History is supposed to give us a sense of perspective, some way of understanding current events by looking backwards, at those in the past.
I’ve seen some very good articles, comments and blogs on the 1919 ‘Spanish Flu’ pandemic (which wasn’t Spanish at all of course), and some reflections on how our ancestors coped with the ‘Black Death’ and outbreaks of the plague at various points in the past. The waves of cholera that hit Britain and Europe in the nineteenth century also offer us some context for understanding (and possibly coping with) what is to us at least, an unprecedented pandemic.
But even a cursory glance at social media this weekend reminds me that for all the advances in medical knowledge, for all our modern technological superiority, for all that mass education has achieved in the past 150 years we are, in fact, very closely connected with our ancestors.
It is easy to look back at the ancients with their multitude of gods that had to be appeased; at medieval people with their belief that the world was flat and their unshakable faith in God; at early modern Europeans who believed in witches that could fly to sabbats where they communed with the Devil. These might all seem crazy to us but were widespread beleifs in the past.
And I’m sure there are many more examples of the beliefs and actions of people in the past that we would find ridiculous, unbelievable, or simply mad.
But it only takes a great event – a tragedy, a war, a natural disaster, or a pandemic – to turn us back into the gullible, frightened, and credulous people we so often fail to understand in the past.
This current pandemic (CV-19, or coronavirus) is not man made but of course it is spread by mankind. That is why the instructions to stay at home, to wash your hands, to avoid unnecessary contact with others, is sensible. At a time like this we should listen to the scientists, to experts, who, even if they themselves do not yet have all the answers to how this disease has come to cause such chaos in the world, are best placed to find those answers.
Be assured folks, the answer won’t come from minor TV celebrities, from washed out boxers, from fake tanned US presidents, or some bloke ‘down the (virtual) pub’.
Yet now some people would prefer to believe in a conspiracy theory rather than the advice of women and men who have trained their whole lives in the science of pandemic diseases. Just as some people prefer to believe that 9/11 was a US plot against Islam, that the Moon landings never happened, that JFK was killed by the Russians, or that aliens roam amongst and that the Queen and Prince Phillip are 9’ shape-changing lizards.
Conspiracy theories are fun when they remain the strange musings of people who’ve had too much weed or surface in science fiction or the movies. But when they start to infect mainstream discourse, via social media and the internet superhighway, they become dangerous.
Why do we believe in them when reason screams out against doing so?
Well, I suspect that just like our ancestors we choose to believe in anything that seems to offer hope or point blame at someone else. Something that absolves us of any blame or necessity to curb our own behaviour. But also because very many people (far too many in my opinion) are simply ignorant and easily influenced by rumour, especially if that rumour is propagated by persons that they look up to.
In the past that might have been the clergy, the Church, the keepers of knowledge in many people’s eyes. Now the clergy are virtually redundant, consigned in many western countries to a small clique. Now we should value science but so few of us understand science so limited is its teaching in school, that we choose the easy path and valorise celebrity.
If someone with a million followers on Twitter says it, it must be true, however stupid. If Donald Trump says it must be true, however incredulous it may be. We are not so far removed from our medieval or early modern ancestors then, but it is high time we took control of our own lives and our own ignorance and, once this is all behind us, set about educating the public properly.
CV-19 is spread by people, it is real, it is not fake news, or a conspiracy to introduce 5G by the back door. A tin foil hat will not save you and your loved ones, but good hand hygiene, social distancing, and listening to medical experts just might.
Stay at home, stay safe.
Drew Gray, Head of Humanities, University of Northampton.