A little moment

Plagues past and present

Come, my people, enter thou into thy chambers and shut thy doores about thee; hide thy selfe as it were for a little moment, until the indignation be overpast.

Isaiah 26:20 (as translated in the King James Bible of 1611)

MY GRANDFATHER WAS born in a pestilential year. Surviving the influenza pandemic that struck Australia in 1919, Pa’s mother called him the luckiest baby in town. Great-grandma Frances’s own father had died from influenza in an earlier regional outbreak in the foothills of Australia’s Snowy Mountains, so she likely felt the threat to her baby especially acutely. But 1919 was something extraordinary, an experience that, much like the war it followed, marked those generations who survived it. Months of border closures, quarantines, hospitals, anxiety, sickness and death understandably helped 1919 enter Australian popular memory as the year of the ‘Spanish flu’. No wonder Frances made sure her son understood his good fortune.

Now 2020 is on track to earn a similar distinction, thanks to the global spread of COVID-19. By mid-March, a wounded Italy reeled while a horrified Australia began to close. By Easter, the UK prime minister had been hospitalised with the virus and New York was struggling to bury its dead. Australia’s borders – external and internal – were almost entirely closed, its people in various states of domestic lockdown.

Each day still brings fresh fears, new rules, more infections.

Pestilence has grimly stepped into human history again. Like Isaiah’s original scribe, quoted above, who recorded those words about entering chambers, and like the hundreds of generations who have translated and read them in the centuries since, we are again closing our doors and waiting for what we hope will be only ‘a little moment’. Ancient rabbinical advice recorded in the Babylonian Talmud suggests that legs be scattered in famine and gathered during plague. It is a call to flee or hunker down as circumstances demand. Holed up as COVID-19 spreads outside, I find myself reflecting on such hard-earned wisdom. This is a clear Australian–European exchange, pandemic-style.


MANY OF AUSTRALIA’S great epidemics of the past were transmitted from Europe, and in this way Europe has a special place in our epidemiological history. Some diseases proved instrumental in the colonial project. Smallpox was observed near Sydney in New South Wales in 1789, soon after European colonisation commenced. Most likely it arrived directly on Australia’s east coast from either British or French ships, but even if it travelled from northern Australia from a south-east Asian vector, such intercontinental transmission was itself facilitated by European colonial activities to Australia’s north. Either way, the effects were dreadful. The ravages of such illnesses on Aboriginal peoples throughout the continent are literally immeasurable. ‘All dead! All dead!’, explained one afflicted Aboriginal man to Judge Advocate David Collins at the beginning of a terrible two-century story. But while recognising how such disease helped shape the course of Australian history, we should be wary of fixating on disease as the decisive factor. The European malaise that did the most damage to Aboriginal lives in Australia was, of course, colonisation itself.

Beyond the obvious phenomenon of disease as the ally of colonisation, the transportation and transplantation of sickness in a broader sense reveals a strong historical and cultural thread in the European–Australian exchange. While recognising its fictional setting, it is worth recalling that the seventh chapter of Marcus Clarke’s novel For the Term of His Natural Life (1874) was titled ‘Typhus fever’. In it, a feverish Rufus Dawes overhears some shipmates scheming to seize the ship. Dawes unwittingly prevents this simply by collapsing, prompting his shipmates to summon a doctor whose arrival is so authoritative that order is restored and the mutinous plans forgotten. While used as a narrative device, the story is conceivable precisely because sickness was part of many voyages to Australia, even on ships of free immigrants. Shipboard outbreaks of measles, whooping cough, scarlet fever and the like are part of the migration story of generations.

However, as the arrival of the doctor underlines in Dawes’s case, it is not only disease that Europe sent here, but the means of understanding and fighting it. This deep European cultural frame interests me most as I sit in lockdown in regional Australia. I recollect how the patron saint of Europe, St Benedict, included special provision for the sick in his sixth-century monastic rule. I think of places such as the northern English city of York, whose aldermen ordered the clearing of streets and provision of food to the needy while disease ravaged those inside the town’s walls in the 1550s. I smile in remembrance of the pardoner in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (c. 1387–1400) telling a story about a bunch of drunkards who decide to kill Death because he was responsible for slaying thousands in a pestilence. I chuckle at the friar in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (c. 1595), locked up on suspicion of being from an infectious house and so delaying the delivery of an important piece of correspondence. I recoil after reading Samuel Pepys’s diary entry recording the advent of the Great Plague of London in 1665: ‘Great fears of the sickenesse here in the City, it being said that two or three houses are already shut up. God preserve us all!’

