Coronavirus News Asia

We’ve come a long way since the Black Death

In the spirit of learning from the past, I’ve been studying the catastrophic plague that devastated Europe in the middle of the 14th century. One of my main sources has been a 24-lecture Great Courses course titled “The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague,” taught by Purdue University Professor Dorsey Armstrong.

Lesson One: As overwhelming as the coronavirus pandemic may seem, compared with what happened back then it’s a lesser event.

When we talk about the death rate from Covid-19, the disease the virus causes, we mean the number of infected people who die. Reports from the front lines of the pandemic range from 1% to 10%, with the caveat that we don’t really know how many have been infected.

By contrast, when we talk about the death rate from the 14th century plague, we’re talking about the percentage of the entire population that died. It was a staggering figure, an estimated 50%, with death rates in some communities of 70% and higher. The percentage of infected people who perished was near 100. If you got the plague, you were almost certain to die.

Lesson Two: There are some eerie similarities between the Black Death and Covid-19. Both originated in China and spread with the help of international travel and trade. Both had devastating effects on the world economy.

In both cases, quarantine was practiced. In fact, the word quarantine comes from the Italian word quaranta, meaning 40. That’s because during episodes of the 14th-century plague Venetian ships were required to spend 40 days at anchor before their crews came ashore.

Even back then doctors wore masks. (Public domain illustration)

Doctors then and now wore masks. Medieval medicine believed “miasma” – corrupt air – caused plague. Plague doctors’ masks had a large beak that was filled with flowers or sweet spices on the theory that breathing good air protected against bad air. These masks may in fact have offered the medics protection, though not for the reason they thought.

Ranchers may be surprised to know that cattle prices tanked back then, too. They’re down today because, with restaurants closed and incomes falling, people are expected to eat less beef. They fell then not only because a shrinking population needed less meat, but also because so many livestock owners and their potential heirs had died, leaving surplus animals to wander the countryside, free to be taken to market by anyone who rounded them up.

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