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Epidemics, Pandemics, and the Doomsday Scenario

Epidemics, Pandemics, and the Doomsday Scenario

By Andrew Cunningham

Historically Speaking, Volume 9, Number 7, September/October 2008

Introduction: Sudden and fierce outbreaks of disease have always proved traumatic to societies, and one of the major responses has customarily been apocalyptic fear and the search for scapegoats or divine messages. This was true of the Black Death of 1348 as it was still true of AIDS in the late 20th century.

For centuries in Christian society people have made direct connections between the outbreak of epidemic disease and Doomsday. Not only were epidemics and pandemics thought to herald the end of the world, in the sense that they were punishments for the sinful, but pestilences had been among the signs of the Second Coming that Christ himself had warned his followers to watch for (Matthew 24.3-13). It is not only the pain, suffering, and many sudden deaths that make people so afraid in an epidemic, but also the accompanying disruption of civil society, especially as the food supply often breaks down, the living cannot cope with burying the dead, and those who can flee fast and far.

An epidemic is a disease that literally “falls on the mob” (demos in Greek). The term has been current since antiquity. An epidemic is any disease that kills many people, kills them quickly, kills them in an unpleasant way, and which usually is arbitrary in its manner of action, not being choosy as to whether the victims are old or young, fit or unfit. The apparently arbitrary manner in which epidemics kill is one of their most important features, because it renders most precautions irrelevant.

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