Christians and Pandemics through the Ages (260, 1347, 1665,…2020)

Mar 30, 2020 by

by Matthew Payne, Australian Church Record:

The ‘coronavirus’ (COVID-19) has put the world into a panic. It is clearly extremely contagious and a significant threat to many lives. Nobody knows how long it will last or what its ultimate effects will be. Amidst the uncertainty, most people are unsure how to respond or what to expect.

In this post I want to lay out some historical and theological perspectives that I think help us think more clearly about this challenging issue.

A Bit of Perspective

Until the rise of modern medicine, western civilisation experienced pandemics very regularly. The best-known example is the notorious ‘Black Death’, a strain of bubonic plague that swept through Europe between 1347-1351, killing about a third of the continent’s inhabitants in the process.

More modest outbreaks of plague hit cities and towns regularly. It was practically a seasonal event in early-modern London: today we have ‘flu season’ whereas they had ‘plague season’. But particularly devastating bouts of the disease occurred far too often… 1563, 1593, 1603, 1625, 1636… and most memorably in 1665. At its peak, the Great London Plague of 1665 saw about 7000 people die each week. It’s hard to even imagine the practicalities of dealing with that many corpses! By the time it had run its course, the outbreak had killed about a hundred thousand people: a quarter of London’s population.

I don’t mean to imply that coronavirus is similar to bubonic plague. It isn’t. What I am trying to highlight is that our normal experience of life is radically different to that of every generation prior to the twentieth century. In God’s kindness, we live in an era of medical and biological expertise by which we generally (and quite reasonably) expect that effective vaccines and cures will be readily available. Prior generations knew nothing of that expectation. They endured all their pains and illnesses without medicines to offer healing or relief of symptoms. Until the advent of vaccinations and modern medicine, the threat of infectious and deadly disease was a prominent feature of ordinary human life.

Our present experience has brought us one step towards that of previous generations. It’s only one step, and a very small one. Our quality of life remains incomparably better than theirs. Yet this experience has been an unwelcome jolt to many. It has forced us to face some harsh realities of life that we aren’t used to facing anymore.

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