Inventing new enemies in times of pandemic

Talmiz Ahmad

Talmiz Ahmad, the author, a former diplomat, holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune, and is Consulting Editor, The WireSiasat.com is reproducing his article from The Wire. For the convenience of the readers, this exhaustive exposition has been divided into three parts. This is Part One

The pandemic has been used cynically to demonise Muslims and scapegoat them for the calamity, just as Blacks in South Africa were blamed for the Spanish Flu and the Jews in medieval Europe for the plague.


On March 11, the director general of the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared that COVID-19, spread by the novel coronavirus, was now a pandemic. In four months, this disease has spread to over 200 countries, infected over 1.6 million people, and caused the deaths of more than 101,000 patients.

Thus, COVID-19 has joined the register of major illnesses humankind has endured for over two thousand years – illnesses whose speed, geographical range of their spread, lethal impact and pervasive ignorance of cause, cure or antidote, have devastated empires, economies and societies, and over time enforced a re-ordering of political, economic and social lives.

As humankind has floundered in combating the scourge, pandemics have planted fear, even dread, among vast populations, compelling millions of diverse denominations to turn to the god of their faith – seeing their catastrophe as the expression of His or Her wrath for their sinfulness – and seeking from Him/Her solace, succour and salvation.

Pandemics in history

History helps to place the ongoing pandemic in perspective: we have first-hand accounts of earlier pandemics from across 2500 years which reveal recurring patterns in human engagement with the affliction and with the divine presence. Thus, during the plague of Athens two and a half millennia ago, which killed nearly 100,000 persons, the historian Thucydides writes that the principal reaction of the people was fear and despair, so that most of the afflicted died in isolation, alone and uncared for. The calamity also witnessed a decline in moral values, with citizens, fearing imminent death, focusing on immediate pleasure and profit.

The Antoine smallpox pandemic, that affected the Roman empire about two thousand years ago, lasted for over twenty years and killed about 10 million people. The medicine pioneer Galen has noted the peoples’ anxiety and frustration in the face of the disease. The emperor Marcus Aurelius blamed the empire’s Christian community for the calamity for refusing to join the rituals to propitiate the Roman gods.

But the epidemic had a curious unintended consequence – non-Christians were impressed that Christians worked among the ill without fear for their own lives, believing they were assured an idyllic eternal life in heaven after death. This boosted converts to Christianity.

This pattern continued in the later plague of Cyprian (250-66 CE), so called due to the records left behind by St Cyprian. The saint, in his work, On Mortality, urged Christians to see the plague as an opportunity to live the tenets of their faith. He asked his congregation “to stand erect amidst the ruins of the human race … and to rejoice rather and embrace the gift of the occasion.”

The saint’s exhortations and the selfless service of his co-religionists brought more converts to the Christian fold since the traditional gods of the Romans had clearly failed to protect their people. The pandemic further weakened the Roman empire, while strengthening Christianity.

The plague of Justinian in the sixth century, a bubonic plague that took 50 million lives, occurred during the reign of the Byzantine emperor Justinian, and was in fact viewed by his people as God’s punishment for his unjust rule. It originated in China and travelled westwards along the Silk Road, devastating Iran before reaching Constantinople.

Historians record that the malady had a contradictory affect on peoples’ lives – most became more moral and devoted to God, but, after the disease had passed on, many of them “reverted once more to the baseness of hearts …altogether surpassing themselves in villainy and lawlessness of every sort.” This plague was combatted by the voluntary quarantine of the afflicted. This plague too weakened the Byzantine empire and strengthened Christian faith.

The “Black Death” plague of the 14th century (1346-60) devastated much of Europe and the Levant, causing the deaths of 130 million worldwide (about 50 million in Europe alone). In The Reformation, the sixth volume of The Story of Civilization, Will Durant says pestilence was “a normal incident in medieval history; it harried Europe during 32 years of the 14thcentury, 41 years of the 15th, 30 years of the 16thcentury.” The Black Death, he says, was “the worst of these visitations, and probably the most terrible physical calamity in historic times.”

Historical lessons for today

The plague left several precedents for us to reflect on.Joshua Marks tells us, drawing on Boccaccio’sDecameron, that its deadly character forced people to shun each other’s company, with small groups even separating themselves and living apart from others. Others faced the prospect of horrendous death, Boccaccio says, through merry-making, “drinking excessively, enjoying life … satisfying in every way the appetites as best one could.”

