A range of history books has recently appeared, seeking to put Covid-19 in context. Mark Honigsbaum’s The Pandemic Century is adamant that human degradation of the environment and disturbance of the equilibrium of natural systems have played a major part, which does not bode well for the future given how destructive we are. Yale historian Frank Snowden’s Epidemics and Society sweeps from Black Death to the present and makes clear that despite our “lapse into forgetfulness” they have been both central to how we have evolved and are also a threat to our survival. Reactions to epidemics have been enveloped by ideology, prejudice, ignorance and enlightenment but final triumphs over disease are rare.
These books are, amongst other things, an antidote to the wide currency of the assertion lambasted by polemical French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy in his own recent, rushed book The Virus in the Age of Madness: “People keep saying this is an unprecedented pandemic. It is not true. Humanity has had to deal with many pandemics, often more grave than this one. There seems to be an intention, a collective desire, to panic.” The first part of his declaration is true; the second is certainly not.