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Reflections on the COVID-19 Pandemic


SoA 2020 Graduate Compares Today’s Pandemic with Ancient Plagues

As we told you in the last issue of Anthro News, upon returning from Spring Break, the scheduled topic in Eleni Hasaki’s course ANTH 313, Health and Medicine in Classical Antiquity, was “ancient plagues.” To recap, the students read the ancient eye witness accounts of three major plagues: the Athenian plague in Classical Athens (430, 426 BCE) described in Thucydides’ historical work on the Peloponnesian War; the Antonine plague in Imperial Rome (165-180CE) described in the works of doctor Galen; and the Justinian plague in Byzantine Constantinople (541 CE), included in the work of historian Procopius who was also covering contemporary wars.

The Athenian and Justinian accounts were the longest, most continuous texts (here are the links: The Peloponnesian War 2.47-2.55History of the Wars, II.xxii-xxxiii) and the students were asked to submit a short paragraph on the similarities they saw between the ancient accounts and current situation with COVID-19. With their permission, we highlight two essays, both from Anthropology majors. The course is extensively cross-listed across three colleges (COH, SBS, and Public Health) and students’ comparisons reflected their diverse academic majors. Dr. Hasaki notes “it made it a bit easier to comprehend this global pandemic when one compares it with several instances of pandemics in the ancient world, where plagues of varying intensity were quite a routine phenomenon, rather than extraordinary events.”

Today we present the perspective of Dakota Drummond; last week’s edition of “Reflections” featured the writing of Brittany Wright.

Mosaic of Byzantine Emperor Justinian and his attendants in the Basicila San Vitale in Ravena (consecrated in 547 CE, a few years after the plague hit Constantinople (541 CE)). The officials and Justinian are wearing their formal attire, chlamys, a purple one worn by the emperor. During the plague, as our sources tell us, no one could be seen in the streets of Constantinople wearing a chlamys.

Dakota Dean Drummond
Double Major in Anthropology and Psychology
Class of 2020 Graduate

The first similarity I noticed between the ancient readings about the plagues and what is happening with COVID-19 is that people want to assign blame. It was noted in both sources that the plague could be traced back to Egypt and from there it spread. This is similar to how we point out that COVID-19 started in China and travelled around the world from there. There is also a similarity of some people coming up with wild ideas about how or why the plagues started. The readings mentioned that these ideas were so outlandish that they only made sense to the ones saying them. Nowadays, the people also are coming up with various conspiracies about COVID-19 and how or why it started.

Another important aspect about the plagues and COVID-19 would be that both affect everyone. People of all ages, wealth, and sex. No one is immune to the disease and everyone is susceptible to the virus. Predictably, COVID-19 is particularly dangerous for the elderly and for people with certain pre-existing health concerns, however, the disease can also affect and even kill the young and healthy. Another important similarity is the role and vulnerability of the doctors and physicians during these outbreaks. It seems that in both cases, the doctors are working hard to combat the illness, but at least at the beginning, are not able to do much to help those who are sick. With no cure for either the plagues or COVID-19, not much can be done to help people beyond treating symptoms. It also seems that the doctors themselves are dying due to the illness from their sheer exposure to it. This has happened, obviously, in the plagues, but also with COVID-19 as some young doctors have died.

A major social similarity is that in both cases people were afraid to visit one another in fear of getting sick. People are self-isolating and are not able to visit friends or family. They describe this in the readings as very harsh even to the point of dying of neglect. While self-isolation is undoubtedly easier and more comfortable now due to modern technology, particularly the internet, the fear of being around others is still prevalent.

I also noticed the shared concern among ancient societies and modern communities for the treatment of the dead as space for proper funerary rites became limited. The ancient Greeks needed to throw the dead bodies of loved ones onto the funeral pyres of strangers because there weren’t enough resources to respectfully cremate everyone individually. This is similar to reports in the news about how we currently have a need to increase the sizes of our morgues. While it seems that we have not reached a stage of having to double up bodies in graves or cremations, it is worth noting that some forethought about increasing morgue capacities already exists.

Finally, it was noteworthy the people who have decided that they might as well have fun during the pandemics. The readings mentioned that some of the ancient people decided they might as well use their riches and wealth while they were still alive. They decided to no longer show honor or respect to the gods and instead they would party and drink to excess. They also did not really fear the laws as they felt that they were facing a much more severe punishment currently. Nowadays we see that people decided to go have fun during spring break and travel around to beaches and other crowded spaces with many other similarly like-minded people. They too have decided that while COVID-19 is bad, they still want to have fun during their spring break and not self-isolate as suggested by officials.