Who let the virus out

Kanishk Tharoor | Updated on April 14, 2020 Published on April 14, 2020

Wrong turn: The UK resisted imposing social distancing on its people and now, death tolls have leapt precipitously in the country   -  REUTERS/HENRY NICHOLLS

Just like medieval Europeans during the bubonic plague, modern humans, too, tend to conflate contagion and community

When people in the West try to imagine the worst-case scenario for an infectious disease, they invoke the bubonic plague of the 14th century. That plague wrought devastation across medieval Europe, killing upwards of a third of all people on the continent (and perhaps, by some estimates, as much as half of the overall population). In its wake, Europeans searched for answers for the catastrophe known for centuries later as the Black Death.

Maybe, some thought, the plague was the punishment for insufficient piety. The practice of self-flagellation — as atonement — became more popular in Christian Europe, with many convinced that spiritual self-improvement was the only right response to such an apocalyptic disease. Others chose scapegoats, attacking foreigners as purveyors of the infection and targeting Jewish communities in ruthless pogroms.

Beyond the penitents and the bigots, there were the experts. In his famous history of the Black Death, the 19th-century German medical writer Justus Hecker recounts the attempt of the 14th-century French college of physicians in Paris to find an explanation for the plague. Those wise doctors of the faculty, no doubt scratching their beards and poring over old manuscripts, returned with a rather astonishing claim. The Black Death had come from far in the east, from India.

This is what they came up with. Thanks to the quirks of certain astrological alignments, the constellations boiled the ocean waters near India into a poisonous mist. This vapour spread itself through the air in many places on the Earth, and enveloped them in fog, the French doctors claimed. It brought death wherever it drifted. “Not a man will be left alive... so long as the sun remains in the sign of Leo, on all the islands and adjoining countries to which this corrupted sea-wind extends, or has already extended, from India.”

The physicians offered both diagnosis and remedy. They urged the burning of certain herbs and kinds of wood to purify the air, and they listed a motley assortment of other prescriptions. “Beet-root and other vegetables, whether eaten pickled or fresh, are hurtful,” they insisted. “If it rain, a little fine treacle should be taken after dinner.” Some staples were entirely out of the question. “Olive oil as an article of food is fatal.” As for physical habits, the doctors sagely recommended moderation and chastity as the best way to avoid falling prey to the disease, though they did offer some particular advice. “Fat people,” they said, “should not sit in the sunshine.”

Of course, these wise heads in the French medical faculty were quacks grasping at straws. The disease was not carried on the tendrils of some hateful mist, but by fleas that travelled on rats and other rodents. Though the precise source of the bubonic plague outbreak of the 14th century remains unknown, it seems clear that it wasn’t in India. Indeed, the disease would surface in India later (and recur in the 19th century there), but India and China were not nearly as affected by the plague in the 14th century as Europe was; descriptions of plague can’t be found in many contemporary Indian sources.

In the light of modern science, the bloviating of the French physicians appears justifiably absurd. We live in a more enlightened era. Doctors, scientists and public health experts have worked diligently to study the novel coronavirus and the disease it causes — Covid-19 — and in 2021 we may have a workable vaccine.

But speculation, conspiracy and misinformation remain eternal human habits. Just as in the 14th century, people conflate contagion and community. In the West, East Asians have faced a spate of attacks following the spread of the novel coronavirus; now that stigmatisation extends to Muslims in India.

Already, the exact origins of the outbreak have become the site of fierce and, at times, hysterical debate. Chinese officials have suggested that the US military spread the virus in China, while some Americans have accused China of deliberately engineering the disease.

Some governments have, to their detriment, embraced magical thinking in trying to fight the pandemic: Both Sweden and the UK resisted imposing lockdowns and social distancing on their populations. Once the insanity of that position became abundantly clear, both governments abandoned that approach. But the damage had already been done. Sweden has a higher fatality rate from the disease than its European neighbours, while death tolls have leapt precipitously in the UK.

And the medieval quacks have their modern corollaries, too. In the US, the daily briefings of President Donald Trump are tempestuous affairs, full of vitriol and posturing and, sometimes, misleading information. After hearing Trump’s televised advice, a man in the US state of Arizona ingested a large amount of chloroquine. He was afraid of getting Covid-19 and had been encouraged by the president’s belief — not yet confirmed by scientists — in the drug’s efficacy in combating the disease. He died.

Kanishk Tharoor   -  BUSINESS LINE


Kanishk Tharoor is the author of Swimmer Among Stars, a collection of short fiction


Published on April 14, 2020

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