Disasters have a nasty habit of appearing from nowhere. They catch communities unaware, and people struggle to understand what a disaster such as COVID-19 really means. Finding meaning in an apparently meaningless threat to human lives has continually invited theologians and philosophers to provide much-needed explanations. Today, we seek help from scientists and other experts, and rely on their evidence and modelling to give meaning to the global COVID-19 epidemic. However, in the end the meaning a community attaches to a disaster is rarely based simply on science but on the values and customs that prevail. As we know from the tragedy of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks in the US, catastrophes serve as historical markers.
The phrase “after this event nothing will ever be the same again” has been repeated frequently after many other disasters. Frederick Francis Cook, chronicler of the 1871 fire that destroyed a large part of Chicago, wrote “in the minds of Chicagoans the city’s past is demarcated from the present by the great fire of 1871”. Since the beginning of human history, disasters have been experienced as defining moments in the human experience. Events such as the Fall of Adam and Eve or Noah’s flood were interpreted in a similar fashion, and Martin Luther represented the biblical deluge as a catalyst for speeding up the world’s decay. History shows that people have been haunted by and intensely interested in disasters. The Bible itself is a rich source. From the story of Noah and the flood, to divine retribution on Sodom and Gomorrah or the famine that drove Abraham to Egypt, stories of disasters excite the human imagination. This biblical legacy has been reinforced continually by the apocalyptic tradition that regards disasters as precursors for the day of reckoning.
Although we live in a more secular society, the end-ofthe-world model cannot but continue to influence the public perception of an event such as COVID-19. Typically, visions of an apocalypse have been displaced by the widespread tendency to perceive worst-case scenarios as the normal one. Disasters often are used as the key episode of a master narrative through which we understand reality and through which we make sense of human transience. Since they are as bad as things can get, disasters represent a challenge to values and meanings. That is why, across the centuries, they have acquired significant moral connotations. Perceived as acts of God, a form of divine retribution, disasters frequently are depicted as a form of punishment for human transgression.
In previous times, great catastrophes highlighted the transient quality of human existence and the futility of all purely human ends, and served as a stimulus for religious contemplation. Even in today’s secular times, disasters are invested with some hidden meaning. They are rarely perceived as just an accident but appear as events of profound moral significance. Not surprisingly, some have pointed the finger opportunistically at global warming as the cause of flu pandemics. Instead of blaming COVID-19 on divine retribution for human sin, some are all too ready to point the finger of blame for mankind’s supposed destruction of the environment. “Is our destruction of nature responsible for COVID-19?” is the rhetorical question posed by a commentator in The Guardian. History teaches us that disasters do not simply have an impact on physical health but are also a source of profound moral disorientation. They disrupt the way we think and behave because they call into question the taken-forgranted aspects of daily life. How we manage to deal with the destructive forces unleashed by a disaster such as COVID-19 ultimately depends on society’s ability to give meaning to the experience. Societies can learn to live with pain and even with death.
But if it is at a loss to give meaning to the challenges, communities face the danger of people turning on one another. The account by ancient Athenian historian Thucydides of the mysterious outbreak of a plague in 430BC in Athens retains its relevance to this day. For Thucydides, the danger facing this community was not simply the plague but also the reaction of the citizens of Athens to it. He noted that as fear spread, “anxious citizens disregarded civic customs” that previously were observed dutifully.
What really concerned Thucydides was not that people became too fearful but that they ceased to fear the authority of their old traditions. As numerous citizens abdicated their traditional responsibilities, Athenian society unravelled. Thucydides observed that many Athenians no longer feared God since they felt that because they were living under a death sentence, they had little to lose. He observed: “Fear of gods or law of man there was none to restrain them.” The lesson he drew was that matters were made worse when a community’s response to a disaster became uncoupled from a grammar of morality. Unable to contain fear with moral guidance, many Athenians responded to the plague by taking action that made the situation worse.
Panic led many to flee their homes and move into congested urban huts. Overcrowding helped spread the disease and, as Thucydides wrote, the “mortality among them was dreadful”. Thucydides’s account retains its relevance because it highlights the significant role that community values and attitudes can make in the management of a disaster. Good news Thankfully the response of Athenians to the plague goes against the way most communities respond to a disaster. Most research carried out on disasters during the 19th and 20th centuries emphasise the impressive degree of social solidarity with which the community reacts. Numerous accounts provide testimony to the relative absence of panic and the flourishing of acts of solidarity in disaster situations.
Sigmund Freud regarded disasters as occasions when social solidarity emerged and a spirit of altruism influenced human behaviour. “One of the gratifying and exalting impressions which mankind can offer is when in the face of an elemental crisis, it forgets the discordancies of its civilisation and all its internal difficulties and animosities, and recalls the great common task of preserving itself against the superior power of nature,” he observed. Post-World War II researchers tended to concur with Freud’s assessment and their insights directly challenged what they described as “disaster mythology”.
Mythologies peddled by Hollywood disaster movies communicate the mythology that when disaster strikes, people panic and that their communities experience increased levels of anti-social behaviour. Other assumptions held by disaster mythology are that looting is widespread after disasters; that victims experience shock and become dependent on outside response organisations; that evacuation orders will result in a mass exodus; that public shelters will quickly fill up with dazed and confused survivors; that price gouging will be widespread; and that martial law should be declared to impose order on the disorganised scene. Experience shows that people are likelier to engage in acts of solidarity than adopt corrosive forms of anti-social behaviour. The history of disasters also indicates that a community’s life will not return to what it was in the past. That is why it is not too soon to begin to think and plan for life in the post-COVID-19 era. There is no need to adopt a dystopian view of the future.
Judging by the experience of the past, if we mobilise our imagination and creative powers, we can ensure that the new world will be an improved version of the old one. Although catastrophes exhibit disturbingly destructive powers, humanity often manages to turn adversity into an opportunity. Time and again our fears of natural disaster have served as a catalyst for human ingenuity. The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 encouraged the application of science to the construction of an urban infrastructure. After the floods that hit The Netherlands in 1953, the Dutch constructed an ingenious system of dykes that represents one of the technological wonders of the world. Social reform is often the progeny of a disaster. Improvements in working conditions were promoted after employees died from the infectious fever that scourged the cotton mills of Manchester in the 19th century. City-planning took off in the US after the Chicago fire of 1871. After the 1909 Cherry mine disaster that led to the death of 259 workers in Illinois, new health and safety laws were enacted. The sinking of the Titanic led to a review of passenger safety, leading to a significant reduction in the hazards of sea journeys.
There is no reason COVID-19 cannot stimulate new and exciting innovations in healthcare and pharmacology. But, most important, this terrible pandemic can provide a timely reminder that belonging to a community is the most precious asset that human beings possess. The most important conclusion that emerges from research into disasters is that robust community life that encourages acts of social solidarity can play a decisive role in minimising the corrosive impact of plagues and