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Plagues, pandemics and pestilence: reimagining the future by looking to the past

Plagues, pandemics and pestilence: reimagining the future by looking to the past

Madeleine Pennington introduces our series exploring historic responses to plagues and pestilence to see how pandemics change us. 15/05/2020

The first attempts to relax the lockdown this week have predictably led to a groundswell of renewed speculation around when, how, and if we might go ‘back to normal’. Of course, this is far from straightforward. Rising cases in Germany and Wuhan confirm that there is no easy route back from widespread community transmission, and scenes from public transport in the UK demonstrate how difficult it is to maintain social distancing while (even partially) reopening the economy. The Guardian reported on Wednesday that queues would stretch nearly 2km if everyone tried to socially distance on their London commute at pre–pandemic levels. We already knew that modern life was complicated, but watching it falling apart and cautiously remade has only brought the sheer extent of this complexity into clearer view. So as we yearn for the familiar, ‘normal’ feels a lot like wishful thinking. Predictions that the aviation industry will not return to ‘normal’ until 2023 are particularly dissonant; clearly we should not be aiming for normal, and these are years we don’t have if we want to avert climate catastrophe.

Most of us had no emotional reaction to the term ‘pandemic’ in late 2019, but we now understand that this word means collective grief navigated in painful isolation, the steepest economic collapse on record, and deep and lasting psychological trauma. Often it feels like noise; mostly, it is just very sad.

How to respond? As political scientist Aisha S. Ahmad reflected early in the lockdown, the challenge ahead is not only practical, but emotional and spiritual too:

Among my academic colleagues and friends, I have observed a common response to the continuing Covid–19 crisis. They are fighting valiantly for a sense of normalcy… [But] global catastrophes change the world, and this pandemic is very much akin to a major war… The emotionally and spiritually sane response is to prepare to be forever changed.

The level of the mental recalibration required of each of us, and the seemingly inexhaustible supply of coronavirus ‘takes’ that has inevitably followed, is just that: exhausting. It is almost impossible to make sense of what is happening from the eye of such a formidable storm. Nonetheless, as we start to reimagine the future, there is surely wisdom in looking to the past – for this is not the first pandemic the world has known, and many of the emotional responses we most admire shine through in the context of widespread pestilence.

Thus, we might recall the compassion and clarity that was said to mark the Christian response to the Antonine plague of the second century – and which, in 1996, Rodney Stark famously argued was vital to the spread of the early Church. This same compassion is reflected in the life of Catherine of Sienna during the Black Death, as she resisted fleeing the plague and instead stayed behind to nurse the sick. And it is only when we realise that Julian of Norwich was a child of the Black Death (she was just five when it swept through her hometown) that we feel the full force of her famous exhortation to hope: ‘all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’

With this in mind, over the following months, Theos will be exploring historic responses to plagues and pestilence to ask: what do pandemics change? We don’t only want to know how our practical lives might shift, but how societies and individuals might be emotionally and spiritually transformed too.

Through the ‘Reflections’ series on The Sacred podcast, we have already been hearing how the experience is cutting to the heart of what we find most sacred. Such an all–encompassing process cannot fail to provoke reassessment, whether the values we hold most dear are ultimately abandoned or reaffirmed. As Ahmad goes on to say, ‘right now, denial only serves to delay the essential process of acceptance, which will allow us to reimagine ourselves in this new reality’ – but ‘on the other side of this journey of acceptance are hope and resilience’. Hope. Resilience. We might add compassion – and throughout her piece, I am reminded of St Paul’s most famous words, written nearly 2000 years ago:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal… For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face… And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

We are living through a time of confusion and clanging cymbals, of incomplete knowledge and the hope of clarity beyond it. The question, then, is what will change – and what will remain.

You can read the other blogs in the 'What do pandemics change?' series here.

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Image: chrisdorney/

Madeleine Pennington

Madeleine Pennington

Madeleine is Head of Research at Theos. She holds a doctorate in theology from the University of Oxford, and previously worked as a research scholar at a retreat and education centre in Philadelphia. She is the author of ‘The Christian Quaker: George Keith and the Keithian Controversy’ (Brill: 2019), ‘Quakers, Christ and the Enlightenment’ (OUP, 2021), ‘The Church and Social Cohesion: Connecting Communities and Serving People’ (Theos, 2020), and ‘Cohesive Societies: Faith and Belief’ (British Academy, 2020). Outside of Theos, she sits on the Quaker Committee for Christian and Interfaith Relations.

Watch, listen to or read more from Madeleine Pennington

Posted 15 May 2020

Coronavirus, History, Society, What do pandemics change?


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