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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Love and Fear in a Time of Coronavirus

medical staff wearing face masks and scrubs wave and send heart messages from window

medical staff wearing face masks and scrubs wave and send heart messages from window

Bill Dohar

Manu Fernandez/Associated Press

Bill Dohar is a senior lecturer with the School of Religious Studies at Santa Clara University. Views are his own.

Over the past few weeks I've been struck by the similarities of the Covid-19 pandemic and the Black Death. I studied the latter decades ago when I was working on a dissertation about the plague's impact on religion. Biologically, these two diseases live in different worlds: bacterial and viral but also (at least up to this point) in terms of mortality. In spite of the horrific numbers of Covid-19 deaths around the globe to date, the swath that bubonic plague cut through medieval and early modern populations was far more immense.

Where the similarities lie—and this would be the case with any epidemic—is in the effects of a rampant disease. After sickness and mortality comes the effect of fear: fear of one’s own mortality, of unfamiliar scarcity and want, of the stranger, of fundamental changes to a world, society, style of life we may have thought inviolable.  As we’ve seen, too, in the Clovid-19 news cycle, fear gets fanned by conflicting and confusing messages from political and religious leaders. While the message is clear from some quarters that “we’re all in this together,” the lived realities are of a strange singularity that can either serve as a context for good or ill. Fear becomes a sort of secondary virus.

My research into the Black Death ended up as a micro-history of a small English diocese. As impressive as the mortality figures were—something in the area of 25 to 30% of Hereford parish clergy died in just a few months—the effect of these numbers was dulling. The whole thing felt remote in time and place save for one single factor: that I was counting dead priests when HIV/AIDS was reaching its high-water mark in mortality across the globe. I realized with every glance at the obituaries in major newspapers that an effect which I didn’t see as readily in statistics was palpable in the late 1980s. Here was fear again, of contagion, of high rates of sickness and death, fear of minorities where the virus seemed more pronounced—sexual, racial, and cultural.

What heightens fear in an epidemic is not knowing who and when the disease will strike. Medievals likened plague to “the arrow that flies by day” (Psalm 51). Even after the science on HIV transmission was clear, people worried about atmospheric contagion in the deadly disease. During a sabbatical year in the mid-90s, I volunteered at a hospice in San Francisco. Even among people who clearly should have known better, some family members refused to visit their dying loved ones for fear of 'catching it.'

One way to counter this fear is to find the root causes of a disease. Scientific explorations are one thing, but what some consider moral answers to a plague can target individuals and communities. For some Christians during the Black Death, the Jews were judged responsible for the plague through the poisoning of wells and horrific pogroms followed. Many church leaders pointed out sexual immorality and greed as causes for God’s fierce judgment. 

Covid-19 has sparked some of these old ways of weaponizing fear. Calling the disease a “foreign” or “Chinese” virus is not only bad science but is intended to strike a distance between immoral agents who generated this plague and the innocent who should be spared it. Of course, the sides are relative and the targets are often typical. Just last week, an evangelical pastor who offers counsel to like-minded people on Capitol Hill pointed out his own understanding of Covid-19 as an instrument of God’s anger toward certain sinners. These included those who show “a proclivity toward lesbianism and homosexuality” along with adherents to a “religion of environmentalism.” Fortunately, this facile association between plague and God’s favored weaponry is far less common than it was at the time of the Black Death. But fear was and is still used as a goad to moral change in the direction of whoever’s preaching the message. The French historian, Jean Gaudemet, described this moral vein in medieval and early modern Christianity as an “evangelism of fear.”

There is a valuable truth here and it’s one of compunction, when fear or anxiety in the face of human frailty and limitation can inspire a genuine change of heart. We can be very interested in the ultimate questions of life once death seems imminent. Of course, this is a potential response in any experience where one is forced to confront the likelihood of death.  Magnify that threat to the level of an epidemic and add to it the mystery of where it comes from and who it might strike and you have a remarkably wide appeal for personal moral reflection. In his own pondering of Covid-19, Andrew Sullivan wrote that, “plagues can make us see where we are, shake us into a new understanding of the world, reshape our priorities, and help us judge what really matters and what actually doesn’t.” 

In this manner, what starts as fear can move one to love. In the daily and blurring news reports of the virus, we’ve seen human genius at work in monumental efforts to solve the riddle of this disease. We’ve marveled at the heroes in ERs whose personal and professional resources are beyond strained. It’s shown up, too, in the gifts of artists, poets, dancers, and musicians breaking the gloom of piazzas and courtyards with defiant creativity. But it’s a human constant. Even in the midst of a medieval plague, there were many who moved from fear to compassion. A Swedish bishop urged his people to be “merry in heart” as this is itself a remedy for illness. And in the Swiss town of Aarau a little-known confraternity was born in the shadow of the Black Death, the “Company of the Fool,” to make onlookers laugh as a means of ending the plague.

Apr 21, 2020