Idon’t know how many lightbulb moments I’ve had over the past several weeks since the pandemic set in. “Reality checks” and realizations have poured over me in waves. But this week’s turning point moment felt different. It all began when I started associating COVID-19 with the Plague. Yes, the Bubonic Plague, the 1347 Black Death that raged across Europe until at least 1350, causing an estimated 25–30 million deaths in its first wave.
The realization — that this is a dangerous disease and for all intents and purposes is a plague — led me to a 1948 novel, The Plague, by Albert Camus. The people’s behavior in the small 1940’s French town of Oran, possesses striking parallels with current widespread behavior. My first response was how virtually prophetic the people of Oran’s behavior is to our own right now right here in “real life.” Then it struck me:
Why should it be surprising?
War and plagues take people by surprise. They also usually emerge every generation or so, so that for the people experiencing the unexpected, it’s also all new. In other words: people haven’t changed. We are likely to go through similar psychological patterns.
My second observation, in the form of a question: Can’t we learn from the past even if we ourselves haven’t experienced it?
While most have never experienced anything quite like this in our lifetime, outbreaks are nothing new to humanity. Some pandemics you hear about more than others. For instance, the Spanish flu of 1918 that killed 50 million people (675,000 Americans) before it ran its course. Incredibly, it feasted on the healthiest and strongest with the death rate especially high amongst those between 20 and 40. Between that and the Great War just before it, a generation was wiped out. In that context, it’s not surprising we still remember. And guess how it was handled? According to the CDC:
With no vaccine to protect against influenza infection and no antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections that can be associated with influenza infections, control efforts worldwide were limited to non-pharmaceutical interventions such as isolation, quarantine, good personal hygiene, use of disinfectants, and limitations of public gatherings, which were applied unevenly.
By contrast, we hear almost nothing about the 1957 Asian flu that wiped out an estimated 116,000 people in the U.S. alone. As of the writing of this article over 50,000 have died from this disease and 82,000 have recovered with another 890,000 still suffering.
Laugh at me for comparing our current disease with the Black Death if you will. Call me an alarmist, and ring the bell to open your city or state, even without proper testing available and a vaccine at least a year away.
I get that there are other pain points all over the literal and figurative map. I get that we want to re-open our businesses, large and small. For that matter, what are students across the nation going to do? Are public schools going to open in August without providing a homeschool alternative?
And at what cost? Are you really ready to throw yourself out there “for the sake of the economy”? Are you deluded that it won’t happen to you? As the comedian William Saroyan wrote, “Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case.” Or is it just fatalism? “Everybody’s got to die one way or another (and meanwhile I’ve got to live)?”
And beyond our healthcare stalwarts who DO have to be there on the front lines, what are essential services? Food is essential. Transporting food and healthcare supplies, the women and men in the supply chain. Thank you. It is courageous work you do amidst this plague.
There is still a level of surreality going on. We’re still waiting for something to happen to blow away the grief and make the virus disappear. Believe me, traveling through Europe from time to time over the years and learning about the different phases of the Plague’s devastation, have felt unreal — disconnected from reality. The accounts sound like something from Grimm’s fairy tales, like the stuff of King Arthur’s legend, a mythic blend of truth and fiction.
We look down on those silly medieval people who didn’t even understand proper sanitation and the way viruses and bacteria spread. Let’s read a few of the documented approaches doctors took to treat the infected and have a good chuckle:
- Rubbing onions, herbs or a chopped up snake on the boils.
- Cutting up a pigeon and rubbing it over an infected body.
- Drinking vinegar, eating crushed minerals, arsenic, mercury or even ten-year-old syrup.
- Sitting close to a fire or in a sewer to drive out the fever, or fumigating the house with herbs to purify the air.
- People who believed this was God’s judgment turned many into ‘flagellants’ who went on processions whipping themselves and begging forgiveness.
All of this is not to mention the various approaches to bloodletting. Did the doctors charge for their services, especially when everyone went on dying anyway? History tells us how silly our ancestors were.
What else can history tell us?
How about when a deadly, one-of-a-kind, never-seen-before contagion sweeps through your population, you isolate as long as you can until you have a better plan? As Mark Cartwright writes on the Ancient History site about the first response to the Black Death: “Another helpful strategy would have been to quarantine areas but, as people fled in panic whenever a case of plague broke out, they unknowingly carried the disease with them and spread it even further afield; the rats did the rest.”
If you truly have to go out I won’t argue with you. The Mayor of Las Vegas would tell me I’m “talking disease,” and she is talking “life” when she says she wants Las Vegas completely re-opened now (as she recently said to Anderson Cooper). This topic isn’t about politics — at least it shouldn’t be.
Why? Because this disease is a great equalizer. It cares nothing for your beliefs, politics, wealth or social status, or even, really, your age. As Camus writes about the jail situation halfway through The Plague: “The plague was no respecter of persons and under its despotic rule everyone, from the warden down to the humblest delinquent, was under sentence and, perhaps for the first time, impartial justice reigned in the prison.”
I write this because I want the message of history to help us if even just a little bit, to let us act with wisdom, to let us lead with courage (but not stupidity). Let us wake up to the facts: COVID-19 is a plague.
Treat it that way, and you and others are more likely to stay well.