Pandemic Outbreaks and the Language of Violence: Discussing the Origins of the Black Death and COVID-19

Chest. 2022 Jul;162(1):196-201. doi: 10.1016/j.chest.2022.03.010. Epub 2022 Mar 16.


The outbreak of COVID-19 has brought renewed attention to past narratives of disease outbreaks. What do the Black Death and COVID-19 have in common? How we tell outbreak stories is shaped by political, cultural, social, and historical contexts. It is deeply rhetorical. The general public relies on experts (scientists, historians, and government officials) to provide credible information, but uncertainties during an outbreak can make it difficult to provide definitive answers quickly. Experts need to be conscious about the contexts in which their statements would be received. Regarding the Black Death, historians of medicine have relied heavily on a single medieval account of the outbreak, which confirmed their preconceptions about Mongol violence, allowing them to present the Black Death as an instance of biological warfare. Looking at other medieval accounts, however, makes clear that this narrative of Mongol biological warfare is false. Similarly, modern outbreak narratives also tend to use militarized language, which results in othering peoples and cultures where a disease might have originated. Given the contemporary political tensions between China and the United States, narratives about the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and its transmission have led to a transnational infodemic of misinformation as well as discrimination and violence against people of Asian descent. In light of this long-running pattern, we argue for more interdisciplinary collaborations between the experts whose work is used to build outbreak narratives to adopt more critical rhetorical approaches in communicating with the public.

Keywords: COVID-19; history; outbreak narratives; plague; rhetoric.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • COVID-19*
  • Disease Outbreaks
  • Humans
  • Pandemics
  • Plague* / epidemiology
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • Violence