As public health experts have been naming for some time, the COVID19 virus is able to cause much more serious disease than an initial onset of respiratory symptoms:
Some people may well be able to discard masks, cope with catching the virus, and withstand the impacts of vascular disease, re-infection or long-covid. A good number of earnest people, however, have reason for caution. We do not want to catch the virus, encounter serious disease, nor experience longer-term harm to our bodies.
As the World Health Organization mask advice states, “Masks should be used as part of a comprehensive strategy of measures to suppress transmission and save lives … If COVID-19 is spreading in your community, stay safe by taking some simple precautions, such as physical distancing, wearing a mask, keeping rooms well ventilated, avoiding crowds, cleaning your hands, and coughing into a bent elbow or tissue … Do it all! Make wearing a mask a normal part of being around other people.”
The public health experiment of feeling blasé about large numbers of people catching the plague/COVID19 virus should be a cause for public discomfort. Alongside measures like vaccines and ventilation, wearing a mask aims to protect the vulnerable members of our community. That vulnerable person may in fact be you.
It is helpful to take a historical view to contextualise the global COVID19 pandemic. Without this history, our public imagination cannot place this crisis within our sense of how the world was, is, or could be. The 1918-20 pandemic (with its 50 million deaths) is well before ‘living memory’. When we do try to remember this ‘Spanish Flu’ of one century ago, we use that very phrase: a racist name which by using the word ‘flu’ also minimises the deadly nature of that pandemic.
So let’s be honest: our public imagination is centred in contemporary times. Our public memory, or popular sense of history, goes back into the 20th century.
Generations alive today have witnessed the 1981-current HIV/AIDS epidemic (35 million deaths); the 2009 Swine Flu (200,000 deaths); and the 2014 Ebola epidemic (11,000 deaths). Each infectious disease has been transnational in spread and devastating in effects.
Our focus blurs when looking prior to 1900. In addition, histories of infectious disease have to a certain extent been the concern of specialists within the medical community and the academy.
COVID19 as modern ‘plague’
Earlier in 2020 Australian writer Arnold Zable began referring to the COVID19 pandemic as ‘plague’ in his extraordinary ongoing Facebook series ‘What We Do In the Time of the Plague’. There, Zable shared observations from life in Melbourne in 2020 and now 2021. The second time I heard the word used was in a piece on Albert Camus’ 1947 novel The Plague.
The fact is that the millions of people who died in “the great mortality” were human beings who were sick … and they were suffering from something they didn’t understand, and they were trying to overcome it.
Elizabeth Bruenig on the Bubonic Plague
Bruenig’s podcast affirms what’s right before our eyes: that the COVID19 pandemic is the latest in a long history of plagues and pandemics recurring throughout the centuries.
Thanks to the graphic below, here are four deadly pandemics which occurred prior to 1900:
the Plague of Justinian (541-542 CE: 30 to 50 million deaths);
the Bubonic Plague or “Black Death” (1347-1352 CE: 75 to 200 million deaths);
New World smallpox (1520 CE: 25 to 55million deaths);
“Third Plague” (1885: 12 million deaths).
The current (3 January, 2021) Johns Hopkins figure for global deaths due to COVID19 stands at 1,844,518 with over 85 million confirmed cases.
A history of plagues and pandemics
It is important for us to become more conscious of the dynamic history of plagues and pandemics, and the human stories of those who lived through them. Reading this history helps us achieve a more clear-eyed view on what kind of event we are now living through. Reflecting on this history will prepare us to find the strength, courage and resilience to carry on without being in denial of how hard things are.
What follows are accounts of three plagues, one for each of the last three millennia. I then conclude with an observation about how the current pandemic has centred us on what matters.
The Plague of Athens (432 BCE)
“In 430 BC, a plague struck the city of Athens, which was then under siege by Sparta during the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC). In the next 3 years, most of the population was infected, and perhaps as many as 75,000 to 100,000 people, 25% of the city’s population, died.”
Neither were the physicians at first of any service, ignorant as they were of the proper way to treat it, but they died themselves the most thickly, as they visited the sick most often …
People in good health were all of a sudden attacked by violent fevers in the head, and redness and inflammation in the eyes, the inward parts, such as the throat or tongue, becoming bloody and emitting an unnatural and fetid breath. These symptoms were followed by sneezing and hoarseness, after which the pain soon reached the chest, and produced a hard cough …
By far the most terrible feature in the malady was the dejection which ensued when any one felt himself sickening, for the despair into which they instantly fell took away their power of resistance …
It was with those who had recovered from the disease that the sick and the dying found most compassion. These knew what it was from experience, and had now no fear for themselves; for the same man was never attacked twice-never at least fatally.