Yet what is most striking is how Europe’s cultural history seems to have prepared us for just this moment in 2020.


EUROPEAN HISTORY IS replete with accounts of terrible plagues. The Greek historian Thucydides suffered from, survived and then described an affliction that struck Athens with great force in 410 BC. It reportedly arrived from Egypt via Persia. Almost a millennium later, Procopius described another plague taking a similar route from Egypt through Palestine before striking Byzantium in 542. The resemblance between these accounts is rightly treated with some caution, reminding us that lived and narrated history are different things. But scepticism should not make us too dismissive of the potential patterns of human history. When the Black Death struck Italy in 1347, it came from the ‘East’ – as did COVID-19 in 2020. Sometimes what appears to be literary convention might, after all, point to something real.

In pestilential times, the lines between reality and fantasy seem to blur. While Giovanni Boccaccio certainly lived through the Black Death that ravaged Western Europe from 1347–1351 and beyond, his use of it as a literary conceit in The Decameron (c. 1349–1352) makes it hard to separate genuine historical observations from a broader literary objective. The plague provides the cause and context for Boccaccio’s group of Florentine storytellers, and he describes the effects of the disease on city and society in his work’s introduction. The sick were barred entry to Florence, but the invisible infection still spread. Some healthy and wealthy people went into private quarantine, while the poor suffered despair and death when compelled to keep to their houses. Some people took every precaution, while others treated the situation as a joke.

Without necessarily accepting Boccaccio’s account as one of unvarnished firsthand accuracy, his description of a society that tries to hold off disaster yet succumbs to disorder prefigures the stories of our COVID-19 times. Infectious cruise ships being pressured to leave Australian waters; the sight of a crowded and carefree Bondi Beach, full of visitors flouting government dictate; the long, physically un-distanced lines of the freshly unemployed in the streets – all offer a harsh mirror to Australia’s sense of itself as an egalitarian, modern nation. The rising illiberalism of many government orders, however well intentioned, hardly provides exemplary models of democratic norms and process. Boccaccio reminds us that our own response to plague is every bit as mixed as that of our medieval forebears.

Even our sense of our place in history vis-à-vis the Black Death is oversimplified by a tendency to fixate on epidemic disease’s economic impacts and effects. The Black Death was a human catastrophe beyond measure, wiping out a huge proportion of the world’s population and affecting social structures and economies in the process. But there are persistent popular notions that it was ultimately ‘good’ for Europe, supposedly freeing its economy from medieval constraints, and these notions are informed as much by twentieth-century historical inquiry as by any fourteenth-century experience. Such capitalistic ideas of an economically beneficial pandemic need regular debunking, and we need to be on guard in case similar arguments arise in connection with COVID-19. Workers’ wages did not universally rise after the Black Death, for instance, and when they did it was not always in real terms. Most of the social and cultural changes that are popularly ascribed to that plague, such as the decline in feudalism, were, in fact, already underway. Besides, the disease then became endemic, afflicting Europe regularly for another several centuries. A more useful lesson from the Black Death than one focused on ill-informed claims about wages, trade and inflation is the holistic one that no economy can properly be studied as separate from society.

It can be useful to characterise historic epidemic diseases as short-term disrupters and long-term accelerants. In some ways this seems to be how medieval European chroniclers often recognised them too. The Venerable Bede’s History of the English Church and People (c. 731) has a plague strike the Britons and leave them militarily weak, which in turn prompts them to invite the Saxons to come to their aid in 449, thereby laying the foundations of the Anglo-Saxon ascendancy over what became England. Reality was more complex, but Bede crafted a good story. So too did Gregory of Tours, whose The History of the Franks (c. 573–594) records the death of Pope Pelagius II from plague in Rome in 590 – this led to the election of the great reforming Pope Gregory I, who soon led afflicted crowds in procession through the city, culminating in the appearance of an angel and the plague’s disappearance. Irrespective of historical actuality, both chroniclers see plague as having longer effects from a disturbing local outbreak. In Bede’s case the plague is part of the structural malaise at the heart of British society, facilitating an eventual Saxon takeover. For Gregory, the plague becomes an amplifying context for calls to reform and conversion.

