Expert on the 'Black Death' puts Corona virus in Historical Perspective - Dr. Dodds talked to Robert Gonzalez

Ben Dodds

            Another day, another coronavirus update, another twitter hashtag, another meme. As the disease continues to spread from its outbreak in Wuhan, China, to more countries, the fear and panic leads to more and more comparisons to historical pandemics, specifically the Black Death. While the effects of the coronavirus are all around us, it is dangerous to portray the disease in the same light as the Black Death.

            The Black Death has become the standard every infectious disease outbreak is compared to, whether Ebola, zika, or the coronavirus. The 14th-century plague swept through Europe and other parts of the world, killing millions of people. Some historians estimate around 60% of the population died. Constantly looking out for the ‘next Black Death’ can be disastrous for a society, however. Dr. Ben Dodds, is a specialist of late Medieval England, and the Black Death. Currently teaching a course called ‘The Black Death’, Dr. Dodds explains why this mindset can be so dangerous. “We are much more worried about what we perceive to be new Black Deaths than with the real disease threats that threaten our society and our world:  the very large numbers of people who die every year of tuberculous, malaria, and of other diseases. But because we don’t regard these as pandemic threats like the Black Death, they receive much less media attention.” Dr. Dodds made it clear that this doesn’t mean we should disregard the coronavirus, but that what he calls “the myth of the Black Death” skews what we focus on.

            The anxiety of another Black Death occurring also leads to the targeting of certain minorities and groups of people. During the 14th century, people attacked Jewish populations over spreading the disease or accused them of being the cause of it. While the details are different, there are clear parallels between the racist ‘othering’ occurring today with Chinese and other Asian cultures. Viral photos showing people covering their face on subways if an Asian person is next to them, an Instagram post about how the Disney princesses should wear facemasks around Mulan, or tweets telling China to ‘stop eating bats’ is a sad and disgusting result the coronavirus has brought about. Dr. Dodds discussed why these parallels exist. “This is part of the set of ideas that generates this persecution of those groups. That they are culturally, ethnically distinct, they are an ‘other’, they are different, look how they behave in this way, it is likely that they are the cause of the plague. So, the actual details are different, but again [we have] this same cultural idea of ‘the other’ behaving in some sort of primitive fashion being the cause of disease.”

            For a society that claims to be more modern and accepting of others, our world reverts quickly back to historically repeating patterns and preconceptions. The Black Death had a much, much higher mortality rate than the coronavirus, so if any comparison should be made, it should be in the targeting of minority groups. Next time you see breaking coronavirus news trending on twitter and people calling the disease ‘the new Black Death,’ stay mindful of other deadly diseases and the effect pandemics can have on minorities.

For a longer piece by Dr. Dodds on the Black Death go to:

By Robert Gonzalez