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Our own fresh taste of the 14th Century

The Covid-19 virus. Source: Wikipedia

By historical standards, this plague has been a mild one. So far, worldwide, about 2.3 million people have died from Covid-19. The most fatal pandemic in recorded history was the Black Death, which peaked in Europe between 1347 and 1351. The Black Death killed between 75 million and 200 million people.

Covid-19 is not the first plague that seniors like me have lived through. Even today, the World Health Organization estimates that there are 10 to 20 million survivors of polio worldwide. AIDS has killed up 40 million people worldwide, and the peak year for deaths from AIDS — 2004 — is only 16 years behind us. Hundreds of thousands of people still die each year from AIDS.

There is much here to reflect on, including our vulnerability to the dark and primitive side of nature, no matter how modern we think we are or how dazzled (and coddled) we are by our technologies. Nor can we forget that the dark and primitive side of human nature is still with us. When I was a poll watcher during last year’s election, a woman who refused to wear a mask said, loudly, because she wanted as many people as possible to hear, “God’s got me covered.” And just this morning a former friend posted a link on Facebook about how Covid-19 was caused by a global “criminal elite,” including Bill Gates, George Soros, and the Rockefeller family.

Though I think there is such a thing as the arc of justice and slow moral progress, we have plenty of grounds to wonder just how much fairer today’s world is from the world of the 14th Century. Covid-19 reminded us that viruses are just as fatal to the high and mighty as to the poor. But the poor are more exposed, and they’re usually the last to get help.

I feel slightly ashamed to report that, three days ago, I got the first dose of the Moderna vaccine for Covid-19, because my state (North Carolina) is now vaccinating people over 65 as the available vaccine is allocated to risk groups. Meanwhile, teachers can’t yet get the vaccine, nor can younger people with pre-existing conditions. In the U.S., only 28.9 million people have had at least one dose of the vaccine so far. At that rate, according to the New York Times, we won’t reach 90 percent of the U.S. population until Dec. 15.

It’s surprising that I’m just now getting around to reading Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book, in which a 21st Century historian time-travels to 14th Century Oxford to do historical research and accidentally arrives during the middle of the Black Death pandemic. Now seemed like a good time to read this book, the better to appreciate not only how some things never change, but also how much better off we are — or could be if we really tried.

Source: Wikipedia

Having mentioned the 14th Century, I should also mention Barbara Tuchman’s classic (if somewhat controversial) book, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, published in 1978, which I have read twice.


  1. Sistine Ilgunas wrote:

    Hi David,
    You were lucky to get the vaccination.Ken and I were signed up and it was cancelled due to lack of vaccine.I have been trying everywhere to get on a list and have been unable to. Having been in the medical community, one thing that surprises me is only 62% take the vaccine.

    Sunday, February 7, 2021 at 10:45 am | Permalink
  2. daltoni wrote:

    Hi Sistine… Yikes … I’m sorry to hear that. I hope y’all find a source soon. I was very surprised to get the vaccine so soon, not least because we had a Covid-19 outbreak in the county administrative building, which I believe affected people in the county health department. I got my shot at a small community hospital which I assume is working under contract from the state. The people doing the work were all volunteers, including the retired nurse who gave me the shot.

    Sunday, February 7, 2021 at 10:55 am | Permalink
  3. Barrett littleton wrote:

    I am also a recent recipient of the vaccine as well as Robin my other half. We live in Huntington, West Virginia. I find myself fortunate because of locale. Both Robin and I grew up in La Jolla CA and moved here in 2018.

    This state has been a fortunate one compared to California.

    I too am a writer and I sent a comment to you when I found your grits article via the picture that accompanied it this morning.

    I would like permission to use your picture in my article on I write as Brooke.

    If you would like to read my article which is named Grits is a Side Dish please send me an email or some other way to connect. I will be interested in your take. I write as Brooke on medium.

    Sunday, February 7, 2021 at 4:20 pm | Permalink
  4. daltoni wrote:

    Hi Barrett: I apologize for the slow reply. WordPress is supposed to send me email when someone leaves a comment, but recently it has been failing to do that.

    Please feel free to use the grits photo. And I’d love to have a link to your article…

    Tuesday, February 16, 2021 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

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