The Covid-19/Coronavirus is the latest, and by most accounts the most serious pandemic to hit the world for quite some time. What can we do? What will result? Looking back to the past might help understand.Disease epidemics have occurred many times throughout history.
The 4th Century B.C. Athenian statesman Pericles died from what was probably the bubonic plague during the Peloponnesian War, possibly contributing to Sparta’s victory over Athens.
The recent Coronavirus/Covid-19/China Virus prompted a re-read of the chapter on the Black Death in Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. There are some similarities and important differences in these maladies.
The plague – known at the time as the Pestilence or Great Mortality, and only later as the Black Death — entered Europe in 1347 from a ship or ships arriving from Black Sea ports, through a port on the Italian peninsula or Sicily, possibly Venice or Messina. That land, which didn’t become a unified nation until 1870, has been the center of Mediterranean throughout history. Accordingly, it was the first and the hardest hit by the 14th Century epidemic. The word “quarantine” comes from the Italian quaranta; that is 40, for the days chosen for its Biblical significance that the city state of Venice and other ports isolated arriving sailors in an attempt to limit the spread of the disease. The next three years it spread throughout Europe in a clockwise path through the Western countries, the British Isles Scandinavia Germany and Poland to Russia. Oddly enough a number of the central European areas, such as Bohemia, were spared for the most part. It is estimated that on-third to one-half of the European population died from the Pestilence.
Tuchman, and other historians, describe a truly horrific situation in Europe as the disease ran its course. Death cart drivers went door to door in towns and villages collecting corpses, which were buried in common graves or often just dumped in the river. The transmission method was mainly bites from fleas carried by infected rats, who were themselves infected by other fleas. But no one knew. Those vermin were then ubiquitous, and had been around for decades, so no one gave them much notice. All kinds of wild hypotheses abounded: God’s punishment of wicked humanity, mis-alignment of stars and planets, miasma or bad air, and most unfortunate, a vast conspiracy by Jews to poison Christian wells and other water supplies. The germ theory of disease was four centuries in the future.
Immediate response was mostly ineffectual. Even if the nature of the malady — it was bacterial — had been known, antibiotics were then five centuries in the future. The only central authority was the Church with the Pope at its head, then based in Avignon, France. Clement VI escaped the plague by sequestering in a chamber with fires burning at both entrances to “purify the air.” That probably worked for him by keeping the rats and fleas out, but he did not do much else. Looking back, and recognizing the dearth of knowledge about what caused infectious diseases and how they spread, how could he have. A few measures, although draconian, seemed to work for certain locales. In Milan Archbishop Giovanni Visconti — a secular despot as well as a religious one — ordered the first three houses in which the plague was discovered to be walled up, entombing the occupants. That harsh method might have worked; Milan subsequent deaths were light. A similar act in England, the burning and razing of an entire village where the plague appeared in Leicestershire, may have saved the occupants of the manor house and its curtilage.
That outbreak of the plague ended after about three years. It was to recur in less widespread and virulent forms from time to time since. It was, however, to return in 17th Century England, where in 1765, 100,00 Londoners are estimated to have died. A similar recurrence occurred in 19th Century India, then under British rule.
What were the long-term effects? Historians have a number of theories. All appear to agree that at least the course of European/Western civilization was altered. Losing so much of the population must have had an effect. One documented fact is that it made labor more scarce and thus dear. Workers, both in agriculture and in trades, had a sellers’ market, and wages and other compensation for them increased significantly. This tended to allow more socio-economic upward mobility, which hardly had existed before (see a prior post in this blog about the “Great Chain of Being”). Professor Dorsey Armstrong, who has written about medieval history in depth, maintains that the Renaissance was hastened by the plague. The great mortality also called into question the authority of the medieval church, and probably accelerated theological dissent and the Reformation of the 16th century.
The bubonic plague did not have a very long incubation. There are accounts of individuals going to bed with few or no symptoms and waking up only to die the next morning. It was thus apparent who had the disease quickly after they become infected. Today’s Coronavirus has an incubation period of somewhere between seven and fourteen days, which means an infected person could be well and still be a carrier. It is also spread by person-to-person contact, or close proximity where the virus could be airborne and inspired merely by breathing. On the other hand, the virus is much less lethal than the bubonic plague. The plague did not appear to discriminate by age or underlying health problems, although most Europeans, as well as everybody in the world of the 14th century, except the very wealthy, were probably malnourished.
So it was.
Note: In the introduction to her book Tuchman playfully identified a historical phenomenon which she called “Tuchman’s Law,” as follows:
Disaster is rarely as pervasive as it seems from recorded accounts. The fact of being on the record makes it appear continuous and ubiquitous whereas it is more likely to have been sporadic both in time and place. Besides, persistence of the normal is usually greater than the effect of the disturbance, as we know from our own times. After absorbing the news of today, one expects to face a world consisting entirely of strikes, crimes, power failures, broken water mains, stalled trains, school shutdowns, muggers, drug addicts, neo-Nazis, and rapists [as well as disease epidemics]. The fact is that one can come home in the evening—on a lucky day—without having encountered more than one or two of these phenomena. This has led me to formulate Tuchman’s Law, as follows: “The fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable development by five- to tenfold” (or any figure the reader would care to supply).
This notion is well worth remembering to avoid a total freak-out while dealing with the present pandemic.