Episode 4.1: “Going Viral” (part 1)

Updated: Mar 8

"Behold, A Pale Horse!"

(Paranoid Planet Podcast: Season 1, Episode 4.1, Chapter 1)

“I watched as the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals. […] I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.

“When the Lamb opened the second seal, […] another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make people kill each other. […]

“When the Lamb opened the third seal, […] I looked, and there before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand. Then I heard what sounded like a voice […] saying, 'Two pounds of wheat for a day’s wages, and six pounds of barley for a day’s wages, and do not damage the oil and the wine!'

“When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, […] I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague…”

That was an excerpt from the book of the Revelation, one of the most confounding and controversial parts of the Christian Bible. Its story of four angelic beings who destabilize human civilizations through conquest, civil war, famine, and pestilence, is not an original one. These four creatures show up throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and other Jewish and Christian writings----sometimes as horsemen or charioteers, sometimes taking on other shapes like winged animals or spinning wheels, alongside symbolic beasts and stars, magical trees and sea monsters----warning their audience of impending divine judgments. Similar tales of divine intervention, such as the Greek myths of Pandora and Oedipus, appear in the pagan literature of the period, describing the divine origins of destructive cataclysms and diseases.

One of the things that stands out from these stories, is their message that pandemics—or “plagues”—are not random natural events, nor the simple result of bad hygiene and poor education. They are part of some divine plan. To the pagan nations of the Ancient Near East, Egypt, Greece, Rome, and Eurasia, and to the Jews, Christians, and Muslims whose belief in a single, all-powerful, and morally good God replaced the amoral gods of antiquity, the message remained more or less the same: which was that plagues are divinely ordained—either as punishments for human sins, as attacks by rebellious evil spirits, as a supernatural tool for culling the earth of excessive numbers, or as spiritual opportunities to grow in faith, obedience, and virtue. While no single explanation for the problem of evil existed in the ancient world, it was widely accepted that plagues were not in themselves evil but could be used for good purposes by a benevolent higher power, even if that purpose remained obscure to us humans. These stories also reminded their hearers that they were not in full control of their lives, and that they owed much of their situation in life, both good and bad, to divine providence.

This may be hard for us to grasp in an age when belief in a higher order is often dismissed as mindless superstition, and when the words suffering and evil are frequently used interchangeably. But that may tell us less about the causes of human suffering and more about our modern culture in which physical pleasure, liberty, autonomy, and progress count as core values, a culture in which traditional virtues like wisdom, courage, self-control, righteousness, loyalty, charity, and spiritual piety are considered secondary if they are considered at all. But every half century or so, the four horsemen come back to remind us that Nature (with a capital “N”) has different priorities than ours, that our personal search for health and happiness largely lies beyond our control, and that traditional values become more meaningful when suffering wears away at our aspirations for freedom and success. (This, incidentally, may help explain why some of the most joyful, hospitable, and caring people I ever met were living in squalor, perpetual uncertainty, or with chronic pain.) Or we may choose to hold on to our modern illusion that we are in charge of our own destinies and look for someone to blame for our lack of freedom and happiness—an evil capitalist consortium, a hive of nefarious scientists, a patriarchy, an oligarchy, a foreign enemy, or a secret government bureaucracy. But the four horsemen, the prophecy tells us, are above such things.

In the fifth century BCE, the powerful city-state of Athens was struck by a horrible plague—a possible variant of Typhus or Ebola—while waging a war of attrition against its rival city-state Sparta. The Plague of Athens not only decimated a quarter of the Athenian population, producing one of the largest recorded death tolls in ancient Greece, it also killed Pericles, its most celebrated leader, and nearly killed Thucydides, the famed ancient historian who chronicled these events. The pestilence caused widespread chaos and crime throughout the city, as well as a string of moral panics and ethnic violence, and ultimately brought the city and its whole maritime empire to its knees, causing many to lose faith in the traditional gods of the city and its much celebrated system of democracy. Athens would regain its glory, yes, but never again as a military superpower, and almost always as a regional capital in someone else’s empire.

In the late second century CE, a deadly plague ravaged the Roman empire and its neighbouring lands. For fifteen years, the Antonine plague caused up to two thousand deaths per day in the city of Rome alone, and killed between a quarter and a third of the Empire’s 65 million inhabitants, including emperor Lucius Verus and thousands of foot soldiers. The Antonine plague spared no social class. Contemporary historians believe it to have been a variant of smallpox, based on the graphic descriptions recorded by Galen, the famous Roman physician. It is also believed that this plague was primarily spread by Roman troops who travelled briskly from the empire’s tropical borders to the more temperate north, and by Rome’s highly developed and effective network of land and sea routes that facilitated trade and travel throughout the empire. This pandemic, coupled with a prolonged period of cooler climate and poor harvests, wore down Rome’s military and economic strength, especially on its Western borders, which became harder and harder to defend with fewer recruits and difficulties feeding them. Historian Kyle Harper explains it this way:

“the Romans built an interconnected, urbanized empire on the fringes of the tropics, with tendrils creeping across the known world. In an unintended conspiracy with nature, the Romans created a disease ecology that unleashed the latent power of pathogen evolution. The Romans were soon engulphed by the overwhelming force of what we would today call emerging infectious diseases. The end of Rome’s empire, then, is a story in which humanity and the environment cannot be separated.” [1]

In comparing those times to our own, you could say that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The Antonine plague also triggered a religious revival that saw Christianity completely transform the empire’s values and culture, and the Catholic Church replace Imperial Rome as the dominant institution in Europe.

