Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death tells of a horrible plague that kills its victims within a half-hour of them showing symptoms. Foolish Prince Prospero and his wealthy friends shut themselves away in his castle, and for months throw lavish costume parties and dances. As a Poe tale, the story is bound to end morbidly, and Prospero’s final party ends in the death of him and all of his friends .
The story is dark and depressing, and bears a resemblance, in many ways, to today’s COVID-19 situation. It warns of leaders who don’t take responsibility, predicts that even the wealthy aren’t safe from viruses, and even illustrates the essential nature of social distancing practices. Poe’s plague writings feel relevant to us, largely because Poe wrote from experience, as cholera outbreaks happened throughout his life. But the tale falls short in explaining what happens after a pandemic. The outcome is not, as it is in this tale, silence and an utter lack of survivors. Life goes on after a pandemic.
So what happens? Although Poe’s dreary ending and our own expectations of the future might seem a little bleak, history can tell us a lot about what happens in the wake of plagues and pandemics, and it’s not quite as depressing as Poe’s portrayal. Major outbreaks occur at least once per century, and an examination of post-pandemic life is a little more hopeful than you might think.
Starting all the way back in the fourteenth century, we have perhaps the most infamous plague: the Black Death, a pandemic that killed an estimated 25 million people . This number would be staggering in our day, but was even more devastating back then, as Europe lost about one-third of their population. But the result of the Black Death wasn’t an economic failure–although the economy changed drastically, it was actually a favorable change for many. As The Atlantic explains, “The Black Death did not lead to a weakening of feudalism because medieval masters recognized the irrationality of an economic system that left a huge portion of the population undernourished, then acted in a concerted manner to remedy that systemic failing. Rather, the death toll so depleted the pool of available laborers that serfs were put in a stronger bargaining position” . The effects of illness on the economy is often hard to predict, with surprising benefits accompanying serious tragedy.
Much more recently was the Spanish influenza in 1918, a pandemic that created a situation that likely looked very similar to our own. It infected nearly a third of the world’s population, and ultimately took the lives of about 675,000 Americans . Public opinions about masks were mixed, many people failed to heed quarantine and social distancing warnings, and the economy took a serious hit. But the pandemic did end. And after the Spanish flu and its accompanying difficulties passed, the economy as well public optimism recuperated, and the twentieth century ushered in the Roaring 20s.
The Roaring 20s was a time of technological advancement, creativity, and socialization. As epidemiologist Nicholas Christakis explains, people tend to “seek out extensive social interaction” once a pandemic ends, and predicts that we will actually see our very own twenty-first century Roaring 20s once the vaccine has been distributed and the economy has improved . A contributing writer for the Atlantic agrees, pointing out that “the 1918 virus killed more people than the deadliest war humanity had hitherto experienced, but it did not reduce humanity’s determination to socialize.” While we’re inclined to think that our experiences are unique and that society cannot recover from the devastating effects of a worldwide virus outbreak, history contradicts that, assuring us that humankind has done it before, and can move on from it.
Poe’s story spurs mostly negative interpretations, but this story is, on some level, a witness of the human determination to socialize. This manifests itself throughout history, even after times of quarantine and pandemic. While I am in no way intending to minimize the emotional pain of losing loved ones to disease or dealing with the lingering physical effects from the virus itself, I believe that the collective tragic experience of a pandemic is, more often than not, followed by a time of collective celebration.
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