The psychology of plague
1348 was the 2020 of the Middle Ages. Rats from China, or rather fleas hitching a ride on the backs of rats, made their way to Italy, then to France, then to killing 60 percent of Europe. God’s wrath, misaligned planets, and foreigners were offered as explanations. One thing was certain: it was hell on earth.
Today we’re armed with godlike tech and sci-fi wizardry. Yet the psychology of plague hasn’t changed as much as we’d like to believe. Sure, COVID-19 doesn’t have the same bite as the Black Death, but the raw fear of an invisible enemy parading as a neighbor, mother, or friend still compels us to pick up a pallet of toilet paper in full body armor.
The end times have been saturating our screens for years, and the better the world’s gotten, the more we’ve craved them. Our post-apocalyptic fetish seems to have caught up with us. While bubblegum escapism might be more appetizing these days, plunging into fictional dystopia packs a different punch than it did mere months ago. If you’re willing to take that plunge, few works have captured man’s descent into madness like A Plague Tale: Innocence.
You are Amicia, elder sister to an ailing brother and a refugee of the Black Plague sweeping across 14th-century France. Your quest is simple, but the way is not: save your little brother, save yourself.
Having just escaped the pillaging of your family home, you stumble upon a quaint town. While bubonic plague rages behind doors marked white, it is those outside who hunt you. Driven mad with fear, the villagers believe you have brought this curse upon their heads. Fall into their grasp, and they shall burn your flesh at the stake.
The Sociology of Health and Illness medical journal observes this phenomenon:
“When the conditions are right, epidemics can potentially create a medical version of the Hobbesian nightmare — the war of all against all. A major outbreak of novel, fatal epidemic disease can quickly be followed both by plagues of fear, panic, suspicion and stigma; and by mass outbreaks of moral controversy, of potential solutions and of personal conversion to the many different causes which spring up. This distinctive collective social psychology has its own epidemic form…”
Had you visited that quaint town a month prior, you would have been met with a warm hearth in the very place the condemned now burn. It is this realization that makes the eventual return to normalcy impossible. We have seen the mask slip, and we know the monster beneath the cheery faces of our fellow survivors. When we speak of the “new normal,” we cannot forget what we have seen, of who we were at our worst.
In another of the game’s brilliant scenes, our little heroes enter a dark passage swarming with rats. You grab a torch to pass through the horde, but your flame forces the rats toward the helpless soldier trapped ahead. Even as he begs you to stop, Amicia cries, “I’m sorry… We have to get out.” The rats consume the man. You survive.
Altruism is a luxury this brave new world cannot afford. We weep, we repent, but we always take the other’s life if it means saving our own. The horror is not what kills us, but what makes us killers.
While lifetimes of indoctrination have taught us to be ashamed of this harsh reality, self-reflection serves us better than flagellation. In The Virtue of Selfishness, Russian-American philosopher Ayn Rand writes that, “The man who does not value himself, cannot value anything or anyone.” This is not a rejection of civilized moral code, for “the cult of moral grayness is a revolt against moral values.” Only when the veneer of civilization boils away do we embrace the most fundamental right of all: the preservation of the self.
This is unsettling. You and the villagers both sentence others to death. What distinguishes you? We could argue intent, that the villagers seek to kill you while the soldier’s death is just a consequence of your survival — but the villagers believe you too are collateral. We could argue due process — but you afford none to the soldier. We could argue you have no choice — the villagers would argue the same. Such “lifeboat questions,” as Rand refers to them, are rare. Most of us will never be trapped with another person on a sinking raft built for one. But even rarer is plague. And so we arrive at Rand’s conclusion: “Moral rules cannot be prescribed for these situations, because only life is the basis on which to establish a moral code.”
That’s teetering awfully close to nihilism. Except where Nietzsche rejects the value of life itself, Rand respects the principle spawning 4.5 billion years of evolution: life must endure at any cost. Laws, legal and moral, work as long as they work for us. If we distill them to their basest components, we do not kill because we fear being killed. We grant due process because we fear being denied trial. We share because it reassures us that others would help in our time of need. As soon as these social contracts crumble, so do our incentives to obey them. We’ve learned our tricks, and we play our parts. But when the treat vanishes and the theater goes under, the bloodshed begins.
Until it doesn’t. The global response to today’s pandemic transcends our divisions, harking back to Roman antiquity when people of all stripes united to counter the invisible enemy. As then, government coffers are emptied to feed the people. Rivals set aside grudges to fight the common foe. It is a monumental shift from our darker days when the “others” were simply annihilated.
Before praising our enlightenment, however, ask yourself: do you fear death like a 14th-century peasant? The promise of modern medicine and a mortality rate dwarfed by nature’s prior genocides tell us everything will be okay. Now imagine a silent god, starving children, and a bird-faced doctor bleeding you dry. No, the monster endures. It is simply safer to restrain him in 2020.