Thucydides on the Plague of Athens
With “death raging within the city and devastation without….Such was the history of the plague.”
In the same year of our Lord 664, there happened an eclipse of the sun, on the…[first] day of May…In the same year, a sudden pestilence depopulated first the southern parts of Britain, and afterwards attacking the province of the Northumbrians, ravaged the country far and near, and destroyed a great multitude of men [people]…
The Venerable Bede on The Yellow Plague
The Bubonic Plague (c. 1347-1352)
In her podcast, Elizabeth Bruenig quotes from Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron written in 1350. In this work, the Italian poet and scholar reports direct from the Bubonic Plague, when in 1348 “the mortal pestilence then arrived in the excellent city of Florence … Sick persons were forbidden entrance, and many laws were passed for the safeguarding of health… almost at the beginning of the Spring of that year, the plague horribly began to reveal, in astounding fashion, its painful effects.”
Deadly swellings known commonly as ‘plague-boils’ would appear on infected persons. “Neither the advice of a doctor nor the power of any medicine appeared to help and to do any good … Not only did very few recover, but almost everyone died within the third day from the appearance of these symptoms, some sooner.” The pestilence spread “as fire does” with “the clothing or other things touched or used by the sick” bringing the disease.
Boccaccio’s account describes people prioritising their own health over all else: “Almost all were inclined … to shun and to flee the sick and their belongings. By so behaving, each believed that he would gain safety for himself … Many men and women abandoned their own city, their houses and homes, their relatives and belongings in search of their own country places or those of others” because they felt safer outside the major cities.
In an extraordinary passage, Boccaccio explains the effect of the plague on human relations:
We have said enough of these facts: that one townsman shuns another; that almost no one cares for his neighbour; that relatives rarely or never exchange visits, and never do they get too close. The calamity had instilled such terror in the hearts of men and women that brother abandoned brother, uncle nephew, brother sister, and often wives left their husbands. Even more extraordinary, unbelievable even, fathers and mothers shunned their children, neither visiting them nor helping them, as though they were not their very own.
Giovanni Boccaccio on the Bubonic Plague in Florence
Trenches were dug as burial grounds, and “in the scattered villages … and across the fields, the wretched and impoverished peasants and their families died without any medical aid or help from servants.”
Elizabeth Bruenig also quotes from Agnolo di Tura’s The Plague in Siena: An Italian Chronicle. Di Tura reported that “The mortality began in Siena in May (1348). It was a cruel and horrible thing… in many places in Siena great pits were dug and piled deep with the multitude of dead. And they died by the hundreds both day and night … I buried my five children with my own hands.”
Bruenig reflects that in these times “a certain kind of nihilism began to spread in some quarters, with a grim ‘seize the day’ mentality gaining purchase. Eat, drink, be merry … tomorrow you may die.”
“We’re going to make it somehow”
Perhaps we avoid the histories of plagues and pandemics because we sense the suffering, trauma, loss, grief and lamentation involved. Great creativity emerges in times of plague too, however, helping us to find cause for reliable hope. For example, the Plague Lit site observes that Martin Rinkart may have composed the hymn Now Thank We All Our God during the plague of 1636:
Now thank we all our God with heart and hands and voices, who wondrous things has done, in whom his world rejoices …
The anonymous scribe comments “seen in light of the plague, the hymn is less a triumphant proclamation of gratitude, and more a poignant statement of simple faith in a time of crisis.”
Every pandemic or plague brings death to many and upheaval to all. In Elizabeth Bruenig’s words, people left behind at the end of the Bubonic Plague “looked at the wreckage of society around them, and said, we’re going to make it somehow.”
In a similar way, the COVID19 pandemic is connecting us with what matters. We can more readily perceive life as gift because we are that much more conscious of mortality. And we can remember the wisdom of all ages: that light shines brightest in time of darkness.
In these days marking the start of a new year, we all become more aware of time as a precious and limited resource. In 2020, our sense of time has been a little warped. Friends have said that February feels a lifetime away, whereas March feels like yesterday. So much has changed for all of us. And yet each person wants to experience our life’s time with a sense of agency and purpose.
