The Great Pause Week 71: Historical and Hysterical Experiences

From 1331 to 1353, gypsies, Jews, foreign travelers, and lepers were hunted down and killed because they were blamed for the pandemic.

Albert Bates
Jul 25 · 11 min read

Finger-pointing is nothing new in times of plague, but putting the blame for the Pandemic of 2020–2025 on President Turnip, the Wuhan Lab, or Facebook has modernized the practice.

In the 2007 film The Reaping, Hilary Swank’s character explains the 10 plagues of Egypt this way:

In 1400 BC, a group of nervous Egyptians saw the Nile turn red. But what they thought was blood was actually an algal bloom that killed the fish, which prior to that had been living off the eggs of frogs. Those uneaten eggs turned into record numbers of baby frogs, which subsequently fled to the land and died. Their little rotting frog bodies attracted lice and flies. The lice carried the bluetongue virus, which killed 70 percent of Egypt’s livestock. The flies carried glanders, a bacterial infection, which in humans causes boils. Soon afterward, the Nile River Valley was hit with a three-day sandstorm, otherwise known as the “plague of darkness.” During a sandstorm, intense heat can combine with an approaching cold front to create not only hail but also electrical storms, which would have looked to the ancient Egyptians like “fire from the sky.” The subsequent wind would have blown the Ethiopian locust population off course and right into downtown Cairo. Hail is wet; locusts leave droppings. Spread both on grain and you have got mycotoxins. Dinnertime in ancient Egypt meant the firstborn child got the biggest portion, which in this case meant he ate the most toxins, so he died. Ten plagues. Ten scientific explanations.

Before we knew about red tides and electrical storms (both of which may have been influenced by ash from a volcanic event in Greece in 1400 BCE that spread both fire in the sky and ash clouds to Egypt), the generally accepted explanation for the ten plagues was that Pharaoh refused to set the Israelites free, so God decided to punish him. God ordered Aaron to touch the River Nile with his staff, and the waters were turned to blood; Moses stretched forth his hand toward heaven, and there was a thick darkness over the land of Egypt until Pharaoh finally relented and let the Israelites go, and the plagues ended.

Because viruses naturally occur in the human body, and come and go from our contact with other humans, animals, insects, and nature generally, it should not be surprising that occasionally we get one that chooses to be nasty. Going back to the beginnings of agriculture, there is evidence that 5,000 years ago, an epidemic struck a small village in northeast China now called Hamin Mangha. That village was not inhabited again for many centuries. The bodies of the dead were stuffed inside a house and the house burned down.

Not all epidemics come from viruses. Typhus, an infection caused by a Salmonella bacteria, has been with us since at least 430 BCE when it killed a quarter of the Athenian troops fighting Sparta in the Peloponnesian War and then returned home to kill a quarter of the population of Athens in four years.

Fortunately for the victorious Spartans, the sheer virulence of the bacteria prevented its wider spread. It killed off its Athenian hosts at a rate faster than they could spread it, and so it stayed in that one place and eventually died out.

At the start of the first millennium, the Antonine Plague was brought to the Italian peninsula by Roman soldiers returning from the Near East. It killed a quarter of those infected, up to five million in all. A second outbreak a century later killed 5,000 people per day in Rome. The plague, later confirmed as smallpox, laid the groundwork for the unraveling of the Empire. Rome’s fighting force was cut in half, offensive military campaigns were postponed, and Germanic tribes edged closer to Rome.

From 541 to 750 CE, the world was struck by a global pandemic — the bubonic plague. Before it was done, the plague would cut Europe’s population in half. Scientists have concluded that the bacteria Yersinia pestis originated in China over 2,600 years ago, but at that time it caused only mild stomach discomfort. It reached Egypt in a much more virulent form in 541 CE, traveled around the Mediterranean with sailors and merchants, and arrived at Constantinople the following spring, killing 10,000 people a day, eventually taking 40 percent of the city’s inhabitants. That outbreak of the plague went on to eliminate one-quarter to one-half of the human population throughout the known world. Then it disappeared.

