Exploring Human Potential

Covid, The Plague, and Smart Students.

Posted on | November 10, 2022 | Comments Off on Covid, The Plague, and Smart Students.

Mike Magee

This semester at the President’s College at the University of Hartford I’ve been teaching a course on “The History of Epidemics in America.” Of course, epidemic disease knows no geographic bounds, and so we have been addressing how microbes have changed the world we live in over many hundreds of years and across all of our continents.

One of the many benefits of teaching is exposure to brilliant students. One of them approached me this week with the August 10, 2022 copy of the BBC’s History Magazine with the intriguing cover titled “The Big Questions of the Black Death.”  This was clearly “on-topic” since we had begun the course with a session on “The Plague” and Yale historian Frank Snowden’s memorable quote, “The word ‘plague’ will always be synonymous with ‘terror’.”

As you might imagine, a course on epidemics in 2022 never wanders far beyond Covid-19 and our continued struggles to gain an upper hand on this rapidly mutating virus. But history does instruct, and Stanford University medievalist historian of medicine, Monica H. Green, does just that in an interview published in this issue titled, “When the black death arrived in Europe, it was like striking a match in tinder.”

At the close of the interview, in a turn of the tables, Professor Green  is asked whether the present has changed her view of the past. Here’s what she says:

“One debate that is very current about Covid is how pandemics end. I’ve come to accept that pandemics last as long as the pathogen is still around in a way that can threaten human populations. That’s something that’s important to remember about the plague – that it didn’t just disappear in Europe after the 1340s. It came back between the 1350s and 1360s, and then in subsequent waves all the way through the 17th century. It hit one town and then it hit another. It was terrifying. It was still incredibly lethal, and no one knew when it was going to strike again.

“Plague and Covid are different diseases, but what defines a pandemic isn’t just the pathogen but also the human involvement in the transmission. Every pandemic – from cholera to HIV to flu – starts as a local disease. The question is, how does  a local disease become a global disease? That can only happen if humans are involved. The successful pandemic pathogen will be the one that can most effectively exploit our mechanisms of travel, migration and exchange, transportation, connection and communication.

“What has Covid done? It’s exploited aviation. What did plague exploit? The fact that so many different societies were majorly invested in the grain trade. So that’s the thing that we need to look at – the way that we as humans are creating the mechanisms to allow the pathogens to spread.”



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