Last week the people next door had a gathering. Six months ago, that might have been annoying if you had to put a child to bed in spite of the noise. Today, we have to worry about that gathering possibly putting our lives at risk.
As the number of cases of COVID-19 rises across the United States, it’s becoming increasingly rare not to know someone who has been affected. In response to a threat that’s omnipresent but often asymptomatic, it’s natural to want to run for the hills. Some have: the median price of homes in the Hamptons reached a new record this spring as affluent New Yorkers fled to its beaches. In a July survey of wealthy investors by the Swiss bank UBS, nearly half said they planned to relocate away from cities permanently as a result of the pandemic.
Moving away from danger is nothing new. The wealthy do, because they can. In fact, they always have. As a scholar of the Renaissance at Northwestern University, I explore the strict class hierarchies of that distant past, but a look at the COVID-19’s profoundly unequal impacts shows us how little has changed.
In the early 1500s, Marguerite de Navarre, the Queen of Navarre and sister to the King of France, wrote The Heptameron about five noble ladies and five gentlemen who, to escape catastrophic floods, take refuge in an abbey up in the mountains and pass their days telling stories to one another. In the opening scene, one of the noblemen crosses a flooded river on horseback by surrounding himself with his servants, who die blocking the swelling waters. He makes it safely to the abbey where the other lords and ladies are sheltering, and the Queen of Navarre describes how they “felt an inestimable joy, praising their Creator who, contenting himself with the servants, had spared the masters and mistresses.”
Nothing more is said about those who died in that river, and the story never looks back. The aristocrats who make it to the abbey find a lavish shelter there, and happily entertain one another for the remainder of the book. What’s lost, along with “the servants,” is any connection to the outside reality of a suffering world.
In the years following Marguerite de Navarre’s death, France was increasingly split by religious conflict between Catholics and minority Protestants, and the second half of the 16th century saw the country engulfed by civil war. People who had previously lived in peace violently turned against one another. Estimates put the number of dead throughout the French Wars of Religion between two and four million.
Obviously, what we’re experiencing in this pandemic 450 years later is not a matter of mass violence or political collapse. But, just as today, the intense societal pressures of the 16th century came from threats among neighbors: Catholic and Protestant believers lived side-by-side, their differences not always visible. Today, much of the social anxiety around COVID-19 comes from the fact that it’s often transmitted asymptomatically, and through proximity. You can’t always see who’s affected or truly know of whom you should be wary. Questions of isolation, privacy, and exposure are at the forefront of our collective political response to a threat that is everywhere around us, but also difficult to discern.
Its unequal impacts, however, are only too visible. Today, the idea of celebrating the sacrifice of working-class lives to save the privileged few would rightly seem abhorrent. Looking back across five centuries shows us how far society has come in many ways, but it also shows us the problems that are still with us. In that single, unironic sentence about a fictional flood, the Queen of Navarre exposed a deeply rooted class system that, when push came to shove, disregarded human life that it saw as socially inferior and therefore expendable.
As this pandemic has claimed almost 200,000 lives in the US already, its impacts have disproportionately been felt by low-income and minority communities. For instance, recent research has linked income to COVID-19 risk factors, as counties with higher rates of poverty, household crowding and residents of color also have higher rates of death. Overall, the virus’s mortality rate is more than twice as high among Black Americans as among their white counterparts. These disparities exist regardless of age, as Hispanic and Black children are hospitalized at much higher rates too.
Part of the problem is that people in positions of privilege — economic, political, racial — are insulated from these disparities. They’re better able to either get away or turn away. The fact that the threat is all around us, among our neighbors and friends, also seems to give us permission to focus only on ourselves, to worry about our own.
But what if the Queen of Navarre had stopped at that scene of death in a flooded river? What if, instead of glossing over the demise of “the servants,” she had told the stories of those who died to save their noble employer? Though essential workers of their time, their lives were invisible to a queen at the height of social privilege. Let us not allow deep-rooted social, racial, economic, and political inequalities to make the suffering of so many thousands here in this country invisible 500 years later.
These stories must be told, as too often they are not. The number of lives that COVID-19 has already claimed is too large to fully grasp, and it’s too easy to move away, or to turn away, when loss is so widespread that it becomes anonymous. What’s missing are people’s harrowing stories, along with images, even sounds, of the loss that systemic social and economic inequality is concealing. We need to hear of the funerals, the hospitalizations, the fear and grief not in the aggregate, but name by name, life by life. Physical isolation is everywhere; making the effort to focus on the grieving faces and giving voice to the most affected can help counteract the moral isolation of inequality as well.