Illustration by Felix Pawlyn

This time round, will the pandemic be a case of survival of the fitness or the richest?

The 430BC Athenian plague is our earliest ever record of a pandemic. Athens was experiencing a golden age, an innovative and powerful civilisation emerging. Despite all the progress they had made, they were not prepared for this disease. They had no medicine to fight it. They had no technology to spread the word. No media platforms or police to provoke citizens to abide by laws. There was no secure government to control the economy and public safety.

Responding to a crisis requires global cooperation amongst governments. The 430BC epidemic needed a strategy amongst the Athenian political organisation. The system consisted of the ‘Basileus’, the religious official in charge of cults, the ‘Eponymous’ who maintained public affairs, the ‘Polemarch’, who was in charge of the army, the ‘Thesmothetai’, the law-makers, the ‘Ekklesia,’ the council of citizens.

This “Demokratia” was only accessible to aristocratic, Athenian born citizens, so the implications only applied to the richer and male quarter of the public.[1] The virus did not discriminate in its choice of victims, but the medical attention and ability to remain in sanitary conditions varied dramatically. Strikingly, this poses similarities with certain countries fighting the pandemic, which forces us to question, how much has social equality really advanced?

In the US, the rich and powerful profit from preferential treatment. The rapidity with which the pandemic has affected black communities is shocking. It confirms and clarifies the dynamics of race and poverty in America.  It is unemployment and the fact that less than 20 percent of African-Americans have jobs that allow them to work at home, that make them so vulnerable to the disease [2]. The figures for the differentiation between rich and poor deaths in Ancient Athens is unknown. But the rich would have a better chance of surviving illnesses; their living conditions were less cramped and they had better hygiene and access to doctors.

The Athenians were not totally incapable. The great historian Thucydides’ account declares how the proximity to a person had a direct impact on their likelihood to contract the disease. In some ways, social distancing recommended by the World Health Organization effectively stems from 430BC. Just like today, people still needed to get food, they needed to go hunting, make sacrifices and farm, in order to sustain nourishment. The dense population depleted medical services and the infected water sources meant that with each passing day, more and more of Athens’s youngest and oldest lost their lives.

The goal of lockdown today is to slow the chain of transmission, giving more vulnerable people a chance of surviving the pandemic. The moto “Stay at home > Protect the NHS > Save lives” has been signposted everywhere. It effectively diminishes the healthcare demand and protects those most at risk. Without any lockdown or social distancing measures, 81% of the UK and US populations would be infected.

The lockdown was not an option for the majority of Ancient Athenians, and it is not an option for certain families and individuals today; those in refugee camps, shantytowns, prisons, and hospitals. There are thousands of asylum seekers and migrants currently incarcerated in camps across Greece.[3] Global leaders predict a huge surge in COVID-19 related deaths among poor nations in squatter areas. The system in Athens 430BC and the systems in these areas today were not and are not remotely adequate to cope with the serious outbreak.


[1] https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/the-black-plague

[2] Cartledge, Paul. (1999)  “Democratic Politics Ancient and Modern: from Cleisthenes to Mary Robinson.”

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2019/dec/16/greece-says-its-reached-limit-as-arrivals-of-refugees-show-no-sign-of-slowing