Many adjectives can describe our current historical reality, which materialized when it became clear that the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) would reach pandemic proportions: Surreal, scary, revelatory, and humbling are all real and appropriate descriptions. Another term that appears frequently in news reports is “unprecedented.” It is certainly understandable that the current crises may feel unprecedented. After all, it has been more than three generations since the last pandemic of comparable magnitude. However, history assures us that our current global condition is most definitely not unprecedented. Humanity has confronted pandemic events many times before. An examination of our current state through a historical lens can perhaps offer us another adjective: hopeful.
Plague of Athens
Our earliest eyewitness account of a devastating disease event in classical antiquity comes to us from the Greek historian Thucydides, who describes in horrific detail his own experience during the “Plague of Athens,” an outbreak that occurred during a series of wars with Sparta at the end of the fifth century B.C.E. Holed up in their walled city in an attempt to ward off a besieging Spartan army, the Athenians found themselves fighting a war against their human enemies without, while simultaneously confronting an unknown disease within. Some estimates suggest that the Athenian epidemic killed up to 25 percent of the total population.1