Whether this disruption–accelerant model will hold true for COVID-19 remains to be seen. Early signs are promising, at least in the narrow sense of supporting the theory. In the short term, Australia and Europe alike were crippled by the pandemic. But they have also experienced changes to work cultures, educational practices, digital economies and modes of governance. All offer signs of potential long-term shifts. Yet swift reversion is just as possible, for history also records that unpreparedness does not necessarily beget a new vigilance. In fact, in Griffith Review 17: Staying Alive (2007), novelist Ian Townsend remarks that ‘the Australian public’s record in handling outbreaks of swift and deadly diseases isn’t good’ – and in the early days of the pandemic this characterisation remained at least partly true, exemplified by hoarding-generated toilet paper shortages. Such faults clearly sprung in part from a well-founded distrust of some sectors of government. Australians should never forget their prime minister encouraging them to attend the football as this disaster clearly loomed, nor the disgorging of 2,700 passengers from the infected Ruby Princess cruise ship in the middle of Sydney, a mere epidemiological stone’s throw from the historic Quarantine Station at Manly. Were a medieval chronicler to write an account of this time, he may be tempted to use such incidents as illustrations of the dangers of putting economy before society – or of too much politics allowing -pestilence to fester and spread.


I DO NOT yet have the luxury of hindsight to put the COVID-19 pandemic into a narrative sequence, but even by Australia’s autumn there were signs of what might change and what probably will not. If a plague is thought to be a historical catalyst, it can only work with the ingredients already in the mix. In this present crisis, therefore, I find myself paying attention to those signs of societies under stress. Australia’s emergency raising of welfare payments, new provisions for many casual employees, protections for renters, and the quick closing of department stores and airlines all show where significant societal weak points lie. Moreover, as in the bushfire crisis of the last Australian summer, there are signs that Australia’s federal system is occasionally dangerously inefficient. In Europe, tensions over the wider European project are again coming to the fore as borders close and nations look to define and look after their own, periodically glancing suspiciously at their neighbours. There’s little optimism in the idea that COVID-19 will turn the rising global tide of nationalist sentiment, from which neither Europeans nor Australians are immune.

But there are hopeful signs too. In the very early hours of one morning in March I sat up in bed to witness on my smartphone one of the most iconic images of this crisis: Pope Francis standing alone in the empty Sagrato of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, giving an extraordinary ‘Urbi et Orbi’ address – a formal message and solemn blessing normally reserved for Christmas and Easter – under a darkening sky. ‘For weeks now it has been evening,’ he said, giving voice to the world’s despair. Yet he also articulated how the pandemic has forced us all to admit that ‘we cannot go on thinking of ourselves…only together can we do this’.

And when I reflect on my experiences of the crisis thus far, I think he is right. Yes, there has been plenty of incompetence and selfishness and stupidity, but there is also a sense of solidarity both new and ancient that has spanned continents. Singing from Italian balconies has been enjoyed in Australian houses, offering a warming expression of the Australian–European exchange. Images of clear air in Paris and clean waters in Venice are giving Australians cause to pay attention to the environmental blessings the plague has temporarily brought, perhaps prompting a rethink about our national recalcitrance regarding global climate change.

On balance, therefore, I am hopeful. While I do not expect that COVID-19 will permanently rewrite the structures and habits of the world, I am confident that if we use our little moment of waiting thoughtfully, then we might. Like my great-grandma Frances, we now remember some of history’s hardest won lessons. We have also learnt to see our own society’s structures all too clearly, especially its economic fixations and social inequities. What remains to be seen is what we do with this knowledge as individuals, nations and a global community. Pestilence might have stepped back into human history, but its biggest footprints are really ours to make.

5 June 2020

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