease was effectively incurable, rudimentary palliative care – the provision of food and water, for example – could spur recovery of those too weak to care for themselves. Motivated by Christian charity and an ethic of care for the sick – and enabled by the thick social and charitable networks around which the early church was organized – the empire’s Christian communities were willing and able to provide this sort of care.
Pagan Romans, on the other hand, opted instead either to flee outbreaks of the plague or to self-isolate in the hope of being spared infection.
This had two effects.
First, Christians survived the ravages of these plagues at higher rates than their pagan neighbors and developed higher levels of immunity more quickly. Seeing that many more of their Christian compatriots were surviving the plague – and attributing this either to divine favor or the benefits of the care