15 October 2020, The Tablet

The devotion to the Fourteen Holy Helpers was established in response to the plague

The devotion to the Fourteen Holy Helpers was established in response to the plague

If we insist that Covid-19 is an unprecedented, unique disaster we are not only deceiving ourselves, we are depriving ourselves of precious resources.

I keep on reading that this Covid-19 infection is “unprecedented”, that nothing like this has ever happened before, that it is uniquely terrible … Without in any way wishing to diminish the suffering caused by the pandemic, I think we do need to be aware that this is nonsense. In a far less populated world bubonic plague (the “Black Death”) killed an estimated 50,000,000 people between 1347 and 1351 – somewhere between 25 per cent and 60 per cent of the then population of Europe. (You can see how much worse it was than Covid-19 is now by the fact that the shortage of workers meant wages throughout Europe rose rather than fell.)

Outbreaks rumbled on for more than 300 years – 75,000 people died in London alone in 1664-5. Last year, (2019) there were still a handful of deaths from bubonic plague across the world.

Cholera also rose to pandemic proportions, especially in the nineteenth century – and just as US President Donald Trump seems to blame China for Covid, Europe blamed India for cholera (and, curiously, in particular the dangerous and obviously insanitary Muslim habit of going on pilgrimage!) And the 1918-9 flu pandemic killed 25,000,000.

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