A Classic Plague That Changed the Course of History: Looking to Antiquity for a Remedy in the Age of COVID-19

“PLAGUE IN AN ANCIENT CITY” by Michiel Sweerts, c. 1652-1654; Depiction of Athenians affected by the Plague of Athens.

By Anastasia Kaliabakos

In 430 B.C., a devastating plague ravaged Athens. This disease is said to have originated in Sub-Saharan Africa, south of modern-day Ethiopia. After crossing through Egypt, Libya, and Persia, the illness finally made its way to Athens, Greece—specifically, the city’s port, known as Piraeus. The famous Greek historian and Athenian General, Thucydides, discussed the epidemic in Athens in his well-known writings on the Peloponnesian War, which was fought between the Greek nations of Athens and Sparta—or the Delian and Peloponnesian Leagues, respectively. Although the war itself resulted in terrible carnage and slaughter, the Plague of Athens (as it is commonly referred to today) earned its infamous and devastating reputation for its death toll as well. It is estimated that the disease killed more than a third of the population of Athens—a number close to 100,000 people. When the plague died down five years after its conception, life in Athens was extremely different than it had been before the disease had come. During the epidemic, the moral compass of the city was lost in favor of a philosophy along the lines of “living each day as if it were your last.” This moral panic gave way to economic pandemonium and an imbalance of social and political power among the Athenian classes. Additionally, the huge amounts of lost lives, including that of the esteemed general and statesman, Pericles, contributed to Athens’ gradual decline in power—a reduction in the quantity of potential soldiers for their armies along with the decimation of their citizens prevented Athens from spreading their influence throughout the Mediterranean as before. Ultimately, Athens succumbed to the Spartans, falling from their superpower status in Ancient Greece.

COVID-19, commonly known as the Coronavirus, has taken a tight hold on the world’s attention and life as we know it. Originating in Wuhan, China, it has rapidly spread across the globe in a matter of months, altering what people have known as “normal” lives. With travel halted all across the nation, schools shut down until September (or possibly even longer), and fear spreading just as fast as the virus itself, it is difficult to imagine life as it was before the Coronavirus. And it is likely that it will never return to the way it was—with upwards of 45,000 deaths in the United States alone with a projected death count of tens of thousands more, how can it? This is not only because of the numbers—each statistic represents a person, family member, co-worker, partner, friend. Each death is a devastating blow, not only to our country, but to each individual who resides within it. It is difficult, especially in a city like New York, which has been hit the hardest in the nation, to see any glimmer of hope or any silver-lining stemming from this horrific crisis.

However, it cannot go unacknowledged that constant work is being done to put an end to this virus that has taken something from, not only everyone in this country, but almost everyone in the entire world. Every day, our dedicated health care professionals are working tirelessly to fight this invisible enemy, putting their own lives at risk for the sake of caring for those in need. Tests are continuously being developed, and time and money is being poured into a vaccine to prevent a second wave of outbreaks. The Federal Government, under the leadership of President Trump, has sent checks to individuals and small businesses in order to help keep them afloat and put food on the table for the next month of restrictive measures. The population is staying home in quarantine, listening to experts like NIAID Director Dr. Fauci and Ambassador at Large Dr. Birx, putting their lives on hold and taking responsible actions in order to limit the consequences of this virus as much as possible. In an age where everyone seems to only be joined by the fact that we are all so divided, to see everyone come together in this time of crisis is reassuring and promising.

The legacy of Athens shifted dramatically after the plague. Therefore, it is paramount for our status as one of the most influential and powerful nations in the world to not have the same fate. The figurehead and leader of the Coronavirus task force, Dr. Fauci, was a Classics major at the College of the Holy Cross; with his unique perspective as a Classicist and a doctor, we can look to the past to avoid putting our country at risk of decline.

Stay home, stay safe, and never lose hope.

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