Pandemics from Homer to Stephen King: what we can learn from literary history

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Pandemics from Homer to Stephen King: what we can learn from literary history
From Homer's Iliad and Boccaccio's Decameron to Stephen King's The Stand and Ling Ma's Severance, stories about pandemics have - over the history of Western literature such as it is - offered much in the way of catharsis, ways of processing strong emotion, and political commentary on how human beings respond to public health crises.


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Insight from literature

Over the history of Western literature about pandemics, much has been said in the way of catharsis, ways of dealing with intense emotion, and political commentary on how people respond to public he...


Stories help us to think

Homer's Iliad opens with a plague visited upon the Greek camp at Troy. The Decameron (1353) by Giovanni Boccaccio is set during the Black Death.

The stories offer the listeners ways to c...


Authority's failure to respond

  • Mary Shelley's apocalypse novel The Last Man (1826), depicts the life of Lionel Verney, who becomes the last man after a devastating global plague. The book criticizes the institutional respon...


Modern and contemporary literature

  • Albert Camus' The Plague (1942) and Stephen King's The Stand (1978) depict the social implications of plague-like pandemics, particularly regarding isolation and failures of the state to conta...


Fiction by indigenous peoples

Some speculative novels written by indigenous peoples and writers of color are treating colonialism and the diseases that spread by the colonizers as the source of an ongoing apocalypse.




Spreading of diseases

Transmissible diseases existed during humankind’s hunter-gatherer days, but the shift to agrarian life 10,000 years ago created communities that made epidemics more possible.
We started build...

430 B.C.: Plague of Athens

The earliest recorded pandemic happened during the Peloponnesian War. It passed through Libya, Ethiopia, and Egypt,  and it reached Athens as the Spartans laid siege. Two-thirds of the population died.
The disease, suspected to have been typhoid fever, weakened the Athenians significantly and played a big role in their defeat by the Spartans.

165 A.D.: The Antonine Plague

It may have been an early appearance of smallpox that began with the Huns.
The Huns then infected the Germans, who passed it to the Romans and then returning troops spread it throughout the Roman empire.  This plague continued until about 180 A.D., claiming Emperor Marcus Aurelius as one of its victims.

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We remain vulnerable

We remain vulnerable

For all our advances in medicine, we remain more vulnerable to pandemics than we would like to believe.

To understand our vulnerability and to establish what steps we need to take to end ...

The Black Death

In 1347, the Black Death came to Europe, first brought by the Mongol army, then spreading through Europe.

In six years, tens of millions fell gravely ill. Nearly half of all Europeans succumb to the Black Death, one-third of Egyptians and Syrians were killed, and it also laid waste to parts of central Asia, India, and China.

Disasters that scarred humanity

  • In AD 541, the plague of Justinian struck the Byzantine empire, killing roughly 3% of the world's population.
  • When Europeans reached the Americas in 1492, the two populations exposed each other to completely novel diseases such as measles, influenza, and smallpox.
  • Centuries later, the interconnected world made a global pandemic possible. The Spanish flu of 1918 spread to six continents where between 3% and 6% were killed.

However, even the Spanish flu pandemic had a minimal apparent effect on the world's development. It was less significant than the first world war, which had a smaller death toll but a more substantial impact on the course of history.

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Baby advice industry

The baby-advice industry targets people at their most vulnerable - at the start of the weightiest responsibility of their lives - and suggests that they have some information that will ensure the f...

The two camps of parenting advice

  • Baby Trainers urge parents to get their newborn on to a strict schedule to integrate him into the rhythms of the household. 
  • Natural Parents emulate the earthy practices of indigenous tribes in the developing world.
Although these two camps are hostile toward each other, we should realize that baby advice is not mainly about raising children. Instead, it is a vehicle to suggest that it might be possible to bring the terrifying unpredictability of the world under control. A brand new baby makes it possible to believe in that fantasy.

    Nobody really knows 

    • For a start, nobody can remember what it was like to be a baby.
    • Most parenting gurus only have direct experience of parenting two or three babies, which isn't much better as a sample size. They can't assume that whatever worked for them will work for everyone.
    • When you have read all the parenting books, your baby will possibly follow an entirely different manual of instructions.

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