Eight centuries later, it suddenly reappeared. This time it was called the Black Death. The total number of deaths from CE 1331 to 1353 is estimated at 75 million, up to half the people in many urban areas. Gypsies, Jews, foreign travelers, and lepers were hunted down and killed. In actuality, the bacteria were spread by fleas that lived on rats.

The plague returned to England every two to five years until 1480. European outbreaks continued off and on until the eighteenth century, more than 100 in all. The Great Plague of London of 1665–66 was the last major outbreak in England, killing approximately 100,000 people and 20 percent of Londoners. But it was not done with the rest of the world.

William Shakespeare lived his entire life in the shadow of bubonic plague. Between 1606 and 1610, when his writing powers were at their peak, the London playhouses he needed to make a living were closed more than they were open — for social distancing.

Shakespeare’s plays contain exclamations like “a plague on both your houses!” There is even a description of quarantine in London:

And finding him, the searchers of the town,
Suspecting that we both were in a house
Where the infectious pestilence did reign,
Sealed up the doors and would not let us forth.

Shakespeare despaired that there would ever be a medical solution to the plague and so focused his plots on sneaky, morally corrupt, incompetent leaders and the good people who responded to troubling times by behaving with nobility, sacrifice, and courage.

The plague moved to China in 1855 and then spread to India, where 10 million people died. It reached San Francisco in 1900. There are still isolated cases of plague in Africa, China, and the western United States, carried by fleas that occasionally transmit it to animals and people. Human-to-human transmission is extremely rare, but people can contract the plague when disposing of dead animals like squirrels or mice.

In 1900, health officials in San Francisco strung a rope around Chinatown in an attempt to contain an outbreak of bubonic plague. Only non-Chinese people (and rats and fleas) were allowed to enter or leave. That was the state of the art in public health at that time, but it did not work, and in many ways it made things worse.

In late 1916, a virus appeared that was new, and humans had no resistance to it. It first struck soldiers with symptoms similar to food poisoning or the flu, but it was not food poisoning. It was a virus that would come to be called the Spanish flu, but only after US soldiers passed it to British soldiers in France, who passed it to Germans, and so on. It wasn’t named for where it began, which may have been Kansas, but got its name because Spain was the first country that allowed newspapers to tell their readers about it.

We know now that SARS-CoV2 did not originate in the Wuhan wild meat markets.

…residual archived samples from 7389 routine blood donations collected by the American Red Cross from 13 December 2019 to 17 January 2020 from donors resident in 9 states (California, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Oregon, Rhode Island, Washington, and Wisconsin) were tested at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for anti–SARS-CoV-2 antibodies. … Donations with reactivity occurred in all 9 states.

Blood-bank surveys discovered presence of anti–SARS-CoV-2–reactive antibodies widespread in the US weeks before it emerged in China, and there is repeated evidence that another strain was circulating in Brazil, Spain, Eastern France and Northern Italy even earlier in 2019. Italy’s first documented case was a 4-year old who developed a cough on November 21, 2019. Covid is not “the Chinese flu,” or “Kung flu,” any more than the 1918 A/H1N1 virus was the “Spanish flu.”

Spreading from the battlefields of World War I, the “Spanish flu” mutated, became far more lethal, and eventually infected 500 million people, including people living on remote Pacific islands and in the Arctic. It caused the deaths of 50–100 million people (CFR of 10–20 percent).

The 1918 flu killed more people than World War I, but it provided valuable lessons in how to control a pandemic until a vaccine can be discovered and used. In the 1916–1918 pandemic, some cities tried to reduce the transmission of the virus by limiting contact between people. They closed schools, churches, bars, and large social events. Governments that did this early were successful at reducing case numbers and mortality overall, but the disease rebounded once controls were lifted. Lesson learned. Or not.