Marks also quotes the historian Barbara Tuchman noting that, as certain areas were afflicted, neighbouring states planned invasions to take advantage of their weakened state. But, she goes on to say, “before they could move, the savage mortality fell upon them too, scattering some in death and the rest in panic to [further] spread the infection.”

This has had an eerie echo in recent times when US media reports said in mid-March that American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the National Security Adviser strongly urged an attack on Iran even as it battled the coronavirus; the plan was abandoned due to opposition from the defence secretary and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. Ironically, since then the US has itself been overwhelmed by the pandemic, now having the largest number among those infected globally.

Scapegoating the Jews and science

The Black Death also created a crisis of faith in Europe that was manifested in diverse ways. Many turned to superstition and blamed Satan for their calamity, while others took out their rage and fear on the Jews: already marginalised and demonised for the previous thirteen hundred years as being complicit in the murder of the saviour, Jesus Christ, and for denying his status as messiah, the massacre of Jews had already commenced with the first crusade three hundred years earlier.

The Black Death, with all its unexplained menace, readily nurtured what Norman Cohn in his book, The Pursuit of the Millennium, has described as a “collective flight into the world of demonological phantasies … [that gave rise to] a mass delusion of the most explosive kind.” As the plague continued, Cohn says, “the people grew more and more bewildered and desperate” so that suspicion “came finally to rest on the Jews, who thereupon were almost entirely exterminated.”

Accusations were spread that Jews had caused the disease by deliberately poisoning wells, adding to other well-entrenched calumnies such as their devouring Christian children. In 1349, massacres and persecution spread across Europe in which several hundred Jewish communities were destroyed and several thousand Jews were killed.

The most recent global pandemic, the “Spanish Flu” (1918-19), was an unusually deadly influenza pandemic. Though the work of Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch had familiarised the international community with the “germ theory” of disease, the reason for this pandemic was that it originated and proliferated through a virus, not a bacteria and could not be “cured” on the basis of scientific knowledge available then. Over a year, it infected 500 million people – about a quarter of the world’s population at the time. The death toll is estimated to have been anywhere from 17 million to 50 million, and possibly as high as 100 million, making it one of the deadliest pandemics in human history.

Due to the absence of a vaccine or cure, Howard Phillips writes that even in the early 20th century, traditional Christian clergymen viewed this calamity as a “divine visitation”, though the “sin” that humankind was guilty of varied with the preacher. Besides the usual references to immorality, alcoholism and poor church attendance, another reason proffered was “worshipping science.” A pastor even pointed out that the pandemic was a manifestation of God’s power to kill many more persons than what humankind, with all its scientific advancement, had been able to achieve during the First World War!

At the same time, several enlightened clergymen spoke of the need to focus on health and hygiene rather than divine retribution. An issue that divided the clergy then (as now) was the closure of churches. While more modern clerics backed closure on health grounds, others felt this prevented a “communal approach” to God just when “people are suffering His trials and punishments.”

Pandemic in contemporary times

Religion has two aspects: one, it spiritually links the believer with the divine and establishes a direct personal communication between them through personal prayer; usually, this interaction is a source of comfort for the faithful.

Two, organised religion has a communal and congregational manifestation when believers join together in places of worship to offer prayer and participate in shared rituals. For many believers, this sense of community engendered by congregational engagement with the Almighty provides a special experience of contentment and exultation, even rapture in some instances. The place of worship is also a place of sanctuary for many believers. Again, feasts and festivals associated with different faiths foster closeness and camaraderie between family members and fellow-believers.

Shincheonji Church of Jesus

As in the past, religious congregations have played a role in spreading the coronavirus infection. In South Korea, Isabella Steger writes that the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, with 240,000 followers, spread the disease through its robust congregational and proselytising activity. It is a messianic cult that also preaches that illness is a sin and encourages its followers to attend services even when they are unwell. It also has an active proselytising agenda which brings believers close to the community at large.

The first case from a follower of this church was discovered in mid-February, forcing the government to track down all its members.  The disease has spread largely because followers share close spaces, refuse to be quarantined and do not disclose their membership of this community.

Francis Jae-ryong Song, a professor in sociology at Kyung Hee University in Seoul, has described South Korea’s Christians (30 percent of the population of 50 million) as having an “evangelical mindset.” A populist cleric has defied the ban on large gatherings, telling his followers that god would cure them if they caught the disease and it would be “patriotic” to die from it.

To be continued

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