Some of the ways we speak of the pandemic today would have sounded familiar millennia ago: It comes from afar—the plague of Athens Thucydides reports began “in parts of Ethiopia above Egypt, and then descended into Egypt and Libya and into most of the King’s country [Persia].” His geographic temporality becomes more granular as does ours: it came some days after the Spartan invasion from the sea; the disease struck first the port—Piraeus—and from there proceeded to the upper city.
The structure of this narrative is probably dictated by the nature of the thing itself: epi–demic—put on the people, a great evil that descends from somewhere else. Perhaps by supernatural transmissions; black magic; strangers; a plat by some enemy; at least it is not the Jews this time.
Like Covid-19, ancient pandemics were no respecters of virtue: those whose honor “made them unsparing of themselves”—medical heroes” we would say—“succumbed to the force of the disaster” in ancient Athens.
As today, it sometimes took drastic measures to make people of the past believe in the necessity of social distance. Manzoni, basing his account in the Betrothed of the 1630 Milan plague on a seventeenth century source, writes that the Board of Health ordered that a cartload of naked dead bodies of one single family be driven into the middle of a Pentecost celebration “that all might see the manifest signs of pestilence on their bodies.” “The plague was believed in more firmly,” afterwards he reports.
The flood of seemingly precise numbers that wash over us every day would probably not have been familiar to Thucydides but they would have been to Shakespeare. The first systematic collection of data on time and place of burial in the English-speaking world—the weekly, parish by parish, London Bills of Mortality—began in December of 1592 as a response to return of the plague that year. 10,622 dead by the end 1593.
It is this source, still printed every week, that gives Daniel Defoe’s Journal of Plague Year its reality effect, its credibility, the sense that he was there although in fact he was only five in the Great Plague of 1665 that the book chronicles. “Buried between 15 and 22 August within the five of the City and Liberties of Westminster: 598; Plague 488.” We, and the author, try to encompass this, the last such epidemic in England, through numbers.
And as today, numbers were both seductive and suspect: “In the City this week died 7496; and all of them, 6102 of the plague,” records Samuel Pepys in his diary for August 31, 1665. But he thinks this is probably an under count. The real number he speculates its nearer to 10,000; the discrepancy he thinks is partly because “the poor that cannot be taken notice through the greatness of number” and partly because Quakers and others who would not have been buried by a priest of Church of England would not have been entered in a parish register.
The deluge of data and analysis is so great that its sheer quantity has created a qualitative shift in how most of us—those not directly engaged with the sick and dying—think about this crisis.
By the nineteenth century doctors and government officials had come to see diseases in general, and epidemics in particular, through social statistics. Epidemiology, the science of the incidence and distribution of disease over a diverse population, was one of the legacies of the philosophes although the word itself—at least in English came later. But even the explosion of epidemiology that came with cholera, typhoid, typhus and the other great infectious killer of two centuries ago is nothing compared to what confronts us today.
Coronavirus 2020 will go down as the social science epidemic of the modern age. The deluge of data and analysis is so great that its sheer quantity has created a qualitative shift in how most of us—those not directly engaged with the sick and dying—think about this crisis. And the demands on those of us not given to such ways of thinking are considerable.
Just in today’s New York Times there is an article explaining R0—pronounced R nought—which we are told is messier than one might imagine but “is expected to shape our world in the coming months.” (It is the number of other people that one person with the disease is expected to infect.) Several paragraphs of examples of what would follow from different values of this number might help those of us who managed university level statistics classes and would still have the patience to do it again.
Another article on testing offers readers a link to the daily—inadequate— U.S. daily Cumulative testing totals—but who knows what to make of that because another article reports on the dubious accuracy of all but three of the tests on the market in the US today. “In the last few weeks, we’ve all become a little more familiar with epidemiological models,” begins third piece by way of introducing a graph with five very different projections for the next month.
Why this tsunami of social sciences; or rather why do we latch onto to it so eagerly? In part, because it is there. Unavoidable. The rapid increase in computing power and graphic representations have made it possible to crunch and display data with unprecedented speed and presumed clarity.
In part because for the vast majority of us who are not treating the sick or who have not lost a loved one to Covid-19, social science is our lifeline—however wobbly it feels—to a reality, present and future, that is shaping our day to day existence. No one is confronting us with naked dead bodies at prohibited meetings as in seventeenth century Naples.
Our dead are widely dispersed and largely hidden. There have been about a fifth as many deaths (848) from Covid-19 in the 4,751 square miles of Los Angeles since the pandemic began as there were in one week, 15-22 August, 1665 from the plague (3880) in the 1.2 sq. miles of the parishes of the City of London. For them numbers and rudimentary social statistics confirmed the horror of what they saw. For us a far more advanced data science in all its many avatars is largely what we can know.
But I think we—and here I speak for us in the United States and the UK — also crave this data because of the failures of the political leadership that ought to be analyzing it for us and formulating rational responses to the threats it represents. Instead we get a daily clown show that pretty much silences the competent administrative cadres that could be helping us plan for a future and understand a past.
Social science almost feels like civil society’s response to the failure of the state; it is as if by understanding a model of what is happening we can grasp its meaning and survive without the help our hapless President and his cronies. The cheerier side is that in some places—California is blessed in this regard— data analysis on the one hand and government on the other seem in sync. One is even tempted to try less hard to understand social sciences that are well above a lay person’s head and trust to wiser heads to figure it out.
Thomas Laqueur is a professor of history at UC Berkeley. His work on the history of sexuality, human rights, and on various aspects of death and memory have been translated into 16 languages. His 2015 book, The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains, chronicles how the living shape the dead and are in turn shaped by them.