"plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose" The more things change, the more they continue to be the same thing - Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr
Let us go to Italy, specifically the Sicilian port of Messina, the year is 1347 AD. A fleet of ships pulls into the port- and those waiting there witness a ghastly sight, the beginning of what will now be seen routinely across Europe. Most of the sailors are dead, and many covered with swellings and wounds, only to die soon. They try to stop the ships from docking at the port. But it is too late. This was the Black Death, or the plague would go on to ravage Europe in the 14th century .
What was its impact? It had swept across China, Asia, India before having arrived in Europe, having decimated the population in these regions. It is estimated to have reduced the population of Europe by 30-60% at that time, and the total world population by an estimated 100 million in the 14th century.
Where did it originate? Interestingly, research in 2010 says that the plagues originated in or near China. (The good scientists note that the bacterium Yersinia pestis, did not discriminate and prefer any race. It was impartial, in that it killed its host- it was just the region had a higher natural density of rodents which were the natural host for the pestilence).
Why is it called the black death? The name Black death is from a phrase written in a poem by a Belgian astronomer in the 1300s which attributes the disease to a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn.
What did the people do? No one knew how the disease spread- they knew that contact was dangerous. Doctors refused to see patients; priests refused to administer last rites; and shopkeepers closed their stores. People avoided each other and fled to their villages to avoid the cities. Back then, a lot of primitive measures were adopted- with no real result- which meant that there were still those who carried the light of courage and compassion in their hearts in the fight against the Black Death. Religious persecution, and persecution in general was prevalent- blaming people, communities for the illness.
What measures did public health take? The only measure that seemed to have helped in the 1600s was the phenomenon of distancing. Sailors were initially held on their ships for 30 days (a trentino), a period that was later increased to 40 days, called a quarante giorni in Italian- the origin of the term “quarantine” and a practice still used today.
Let us now fly to 2020. We are in a Modern world!! Wuhan in China sees the first cases of a pneumonia with deaths in its population.
What is its impact? As of writing this up, globally there have been 1,170,159 cases with 63,832 deaths.
What are we doing? In Indian cities, people moved to their villages. We see people blaming many for "spreading" the disease as hatred brings out its choice weapons even today. Some people refuse to rent out their places to doctors, nurses fearing them to be a source of 'infection'. We have seen people offering ridiculous treatment suggestions and supernatural and astrological justifications. Being an educated person (or a doctor) does not make one immune to this thought process. C’est la meme chose.
What public health measures have we taken? We have imposed quarantines and systematic lockdowns. Doctors and healthcare workers are seeing patients. The brave breed does not back down in the face of the challenge. But without protective equipment- there will be a shortage to those who serve, or eventually a shortage of doctors, nurses and healthcare professionals. I can begin to imagine the fear that the healthcare workers and their families, and the patients and their families may have had in the 1300s. C’est la meme chose.
What is happening? While the impact on the world is evident, and as we see our world changing- we notice changes in the environment around us, and we see nature taking a break from the side effects of modern human activity. C’est la meme chose.
Finally- the suffering endured during and after the Black death is said to have catalyzed the Renaissance. The brilliant revolutionary age that saw a revolution in the arts and sciences and have given us the platform to this modern age. The age that gave us inventions, artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Michalengelo. Let us remember, we are tied in this suffering not just by geography- but also in time to our ancestors who have braved pandemics since ages and emerged stronger. Our vulnerability makes life as sacrosanct and precious as it was back then, and in these times our resilience, intelligence and kindness make the difference to our life on this planet once again.
C’est la meme chose. Mahesh.
References: 1. Black Death: Wikipedia, history.com 2. Morelli, G.; Song, Y.; Mazzoni, C.; et al. (2010). "Yersinia pestis genome sequencing identifies patterns of global phylogenetic diversity". Nature Genetics. 42 (12): 1140–3. doi:10.1038/ng.705 3. Johns Hopkins Corona virus resource centre 4. Renaissance: Wikipedia