The worst epidemic in Western history was no doubt the Great Pestilence of the Fourteenth century CE (better known today as the bubonic plague or Black Death), which killed between 75 and 200 million people across Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. The plague was spread quickly by rat fleas, human lice, and airborne body fluids. Large population centers like Paris, Florence, Hamburg, and Cairo were hit the hardest. Its symptoms were ghastly: fever, headaches, vomiting blood, diarrhea, pneumonia, blackened flesh, and purulent boils in the groin, neck, and armpits. The death rate was so high that most victims were buried in mass graves. The highest rate of infection was among the priests, nuns, and monks who served as the period’s principal healthcare workers. With concurrent outbreaks of typhus, smallpox, and other infectious diseases, the Black Death decimated both the Christian and Muslim worlds, killing from thirty to sixty percent of their populations. It left a mark on the Western World and much of Asia for centuries. It overturned economic and political power structures, leading to massive inflation, the breakdown of the feudal system, and the rise of early capitalist and mercantilist economies. It led to the centralization of powers in the hands of fewer rulers while an apocalyptic culture of death took hold of the arts. But it also gave rise to better work and life conditions for the poor due to massive labour shortages. It led to widescale reforestation, which contributed to a period of global cooling called the Little Ice Age. It produced an increase in religious devotion—both the nobler pietistic and charitable kind, and the uglier fanaticism that led to witch hunts, the burning of heretics, and Anti-Semitic pogroms. And it set the scene for three centuries of major cultural, political, and religious upheavals that produced the Italian and Dutch Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, and the Scottish and French Enlightenment. Like a massive forest fire, the Black death was both a horrible destructive force and a catalyst for renewal.

The pale horseman continued his rampage in the early Twentieth Century via the Spanish Flu (which wasn’t actually from Spain), killing 50 million people worldwide. The HIV/AIDS epidemic that emerged in the West during the early Eighties went on to kill over 30 million. Numerous localized outbreaks of respiratory diseases like bird flu, swine flu, SARS, and MERS, during the Nineteen Nineties and early Two-Thousands made less than a million victims combined, which helps explain why few people were particularly fearful when a little respiratory virus appeared in China in 2019, which has since killed a little over four million people across the globe as of July 2021.

Covid-19 is a highly transmissible virus that may be the first truly global pandemic, affecting all regions of the globe simultaneously. Compared to the great plagues of the past, however, it has a rather low casualty rate, killing about two percent of all infected people, the vast majority of whom are aged seventy and over, suffering of other health conditions, and/or living and working in crowded conditions. The global casualty rate may in fact be much lower than that, given that hundreds of thousands of cases----maybe millions-----go unreported due to Covid’s often mild or non-existent symptoms. While I do not wish to trivialize the suffering and pain of those who have died, who are enduring the long-term effects of infection, or who have lost loved ones to the disease, it is clear that Covid is a rather mild pathogen compared to its many predecessors, affecting different age groups, cultural communities, and social classes very differently than the undiscriminating plagues of past epochs. Our improved ability to treat the infected and to maintain cleaner public and domestic environments, not to mention the rapid production of effective vaccines, also accounts for its low casualty rate.

That said, popular reactions to this pandemic have ranged widely, from excessive panic and fearmongering to outright denialism. In both cases, extreme reactions are based on emotional knee jerks, not on a careful and reasoned assessment of risks that take into consideration local demographics, political culture, population density, economic needs, and the availability of health care resources. No doubt, a great deal of confusion has influenced our individual perceptions of this virus, leading many governments, mainstream media, and social networkers to either overreact, underreact, or misdiagnose the problem altogether, and to promote one-size-fits-all solutions that provoke irrational fears about masks, vaccines, social interactions, funerals and church services, and realistic risks of infections, while triggering many social, economic, and mental health problems in the process.

The haphazard application of social distancing rules from country to country, and even between local jurisdictions, has led to wildly divergent reactions from the political right and the political left. Hard to enforce border closures and curfews, arbitrary head counts for outdoor social gatherings, asymmetrical shut-downs and massive school closures, the inconsistent condemnation of some social gatherings (like anti-vaccine protests) while others are tolerated (like anti-racism protests), or governmental decrees that make liquor store clerks count as essential workers while religious leaders and health and wellness instructors do not, have produced a deep sense of public frustration. Frustrated citizens who might otherwise have made great efforts to respect more general guidelines end up feeling ignored and infantilized, leading them to interpret the data through the filter of their own narrow personal beliefs and interests. Those on the political right, being generally more religious and individualistic, have found covid restrictions unnecessarily excessive, an affront to their aspirations for autonomy, and a slippery slope to totalitarianism. Those on the political left, more secular and communitarian in outlook, have been quick to condemn religious groups or some abstract evil like racism, science denialism, or patriarchy, for the fact that this plague won’t go away. In both cases, a certain lack of proportion exists, leading to the demonization of others, to an increase in political polarization, and, sometimes, to manifestations of violence.

