IN broad strokes, human behaviour can be predicted with a fair degree of certainty if we dust off the history books and look for precedents. And plagues provide plenty of precedents, especially when it comes to the human need to find someone to blame. Denial is the first response to such pandemics, followed by anger and then scapegoating — with the scapegoats almost invariably being the already maligned ‘other’: the diseased foreigner, immigrant or enemy spreading the infection (sometimes wilfully) in the otherwise pristine and pure homeland. That purity can be ethnic or religious, and sometimes both.
The plague of Athens in the fifth century BC — accompanied with fake news that spread through word of mouth rather than WhatsApp — was initially blamed on Peloponnesians poisoning Athenian wells and reservoirs. With the plague claiming thousands of lives, order and morality both disintegrated and the very existence of the Athenian state was imperilled. Authorities reacted by tightening the legal noose, essentially disenfranchising the large ‘resident alien’ population and making them second-class citizens as compared to ‘native-born’ Athenians.
About 600 years later, the Antonine plague — brought home by soldiers — swept across the Roman Empire, killing close to 10 million people in a period of 20 years. Faced with an invisible enemy that his legions could not defeat, Emperor Marcus Aurelius blamed the Christians for their refusal to honour the Roman gods and launched campaigns of persecution against them.
By the time the Black Plague made its appearance in Europe, it was Christianity that was in ascendance and found its own scapegoat for the pestilence: the Jews who were variously accused of poisoning wells in an effort to wipe out the Christians or of using black magic to summon the plague. Massacres resulted from this propaganda, aided by ‘confessions’ from tortured Jews that they had brewed a poison consisting of frogs, snakes and ‘Christian hearts’. Thousands were killed; a contemporary observer writes: “Within one year… all the Jews between Cologne and Austria were burnt.”
At our core, we remain the same animal.
A popular trope during this time, offered as proof that the Jews were behind the plague, was that Jewish communities were seemingly less affected than the Christians. Ironically, the fact that Jews were largely (often forcibly) confined to their ghettos and followed religious laws prescribing cleanliness was likely the cause of their relative safety but this very fact was weaponised against them. It serves as a reminder that correlation is rarely ever causation.
The cholera epidemics of the 19th century, spreading across the entire world, stand out as a bit of an exception in the sense that the blame was not cast so much on minorities but on the dominant ‘elite’, which was accused of engineering a cull of the world’s destitute by using governments, health workers and doctors to spread the disease among the masses. Interestingly, these rumours and beliefs developed organically in lands and countries that had little or no communication between them as the first arguably ‘global’ pandemic led to the spontaneous generation of global conspiracies. Violence was the result and in one of many such cases a mob in Italy attacked a hospital that they believed was an extermination centre, killing doctors and government officials and throwing nurses out of windows.
Matters returned to form in Nazi Germany, however, when an outbreak of typhus was weaponised against the Jewish community. Dubbed a ‘Jewish plague’ by Nazi authorities, it further cemented official propaganda that the Jews were subhuman and inferior to those of pure Aryan stock, and that the disease was spread due to their ‘filthy’ habits. Aided by sustained propaganda, this allowed the Nazis to camouflage the ghettoisation and elimination of Jews as a disease-control method.
None of these examples are meant to instil a sense of smug superiority in us, or to demonstrate how much more enlightened we are in comparison to our benighted ancestors. Because we aren’t. Sure, our technology and means of communications have advanced vastly, but at our core we remain more or less the same animal we have always been: fearful and in need of someone to blame. Take how, in the early days, Covid-19 led to an increase in racism against Asians, with a White House official referring to it as ‘Kung Flu’. Ironically, with China seemingly having controlled the outbreak for now, in the city of Guanghzou the focus has shifted to the African population, which is accusing the authorities of singling them out as potential agents of infection.
Perhaps nowhere has the coronavirus been weaponised to the extent that it has been in India where the Muslim population has been labelled as spreaders of the disease and attacked through mainstream media propaganda and a slew of selectively reported or outright fake news. The past really isn’t another country, after all.
The writer is a journalist.
Published in Dawn, April 27th, 2020