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BONNIE GREER: How the coronavirus will reshape our society

Plague Times: Michel Serre's 'The Plague in Marseilles' (1721). Picture: Getty Images - Credit: De Agostini via Getty Images

The COVID-19 crisis is a mirror. And we need to take a good hard look into it, says BONNIE GREER.

That the anti-racism, human rights movement has gained such momentum now is no accident. Black men have been killed by the police countless times, but why did the death of George Floyd affect us so deeply?

One reason is that it took place before our eyes, on recorded footage, shared online. We saw it. We heard it. But another reason why the movement has become so all-encompassing is that all this is happening during Plague Time. The pandemic is its fuel.

Pandemics can be said to be mirrors. They show us the real impact we have on the natural environment; maybe, too, they show us the real relationships we with have with one another.

Pandemics can strip aside the veneer of civilisation itself to reveal just how vulnerable, how fragile, how tentative, maybe even how false it all really is. And that perhaps we are, all of us, five minutes away from barbarism.

We are all the heirs of Plague Times. Historians have suggested that the population of the British Isles was disproportionately affected by plagues arriving here through trade links in the fifth century. This was one factor which allowed for easier expansion by the Anglo-Saxons.

Later, the Black Death wiped out so many people in Britain that there was a labour shortage. People roamed the countryside putting their labour up for sale, no longer tied to the land. They began to make political demands, which they even presented, in person, to young king, Richard II, when he met the rebels during the Peasant’s Revolt. He immediately betrayed them yet this was a significant moment in the story of Britain. This and much more that altered and shaped history was the result of the bacterium Yersinia pestis.

The danse macabre became a common artistic motif in Europe following the Black Death. Life on earth became the new heaven. The Renaissance celebrated the divine not in some saint with upturned gaze, but in the naked human body in all of its reality. Life had to be lived. Right now.

And if life lived right now was important, then maybe there were questions to be asked about the good God up in heaven who did not stop the march of gruesome and painful death; the saints who did not intervene; the holy relics that did not work; and God’s representative on earth, the Pope himself. Maybe everybody who believed in God was a representative of God, not just one man. People began to want to read the Bible in their own languages, not the Latin that had to be read by a priest or a scholar. Everybody was going to die and die hard, so read the Good Book the way you wanted to. It was the Black Death that aided the revolt against the Europe’s number one superpower, the Catholic church.

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Variola major and Variola minor – otherwise known as smallpox – helped create the transatlantic slave trade, and the Spanish Empire, too. The indigenous populations of the Americas, who came into contact with the Spanish, and thus were infected, had no immune response and were wiped out. The Spanish picked up the pace of the transatlantic slave trade because Africans seemed to have greater immunity.

In the late 1700s and early 1800s the tables appear to have been turned. European colonialists frequently fell victim to an acute viral haemorrhagic disease transmitted by infected mosquitoes. Known as yellow fever it caused fever, headache, jaundice, muscle pain, nausea, vomiting and fatigue. Some historians have suggested it disproportionately affected Europeans more than enslaved Africans, and that this was a factor in the success of the Haitian Revolution against French rule, and the decision by the French to cut their losses and sell the Louisiana Territory to the United States, a significant moment in the expansion of America.

The H1N1 influenza A virus, known as Spanish Flu – even though it emerged in the US – infected 500 million people. That was about a third of the world’s population. The death toll could have been as high as 100 million people.

October 1918 could be considered the deadliest month in US history as this pandemic turbo-charged. Municipalities closed down schools, churches, theatres, saloons. People who did not wear gauze masks were called ‘mask slackers’ and were fined $5 and put in jail. Posters saying ‘Obey the laws and wear the gauze’ were everywhere.

Philadelphia’s public health official refused to cancel a parade and within three days every hospital bed in the city was filled. Over 11,000 Philadelphians died in October, 1918, some 800 on the outbreak’s worst day. The foreign-born, African Americans, First Nations people, the Chinese, all were blamed for the spread of the disease. Some people thought that the Kaiser was sending it over in U-boats.

Soon after the outbreak, the Ku Klux Klan came to prominence, even marching down Pennsylvania Avenue in a show of defiance. Prohibition came into force, partly because people believed that the Italians and Irish were spreading the disease and that the closure of bars would help stop it.

Pandemics cause us to see who we are, what we believe in, what we want. The coronavirus has laid bare the systemic racism and inequality of the United States. And here in the UK, it is exposing the class system, alive, well and thriving. Stanley Johnson’s trip to Greece during lockdown is one example. Dominic Cummings’ journey to Durham is another.

But pandemics bring change. What will we do as it becomes clear that people of colour are disproportionately victims of this pandemic; that wearing a mask is a way that the majority population can help protect us?

Do we matter or are we – people of colour – just the front-facing expendables? The people-off-the-boat come to help – and if we die, there are always others of us, desperate to be here. With the right skills, of course.

This pandemic is our mirror. Here. We need to take a good hard look into it. Even if what we see is ugly. Even if what we see is cruel. If we do not, we are on the wrong side of history.

The coronavirus is remaking us. Will remake us. We have an opportunity to shape that remaking.

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