Studying pandemics in a historical perspective can teach us a lot. Firstly, it helps us realize that pandemics are real, and recurrent, and almost unavoidable. That their origins are natural—insofar as they are rarely the product of conscious human action—and that they kill indiscriminately, no matter how much we try to protect ourselves from them. This helps us avoid falling into the trap of scapegoating a particular person or group for the tragedy—be it the Chinese government, Bill Gates, white racists, or Donald Trump—and to focus on learning to deal with the problem.

Secondly, it teaches us that humans are incredibly resilient. Worse pandemics than this one have hit our ancestors, who certainly suffered from them, but learned to adapt and get on with their lives. Whether or not we wish to accept that pandemics are part of some divine plan, we can all benefit by seeing such events as occasions to learn and grow in virtue, and to detach ourselves from the ephemeral things that pandemics show us are beyond our grasp, like our belief that our lives are entirely our own, that our liberties are sacrosanct, or that our nation-state, or the material comforts we enjoy every day, are worth investing our highest hopes in.

Finally, it teaches us a lot about human nature. Studying human reactions in the face of previous pandemics is like watching ourselves in the mirror. It reveals some of the more noble aspects of our humanity, like self-sacrifice, compassion, and adaptability, and also highlights our darkest potential, like superstition, paranoid scapegoating, and violent self-interest.

Whether or not we see the Four Horsemen as real divine powers or as an allegory for the lack of control we humans actually have over our lives, both perspectives can teach us that in moments of hardship, it is best not to get too attached to our desire for autonomy, material security, physical pleasure, equality, and vindication, and to seek to be a little more compassionate, patient, and virtuous.

Because if we don’t, we might just end up getting trampled.

Michel J. Gagné, 2021.

[1] Kyle Harper: The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire , cited in Jaspreet Singh Boparai: “The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire—A Review,” Quillette, April 11, 2020.

Readings and videos related to episode 4.1:

1. John Horgan: "The Plague at Athens, 430-427 BCE," World History Encyclopedia. August 24, 2016.

2. John Horgan: "Antonine Plague," World History Encyclopedia. May 2, 2019.

3. Mark Cartwright: "Black Death," World History Encyclopedia. March 28, 2020.

4. Kyle Harper: The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire. Princeton University Press, 2019.

5. Jonathan Kay:COVID-19 Superspreader Events in 28 Countries: Critical Patterns and Lessons,” Quillette, April 23, 2020.

6. M. Jayaweera, H. Perera, B. Gunawardana, and J. Manatungea: Transmission of COVID-19 virus by droplets and aerosols: A critical review on the unresolved dichotomy,” Environ Res., Sept.2020.

7. Robert Pearl, M.D.: Three Misleading, Dangerous Coronavirus Statistics,” Forbes, September 22, 2020.

8. Tristin Hopper: COVID-19 myths that refuse to die, from undue concern about children to variants and vaccines,” The National Post, July 22, 2021.

9. Covid Conspiracies Podcast, Postmedia, 2021.

10. 12 Monkeys. Directed by Terry Gilliam. Starring Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, and Brad Pitt. Universal Pictures, 1995.

11. The Unknown Known. Directed by Errol Morris. Starring Donald Rumsfeld. Radius-TWC, 2013.

12. Mike Lofgren: The Coronavirus Lab Leak Theory: Not Disproven, But Unlikely,” Common Dreams, July 1, 2021.

13. Michelle Faye Cortez: The Last—And Only—Foreign Scientist in the Wuhan Lab Speaks Out,” Bloomberg, June 27, 2021.

14. Katherine Eban: The Lab-Leak Theory: Inside the Fight to Uncover COVID-19’s Origins,” Vanity Fair, June 3, 2021.

15. Rowan Jacobsen: Inside the risky bat-virus engineering that links America to Wuhan,” MIT Technology Review, June 29, 2021.

16. Totally Under Control. Directed by Alex Gibney. Jigsaw Productions / Amazon Prime, 2020.

17. Razib Khan: Totally Under Control—A Review,” Quillette, November 17, 2020.

18. Plandemic: The Hidden Agenda Behind Covid-19. Directed by Mikki Willis. Starring Dr. Judy Mikovitz. Elevate Films, 2020. (Wikipedia article).

19. Martin Enserink and Jon Cohen: Fact-checking Judy Mikovits, the controversial virologist attacking Anthony Fauci in a viral conspiracy video,” Science, May 8, 2020.

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