In The Diplomat, James R. Holmes says that we can learn a lot about fighting infectious diseases like ebola by reading what Thucidides wrote about the plague that struck Athens during the opening stages of the Peloponnesian War:
Two panelists from our new partner institution, a pair of Africa hands, offered some striking reflections on the fight against Ebola.
Their presentations put in me in the mind of … classical Greece. Why? Mainly because of Thucydides. Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War isn’t just a (partly) eyewitness account of a bloodletting from antiquity; it’s the Good Book of politics and strategy. Undergraduates at Georgia used to look skeptical when I told them they could learn ninety percent of what they needed to know about bareknuckles competition from Thucydides. The remainder? Technology, tactics, and other ephemera. Thucydides remains a go-to source on the human factor in diplomacy and warfare.
But I digress. Ancient Greece suffered its own Ebola outbreak, a mysterious plague that struck Athens oversea during the early stages of the conflict. And the malady struck, perchance, at precisely the worst moment for Athens, after “first citizen” Pericles had arranged for the entire populace of Attica, the Athenian hinterland, to withdraw within the city walls. The idea was to hold the fearsome Spartan infantry at bay with fixed fortifications while the Athenian navy raided around the perimeter of the Spartan alliance.
That’s where the parallel between then and now becomes poignant. Thucydides notes, for example, that doctors died “most thickly” from the plague. The Brown presenters noted that, likewise, public-health workers in Africa — doctors, nurses, stretcher-bearers — are among the few to deliberately make close contact with the stricken. Relief teams, consequently, take extravagant precautions to quarantine the disease within makeshift facilities while shielding themselves from contagion. Sometimes these measures fail.
Now as in ancient Greece, furthermore, the prospect of disease and death deters some would-be healers altogether from succoring the afflicted. Selflessness has limits. Some understandably remain aloof — today as in Athens of yesteryear.
Teams assigned to bury the slain also find themselves in dire peril. Perversely, the dead from Ebola are more contagious than living hosts. That makes disposing of bodies in sanitary fashion a top priority. As the plague ravaged Athens, similarly, corpses piled up in the streets. No one would perform funeral rites — even in this deeply religious society. Classicist Victor Davis Hanson ascribes some of Athens’ barbarous practices late in the war — such as cutting off the hands of captured enemy seamen to keep them from returning to war — in part to the plague’s debasing impact on morals, ethics, and religion.