After that, the World Health Organization, the National Centers for Disease Control in the United States, and other organizations in many countries set up programs to intercept and get ahead of epidemics before they could progress. They realized that diseases did not observe borders, so the key was to develop fast response teams that could go anywhere. A sleeping sickness epidemic in Africa (trypanosomiasis), transmitted by the bite of an infected tsetse fly, was arrested by mobile teams from around the world descending on Africa and systematically screening millions of people at risk, developing new drugs, starting public-health programs, and improving diagnostics. They did it again with the eradication of smallpox in 1977, rinderpest in 2011, and the Ebola outbreak of 2014–2016. The flu of 1918 helped a whole new area of science get started.

How We Measure Progress

We are getting better in our response to outbreaks of disease by improving in these areas:

  • Detection: We are finding outbreaks faster.
  • Verification: At the earliest stages, we can coordinate scientists across the globe to identify the vectors, assess the risks, and recommend immediate responses.
  • Connection: We have built trust-based research and response networks across disciplines and geographic borders. These networks have developed protocols for the open sharing of information.
  • Measurement: We can track outbreaks, responses, progress of our research, and ways to do better. We can collate information in data centers and apply artificial intelligence to detect trends.

If the Covid Pandemic was a quiz for whether we will reverse climate change, then we failed. We had brilliant virology from the start, including from the Wuhan Lab, but also the scientists at Pfizer and Moderna. We had pretty good epidemiology, but botched responses from authorities in charge, and abysmal testing, which was what the epidemiologists most needed.

There were better public health results in nations with more coherent national dialog; faith in science; experience in masking; trust in national authority; leadership. Where all those were lacking the result was horrific. In the United States, more deaths occurred than from the 1918 flu, more than from the American Civil War, and they are still climbing. USAnians seem to think this will be over soon and they can go back to “normal.” They think that about climate change too.

There are no borders in nature. Viruses have been carried with us to the moon and back. One can hop a plane in China today and be in Paris or New York tomorrow. In a globalized world, the only effective response must be a global response. The delta, gamma, and lambda variants arose among populations desperate for vaccination while in the US and Canada, millions of doses were expiring and having to be discarded.

A country can wall itself off as Iceland and New Zealand did, but as long as the contagion is still active anywhere, you cannot lower your border defenses. And eventually, some new variant, more virulent, more transmissible, able to defeat vaccines, will emerge. It is only a matter of numbers — mutation rates; the exponential function; unlimited human specimens to experiment with. It won’t be coming from Facebook. It will be coming from myths, finger-pointing, me-first, and Jingoism.

Pandemics unfold as social dramas. People ignore clues that something is awry until they are surrounded by illness and death shakes them from complacency. That launches the second act: a demand for explanations, whether superstitious (“this is a bioweapon made in China” or “the gypsies are responsible”) or scientific (“it is a new kind of virus for which we have no cure”). People then either accept or reject these explanations and choose to either cooperate or rebel, and that can make the third act as dramatic and disruptive as the disease itself — a crisis of individual and national character.

Pandemics put pressure on the societies they strike and can widen cracks in social structures that had been ignored. They reveal what really matters and the things that have true value. Would you rather be able to shop in a mall or have your grandparents alive? Blame is a destructive force that can ruin much more than the disease can. From Jews in medieval Europe to meat mongers in Chinese markets, someone is always blamed. Government authority, people with power and privilege, and minorities and immigrants are all common targets of blame. Today it is Fox News, Robert Kennedy Jr., and Mark Zuckerberg.

But as Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and it is us.”

This week’s post was extracted from Albert Bates’ Plagued: Surviving a Modern Pandemic (2020), available in all good bookstores and on your favorite portable devices.

______________________

The COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed lives, livelihoods, and economies. But it has not slowed down climate change, which presents an existential threat to all life, humans included. The warnings could not be stronger: temperatures and fires are breaking records, greenhouse gas levels keep climbing, sea level is rising, and natural disasters are upsizing.

As the world confronts the pandemic and emerges into recovery, there is growing recognition that the recovery must be a pathway to a new carbon economy, one that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backwards — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience.

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“There are the good tipping points, the tipping points in public consciousness when it comes to addressing this crisis, and I think we are very close to that.”
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