Unprecedented. It seems like that is the chosen term for the past two years. As our world crashed around us, we were told that these were unprecedented times and that it was okay for no one to know what they were doing. Then we experienced political unrest, where we were told that we were experiencing political unrest like never seen before. Most recently, we have seen new violence break out in all parts of the world. And even though the term unprecedented hasn’t been used for all of them, it does feel like that is in the background– that this is all new territory.
The only problem is that it isn’t. None of this is new. None of this is unprecedented. The definition of unprecedented is something new and never seen before. The sum of human existence tells us that things like disease, political turmoil, and violence are normal and expected. To call these times unprecedented is misleading. They are only unprecedented because we think they ought to be and have therefore made them so. Maybe modernity isn’t quite as different from the other periods before it, I don’t know why society seems so dead set on forgetting this, but someone needs to remember. I think we should take a deeper look at how unprecedented the disease COVID-19 is in light of history.
There are two qualifications I think are worth issuing. One, my intent with this piece is not to minimize how bad the disease is, but instead examine it in context of the past (and the disease’s own death rate). The terror it holds in the public imagination as an individually terrifying killer doesn’t seem entirely justified. Secondly, I will readily acknowledge that there are a lot of unique aspects to COVID-19. In particular, the global impact of the disease does seem to surpass other diseases that have come before it. With a world that is more interconnected than before, something like a disease has the potential to affect places more quickly. However, uniqueness does not mean unprecedented.
The origin of the moniker “unprecedented times” was of course during the COVID-19 pandemic. The disease rocked the world in spring of 2020. It came out of China and quickly spread across the globe. We saw people die, lives ruined, and communities torn apart as we tried to come up with a good response. We watched as our government used the pandemic as a reason for new legislation and regulation with little criticism or conversation. People who dissented, for whatever reason, were labeled “Grandma-killers” despite seeing their concerns about the economic ramifications of lockdown manifest1. If “unprecedented times” are going to be used as the reason for drastic and new policies, then these times better be really unprecedented. It can’t be just a step in the progression, it better be a whole leap and then some. Humanity has had to deal with disease outbreaks forever. COVID-19 follows in those footsteps. If anything, it was a return to what humans have dealt with for years.
One of the most famous plagues was the Black Death in 1347, an outbreak of the Bubonic Plague. It is the most well-known outbreak of the Bubonic Plague, which has had three main outbreaks. The first dates back to the Byzantine Empire and is known as the Plague of Justinian. Focused on cities, the disease managed to reach from Constantinople to Britain2. The third (and so far, final one) began in 1855 in China and spread throughout the world, though it mainly stayed within China and India. The last one claimed 15 million lives before finally concluding in the 1950s3. Among just the three outbreaks, the Bubonic Plague is estimated to have claimed around 90 million people.
Looking at just one disease and its major outbreaks, should COVID be seen as abnormal or unprecedented? The last major Bubonic Plague outbreak ended when our grandparents were in their 30s. Human experience cannot be looked at through the lens of the past 50 or 70 years. When faced with the seriousness of disease, we have a choice to give up living or embrace the danger inherent in life. Part of the human experience has always included taking calculated risks when it comes to danger – this includes diseases. People have always lived among diseases. They didn’t have the choice to run and hide, to wait until they felt safe. Living required them to push past fear and provide for themselves and others in their community. Life still asks for all these things today.
Granted, COVID-19 is not the Black Death. The actual diseases are not that comparable except in their global nature and the seeming response. In the United States, we can see that even in our own short history, outbreak of disease is a constant. In the span of four hundred years, we have had an outbreak of smallpox from 1633-34, then later in 1721, 1752, 1764, and 17754, yellow fever in 1793, three waves of cholera between 1832-1866, scarlet fever in 1858, typhoid in 1906-1907, the height of polio from 1916-1955, Spanish flu in 1918, diphtheria in 1921-1925, another flu outbreak in 1957, a measles outbreak between 1981-1991, Swine Flu in 2009, and whooping cough in 2010 and 20145. Not all these diseases were the same in their impact and death rate, but each were tragic in their own right. Going into the future, we can expect to face more diseases and outbreaks of disease. Modernity cannot save us. We need to remember that despite all of this, society has survived. We are not the first and will not be the last, but life will go on.
As a generation who has been blessed by modernity, we can find hope in the fact we are not trailblazing a path forward through disease. We are not responsible for trying to figure it all out; we have the experiences and wisdom of those in the past to guide us. A type of comfort can be found in the knowledge disease is not forever and will pass like everything else. Good and bad times will come and go. My second source of hope is the sovereignty of God. As I live in a world full of danger and threats, corrupted by the fallenness of man, my ultimate comfort is in knowing that God is in complete control. I will die when God allows me to. This isn’t an excuse for imprudent and foolish behavior. As Christians we are called to hold our lives out as offerings to God. So, when I die, and I know I will, my comfort will be in the fact that it was God’s will to call me home. The best place to always be is in His will.
- Kampeas, Ron. “Conservative Influencer Bethany Mandel Says You Can Call Her a ‘Grandma Killer’.” The Times of Israel, 11 July 2020, https://www.timesofisrael.com/conservative-influencer-bethany-mandel-says-you-can-call-her-a-grandma-killer/?msclkid=0c05062db90111ecb93d9f5a63062c2a.
- Sessa, Kristina. “The Justinianic Plague.” Origins, Ohio Humanities, 1 June 1970, https://origins.osu.edu/connecting-history/covid-justinianic-plague-lessons?language_content_entity=en.
- Andrews, Evan. “6 Devastating Plagues.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 12 Oct. 2016, https://www.history.com/news/6-devastating-plagues.
- Hasselgren, Per-Olof. “The Smallpox Epidemics in America in the 1700s and the Role of the Surgeons: Lessons to Be Learned during the Global Outbreak of Covid-19.” World Journal of Surgery, Springer International Publishing, Sept. 2020, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7335227/.
- Robinson, Dana. “The Worst Outbreaks in U.S. History.” Healthline, Healthline Media, 24 Mar. 2020, https://www.healthline.com/health/worst-disease-outbreaks-history#polio.
The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not proport to reflect the opinions or views of the Gordon Review, editorial staff, or its members.