Time is an invitation
Time is an invitation:
to feel the gift of the present;
to rise to the new with enthusiasm;
to climb to the heights of experience;
to dive into the depths of our desires;
to choose freely the more loving and generous path;
to make companions for the road;
to enlist one’s own heart in the challenge;
to walk tall and hopeful, embracing each scene;
to speak words of peace;
to listen with a compassionate heart;
to dance to the rhythm of music;
to sing from the diaphragm;
to love, to heal, to renew, to build;
to support one another in times of trial;
to attend to the inspiration of each day.
Each second, minute, day, week, month, year, decade and lifetime carries within it potential for growth and liveliness. Indeed, every moment calls us to embrace the invitation of our lives. With magnanimous and open hearts, hands poised and ready, and our feet firmly planted on the ground, we will be ready to walk the next steps toward life in fullness for all.
May our memories resound with gratitude. and our present awaken a new sense of freedom. May our new year 2021 bring forth hope and generosity.
The people of Melbourne in 2020 know a lot about preparing. We lived through a long Winter of preparation for the days we can now enjoy. Today we are living in a time of greater freedom – and we prepared for this over many hours, days, weeks and months.
We prepared through our daily sacrifices, social distancing and staying home; through our checking in on each other by phone, text and video; through our precious one hour’s walk a day, going in pairs; through our wearing a mask, a visible sign of our community’s shared efforts; through our tenderness with each other, our comforting and building each other up.
As we live with a renewed sense of freedom, we can choose to remember this year from a perspective of gratitude, tracing a ‘graced history’. There were traces of light even through the most terrible weeks of darkness, when a heaviness enveloped the land. We learnt much about our resilience in the face of adversity; we found new coping strategies in months of trial; we achieved something great and beautiful together. The people of Melbourne can now celebrate these achievements.
We have also learnt much about ourselves. We now see community where before we saw separate individuals living separate lives. We have found that we belong to and matter to each other. May our new awareness encourage us to reach out to each other more than we did in the past. May we live out a refreshed humanity.
Advent: a season of preparation for Christians
These days of greater freedom coincide with the Advent season of preparation, when Christians are invited to let God renew their lives. It’s a season for noticing the divine presence in people and experiences; for spreading peace, joy and hope among neighbourhoods, unit-blocks, communities, friends and families; for becoming aware of one’s own desires to nourish, shape and care for our world.
Soon, Christians will join the holy family in their joy at the new-born Jesus. For the people of Melbourne, joy is among us already.
Church of St James North Richmond, Melbourne. 6 December 2020. 33rd baptism anniversary.
This time holds the potential to kickstart momentum for the years ahead. We have spiritual choices each day of the pandemic, the effects of which will multiply. There is great promise and challenge in the air. We do not know what the future holds, and yet we can do our best to shape the kind of world we want. The situation moves me to ponder …
Questions in a time of potential
Will we reach out with friendship and compassion
reverencing the experience of our neighbours?
Will we descend into pure self-interest
forgetting we are always interconnected?
Will we build justice for the discarded
and attend to the needs of this vulnerable planet?
Will we accelerate our insatiable consumption
forgetting the earth and those in need?
Will we lean into generosity and large-heartedness
pouring out our lives with gladness?
Will we shrivel up into mean-spiritedness
and avoid the call to relationship?
Will we listen to the call deep within us
tending our hopes and deep desires?
Will we give in to desolate disconnection
and baser tendencies toward despair?
Will we give thanks before the gathering of peoples
praising the God of all goodness?
Will we lose sight of all we have been given
and hide our face from the light?
This moment holds great promise:
in the gathering of our hopes
through the call we receive.
May we, in time, have cause for celebration.
This moment is a discovery:
new trials and joys
fresh opportunities for liveliness.
May we, in time, embrace this experience.
In this time of great change and challenge, as we stare down a pandemic, prayer seems all the more urgent and necessary. Many of us need God’s strength in these days. I believe that seeking God in prayer is indeed a more urgent longing than anything else. The God I long for is the One in whom I find comfort and consolation. This is a God in whom we can hope.
God of my longing
God of my longing, I wait on your movement within: draw me close to you lead me to rest in your embrace.
God of my longing,
I cry out for your presence:
make yourself known to me
grant me your compassion.
God of my longing,
I seek your peace in the quiet:
the embrace of your Spirit
the joy of your life.
God of my longing,
I yearn for your tender love:
to renew my mind
to make music in my heart.
God of my longing, I want your very self: create fresh confidence within me to reach out after your hand.
God of my longing,
I call on your name in the morning:
hear my voice, listen to my request
be with me in joy and distress.
