Same story, but we’re the different characters.
It’s 542, and Procopius of Caesarea, a historian for the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, finds himself in the heart of one of the most powerful empires in the world.
This city, Constantinople, is seen as a crown jewel of religion, commerce, and culture. It is a cross roads between north and south, east and west; a continuation of Rome, the city that took the world. Armies will march upon its walls over twenty times and fail over twenty times. A mother will assassinate her own son and then rise to the throne as the first empress of the Byzantines. Chariot racing will be the catalyst to a riot that breaks out in the streets of the city, leading to the execution of over thirty thousand citizens in less than a week. Yet none of those moments even come close to bringing Constantinople to its knees like what Procopius was about to witness.
It’s 542, and the eastern half of the Roman Empire is about to collapse.
Procopius is roaming the narrow streets of Constantinople dressed in the finest threads of silk from China. While many would take notice of him on any normal day, today is anything but. No artisans in the streets, selling their wares. No fishermen along the docks, tempting a passerby with their catch. Silence has descended upon the city. A silence so quiet it reminds him of the cool nights in Dara, where in every direction there was nothing but sand and the tents of Belisarius’s soldiers. Procopius does not even have to close his eyes to remember that peace that passed over the men as if they had saved their voices for the roaring that would come in the following days.
That was not Constantinople though. When this curse first arrived, all Hell had broken loose and reports of supernatural apparitions disguised as human beings running amok in the streets and invading people’s dreams were not uncommon.
From his chambers in the Great Palace, Procopius could view all the chaos that unfolded down below. How people pounded on the doors of their neighbors, calling for them to be let in. He had heard reports that they all turned on one another because they believed those that knocked were demons. But now? Nothing.
Constantinople had fallen silent.
The Hagia Sophia came into Procopius’ view. In all this mess, the pristine spires of the church stood tall, towering over the city in all its glory. It made the Great Palace look small though it was three times its size. Nothing could dwarf the grandeur of God.
His eyes lingered on the sight above, for he had no worry about what laid in front him because there was nothing. The only people he saw now were those piled in with heaps of bodies. When he did see someone alive, it was only to carry out their dead who had been slung over their shoulders in white cloth, and even then, they resembled those they carried.
He thought by now his nose would be accustomed to such a stench. Truly, he thought by now that this curse would be gone. Yet, as it seemed, God had abandoned the Roman Empire.
What caused all of that turmoil and torture? What made people see apparitions and have visions of creatures standing over them? The answer is simple: disease. Specifically, Yersinia pestis, or, as it’s more commonly referred to: The Justinian Plague.
Many of you may think, “Thank goodness we are no longer living in the time of that Procopius guy.” I agree with you. It’s very nice to have the developments of modern medicine and a better understanding of how to protect ourselves from disease. It is also nice that the disease we face now is not as deadly as the one that Procopius had to live through. Yet, people take that as justification that we can continue on with our lives because COVID-19 is a milder disease. They point to the recovery rate and say “99 percent of people who get it survive.” Yes, COVID-19 has a high survival rate (although, not 99 percent). However, that’s not what health and government officials are terrified about the most. That’s not what should worry you the most. The disease itself is, of course, something that no one wants to spread because we have seen first-hand what it does to patients and our fellow citizens; yet, what truly scares governments, the CDC, the WHO, the NHS, and all other types of organizations, is the collapse of society that Procopius witnessed.
We cannot verify with absolutely certainty the number of people who died, but Procopius ventured that it was about 20 percent of the population in Constantinople between 541 and 543. Not infected, but died. Almost a quarter of the people gone in one of the most powerful and populated cities in the world at this time.
As a whole, though, historians believe that half of the world population in the sixth century was killed. The highest estimates put it at 50 million. So, I want to let all of you who are abiding by the rules set out by governments and health orgs know that you’re doing the right thing. More than the right thing. You’re being a hero in ways that one would not think possible. For there is certainly a loud group of people who just want everything to be open and for us to carry on with our lives. With that being said, let’s look at some numbers and see how similar our world could be to that of Procopius of Caesarea’s should we abandon reason.
According to Bandolier, an independent journal comprised of Oxford scientists, they state that the risk of dying from the bubonic plague can reach up to 70 percent when untreated. Let’s say 70 percent, since there were no treatments in medieval times. That means that if 50 million died, roughly 71 million became infected. It’s important to understand that this was a world with little knowledge about how to treat such a disease. They understood keeping their distance, but as Procopius mentioned, people were around bodies all the time because of the sheer number of deceased.
Now, I won’t use the mortality rate because COVID-19 is not nearly as fatal. However, I will use the infection rate of 71 percent, since COVID-19 is highly contagious and the world that some want us to live in is one that mirrors that of Procopius’. Such as people who carry on with their daily lives, stop wearing masks, or don’t socially distance. Now I’ll lower the infection rate to 60 percent because we wash ourselves more regularly than the people of the Middle Ages.
Currently, the estimated population of the world is 7.8 billion people. Sixty percent of that then is 4.68 billion. If 99 percent recover, that is 46.8 million people that will have died from COVID-19 alone. That’s almost 20 times the number of recorded infections at the writing of this piece. However, death doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Those numbers are people. They are farmers, doctors, government officials, parents, teachers, children; the list goes on.
Putting aside the familial trauma, what happens when the number of hospital beds start running out and those from other causes start dying? What happens when infected farmers that we rely on for food can’t tend to their farms? What happens when the doctors who were supposed to be treating all those patients can’t anymore because they fall ill to COVID? Suddenly, that number of 46.8 million starts multiplying exponentially when the people we relied on to keep our world afloat start dying. We start seeing a world that is similar to that of Procopius’. One where “if one succeed[ed] in meeting a man going out, he was carrying out one of the dead. And work of every description ceased… in a city which was simply abounding in all good things starvation almost absolute was running riot.” So yes, the recovery rate for COVID-19 is quite high, but only because there is a vast majority of people taking it seriously.
We must understand that our world is fragile, and it doesn’t take much for it to unravel at the seams. For if we threw caution to the wind, not only would the infection rate skyrocket, but our way of life crumble into ruin like that of the Great Palace in Istanbul (Constantinople).
So, to all the essential workers, to those of you who have been socially distant, wearing masks, and sacrificing memories of your college years or time with your loved ones: thank you. You have not only saved yourself from illness, but people all across the globe from ever experiencing, as Procopius put it, “the whole human race… being annihilated.”