Precedented Times: The Plague, politics and literature

Image Credit: Simon Dobey and Nurina Iman Nizam

Simon Dobey unveils the harsh reality of what the Coronavirus has done to us through the eyes of literary figures so that we can learn from our past mistakes.

“Unprecedented times”, it’s a phrase we’ve heard a lot lately, but how unprecedented are these times? In reality, not very. While the globalised nature of the world today presents its own specific challenges in battling Covid-19, the devastating nature of infectious diseases and the societal fallout they precipitate have already been explored in classical literature.

Sophocles’ tragedy, Oedipus Rex, takes place amidst a plague which devastated the city of Thebes. It is difficult to say exactly what caused the plague that sickened the residents of Thebes. Some have suggested that the plague, like our own, is a ‘zoonosis’, meaning it jumped from animals to humans. In fact, there are several references throughout the text of Oedipus Rex which highlight the death of animals: “a blight upon our grazing flock and herd” - a statement which echoes the sentiments of the rats in the town of Oran Camus illustrates in his novel, The Plague, published over 70 years ago in 1947.

The time in which Oedipus Rex was most likely written coincides with the period that Thucydides documents the plague of Athens. Thucydides determined that the plague was most likely spread by returning soldiers from the Peloponnesian wars, mirroring the global spread of the Spanish flu one hundred years ago. Myth and superstition were undoubtedly a major part of life in ancient civilizations, even one as sophisticated as ancient Greece. However, the characters in Oedipus Rex display a keen understanding of disease in spite of the absence of our modern medicine and scientific tools. Lines 179-181 state: “wasted thus by death on death all our city perishes; corpses spread infection round.”

The inhabitants of Thebes placed the blame for the plague at the feet of Ares, the Greek God of War, and not Apollo, who was often considered the God of Disease. The plague had been transported to the city as a result of the Peloponnesian War, but within the city walls, the God of War continued to divide the city's residents. Sophocles divides the chorus into a Strophe and an Antistrophe, two groups who often served to reveal the clashing social interests. However, they did agree on one thing: the plague posed an existential crisis for their lives and their polity.

Strophe and Antistrophe pleaded with their king to cure the ails which the plague had brought. Unlike our modern monarchs, Oedipus eventually recognises that he is responsible for the plague as a result of the corruption he has brought to the highest office of the city. World leaders today are often quick to highlight the collective responsibility of society while they relinquish blame for their laboured responses.

An ancient city in the throngs of an epidemic would have been left vulnerable to outside invaders. Internally, the sight of death and the prevailing atmosphere of fear would have undermined the social norms and led to looting, rioting, and hoarding. Throughout Europe, we have seen violent protests in opposition to lockdowns and curfews. The pandemic has likely inspired people to take action in the face of uncertainty and even boredom. On the international stage, we have seen the U.S. and others blame China for the pandemic, and most recently vaccine protectionism as European nations recall why they used to fight for resources.

Ireland has not been immune to the God of War’s influences either. The pandemic has given fresh impetus to a far-right nationalist movement. The movement led by the Nationalist Party has latched onto the prevailing atmosphere of frustration and helplessness to promote its message of ethnic nationality. Even an issue as seemingly trivial as wearing a mask has been used to garner publicity. In October, an anti-fascist action led by radical republican groups seemed to have stopped the movement in its tracks. The horrifying incident of a racially motivated attack upon Dublin Lord Mayor, Hazel Chu, suggested otherwise.

Modern literature and cinema have predominantly displayed disease within the narrative of a zombie apocalypse or a flesh-eating virus. The literature in the once again post-pandemic society that is to come is likely to be more akin to Oedipus Rex. Covid-19 will be used to cast an uneasiness over the prevailing narrative to exemplify the corruption of our politics and to show that, in spite of a common enemy, humanity often chooses to fight amongst itself.