God of my longing,
I sing of your goodness before the peoples:
gather us in solidarity and companionship
move great communion among us.
God of my longing,
I believe your light is the true north star:
shine brightly in the night of darkness
be the guiding hope of this age.
God of my longing, I ask for your invitation today: send a new call to my ears give me the grace to respond.
Prayer and discernment
The inner encounter in daily life renews us for what we are to do. In calling on God’s name, and resting in God’s presence, prayer opens the heart to experience God moving within and among us. So it is that the door may open into a deeper peace and a renewed sense of hope – and other gifts from the giver.
It is on the days of distance that my heart expresses its deepest yearning. It is on the days of darkness that I seek the light with which to see. It is on the days of distress that my plea for comfort is heard.
We may in time notice a growing sense of ease in relating with God and an encouragement to keep going, both sure signs of God’s Spirit with us. We may also grow in our ability to recognise contrary movements for what they are – disturbances from the spirit of dis-ease and discouragement. Thus, we grow in our felt need for ‘discernment’ in daily life.
A prayer for these times
God of all goodness and consolation, be with our communities. Make us aware of your presence with us. Give each person the deep peace, comfort and patience needed to get through this time. Send life to our minds and joy to our hearts. May we see ourselves and each person as indeed precious in your eyes, honoured and loved (Isaiah 43:4). Send out your Spirit and renew the face of the earth. Amen.
A hopeful prayer-poem in the midst of the pandemic:
God of all days
These days of pandemic are weeks of separation
Build new stretches of community across our cities
Draw forth relationships of mutuality and care
Move families and friends to balm each other’s sorrow.
God of all days These days of pandemic are weeks of darkness Renew the earth with the pattern of your light Send new life to peoples, animals, plants, Give fresh vitality to the soil, the waters, the sky.
God of all days These days of pandemic are weeks of renewal Send forth your Spirit upon us Form steadfast hearts within us Beating at the sound of your voice.
God of all days These days of pandemic are weeks of challenge Be the guiding presence in our communities Be the animator of our plans Be the breath of our hopes.
God of all days
These days of pandemic are weeks of invitation
Call us close to your very self
Draw us into supporting each other
Bless us with light and life.
God of all days These days of pandemic are weeks of fear Tend our hopes with affection Walk with us in our darkness Speak words of comfort and peace.
God of all days
These days of pandemic are weeks of waiting
Draw us to your Word as consolation
Give us ears to listen deeply
Move songs of grief and love in our hearts.
God of all days These days of pandemic are weeks of upheaval Hear our deep desires Listen to our cries from the pit of frustration Resound new music on our lips.
God of all days These days of pandemic are weeks of quiet Give our streets a sense of calm Help our health workers in their time of need Guide our leaders to reflect on their experience.
God of all days These days of pandemic are weeks of mystery Unfold the grace of tranquility in our minds Unfurl the banners of your peace before the peoples Give us the means to glorify your name.
God of all days
These days of pandemic are weeks of insight
Transform our hearts with your presence
Grant grace and peace to our spirits
Send us out as servants, finding joy day by day.
Update: this poem was republished by CLC Philippines on 20 August 2020
These days are our preparation for a new world:
where solidarity shall flourish
where the land will overflow with honey
and the grass will sing with dew.
When the dawn announces such a day
the people will rejoice quietly
mourn the dead
pick up the pieces of existence
and work together to make real
a lasting city of peace
a radiant edifice for stewardship
of the land and all people.
The needy shall be first
and the music will draw forth dancing.
Every person will be free to delight
in the fruits of the earth
every child will hope
every grandma will give thanks
all the parliaments will announce a jubilee for the people
and all will remember
the ones who went before us,
the hospital workers,
the people who played their part.
We will savour life’s gifts
and never forget the violence of such a contagion
we will prepare for future calamity
and commit to care for the wounded.
We will begin our lives anew
keeping our groaning earth before our eyes
and coming to its aid.
We will bless the life we have been given
and reverence the people among whom we live.
We will reconcile with our rivals
and never forget that
we belong to each other
we are as strong as the weakest among us
we are the ones who will care for the land
and love one another.
We are the people about whom it is written
‘They shall be my people, and I shall be their God.’
I wrote this poem early on in the COVID19 pandemic as we experienced it in Australia: 24 March 2020. I couldn’t write with that urgent and ‘prophetic’ voice today; this second lockdown feels different to the first. That said, we can still reach for hope and encouragement.