Nfld. & Labrador·Apocalypse Then

An election in a pandemic? Let's take an old, old-school look at that

Newfoundland and Labrador is far from the only jurisdiction where a pandemic has affected the political process.

N.L. is far from the only jurisdiction where a pandemic has affected the political process

Plague in an Ancient City, by Michael Sweerts, 1652. (Public domain)

Spiking COVID-19 numbers in Newfoundland and Labrador culminated in the postponement of the province's election, originally scheduled to take place on Feb. 13, but the province is far from the only jurisdiction where a pandemic has affected the political process.

When the Democratic Republic of Congo went to the polls in 2018, the election was delayed in some areas due to an Ebola outbreak, resulting in the disenfranchisement of voters likely to support the opposition party.

Due to the influenza pandemic of 1918, candidates in America's mid-term elections were unable to stump, voter turnout was low, and the public blamed incumbent candidates for poor health outcomes, which may have contributed to the ouster of the Democrats from both the House and the Senate.

Pandemics have influenced politics since the birth of democracy itself.

In 430 BC, a plague broke out in the Greek city-state of Athens. It's not clear exactly what microbe was responsible; typhus, smallpox, and even a hemorrhagic fever like Ebola have all been floated as possibilities by modern scientists. 

A Sick Child Brought into the Temple of Aesculapius, by John William Waterhouse,1877. (Public domain)

Whatever it was, the disease killed its victims rapidly and affected all age groups. About a quarter of the population died, and those who survived often experienced amnesia, blindness, and the loss of extremities, from fingers and toes to, horrifyingly, genitalia.

The Plague of Athens shows us that human beings have changed little in 2,000 years. The Athenian response to their outbreak will be familiar to everyone who's lived through COVID-19; they blamed the disease on foreigners and hatched a conspiracy theory that the Spartans, their longtime enemies, had poisoned their water tanks.

When the illness struck, Athens was actually at war with Sparta under the leadership of a man named Pericles, a democratically elected general.

The city-state had by then been under a democratic system of government for about 150 years. The Athenian form of democracy was much more hands-on than our version: out of about 60,000 voting citizens, more than 1,000 held office at any given time. 

This marble bust of Pericles is a Roman copy of a Greek original by Kresilas in 430 BC. (Jastrow/Creative Commons)

Democratic rights were in no way equitably distributed in ancient Athens; citizenship was restricted to free, land-owning men born to two Athenian parents. Still, the new form of administration achieved milestones that remain fundamental to democracy today, like participatory government, a more egalitarian social structure in which rule wasn't restricted to aristocrats, and citizen juries.

Pericles had been the pre-eminent voice in the Athenian political scene for decades and had served repeatedly as a general. Under his leadership, Athens had become an imperial power and undertaken major public works, including the construction of the Parthenon. 

In the war against Sparta that Athens was waging in 430 BC, Pericles had gone all-in on a fortification strategy. At the beginning of the conflict, he called the rural population into the city, which was surrounded by large defensive walls. His plan was to import all the supplies they needed by sea while using their powerful navy to fight the Spartans.

These tactics worked well until plague appeared in the overcrowded metropolis. It was clear to Athenians that the infection spread more easily in the cramped conditions, making the outbreak worse than it might otherwise have been.

Pericles’ Funeral Oration, by Philipp Foltz, 1877. (Public domain)

There had already been whispers of doubt about Pericles' leadership before the war, but now the volume of public criticism rose to a roar. In a speech, Pericles tried to persuade his fellow citizens that he wasn't to blame for their dire situation, but as the historian Plutarch put it, "He did not succeed in getting them to shed their anger or change their minds before they had taken their ballots in their hands." (Translation by Robin Waterfield.)

Pericles was removed from office and fined. After watching his sister and two sons die, he succumbed to the plague himself the following year.

Some historians see the plague as the beginning of the end for Athenian democracy. Because of it, Athenians lost social cohesion, trust in their government, and faith in the democratic process. In Plato's Republic, written just a few decades later, Socrates warns that democracy is doomed to devolve into tyranny. 

Hippocrates saves the Athenias from Plague. From the journal La Médecine populaire, 1881. (Public domain)

If there's a lesson we can take from the Plague of Athens and the pandemic-year elections that have been held since, it's that any political decisions that affect public health will have an impact on the polls.

Because a pandemic is a problem that affects everyone in society, in a system in which government is chosen (at least in principle) by all the people, administrations sink or swim on the basis of how well they're perceived to have responded to a pandemic scenario. 

In the past year, we've seen politicians like Donald Trump lose elections partly because of how they bungled the COVID pandemic response. In the ancient world, Pericles lost his political clout because Athenians believed his decisions exacerbated the outbreak of plague, and the damage to the public's trust was so severe that it ultimately destabilized Athenian democracy itself.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Ainsley Hawthorn, PhD, is a cultural historian and author who lives in St. John’s.

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