Remember the feeling of sheer helplessness and anxiety during the long months of Covid-19? Of using sanitizers like a maniac, days of frenzied cooking, learning new hobbies, reading wretchedly about migrant labourers making their painful way back home, experiencing the cruel shortage of oxygen cylinders, and barbaric fleecing and exploitation when one tried to procure one. If many centuries later historians were to look back at what went on in various countries during Covid-19, what would be the stories they would write?

In The Moral Contagion, Julia Hauser and Sarnath Banerjee take us on a time travel through devastating plagues that affected humanity through the centuries and the way administrations and societies reacted to these. From sixth century Constantinople and 14th century Europe to Islamic Spain, 17th century London, 18th century Aleppo and Hong Kong, Bombay, San Francisco and South Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries, they take us on a fascinating journey.

Spellbinding storytelling

This is no drab dry chronicle but spellbinding, imaginative storytelling packed with evocative, brilliant illustrations. The graphic narrative is sensitively told, peopled with interesting characters who bring to life the sufferings and moral dilemmas of their era. 

For instance, in sixth century Istanbul, we meet Zoe, a poor, elderly but powerfully eloquent woman who leaves her hut near the Bosphorous to stand in front of the Hagia Sophia and preach repentance, warning of impending doom in sixth century Istanbul. We also meet Theodora, a circus actress of ill repute who becomes the wife of Emperor Justinian, through whom Hauser cleverly highlights the hypocrisy of the ruler’s moral crusade.

Or take the English diarist and naval administrator Samuel Pepys whose accounts of the Great Plague in London in 1665-66 are utterly fascinating. In between describing the horrors, the growing number of dead bodies piling up, and nuggets like how afraid people were of buying new wigs, so fashionable at that time (how could one be sure that the hair was not from a festering plague victim) he also describes his amorous affairs and merry making.

‘Morality’ narrative

The thread that unites all the stories is the undercurrent of morality - the feeling that the plague was punishment for sinful lifestyles. Hauser, a lecturer in Modern History at the University of Kasel, Germany, brings all this out brilliantly without any judgement, leaving it to the various voices in the stories to unfold how in every era there is action against sex workers and persecution of minorities. But as she says there is much more to it than that –she also highlights the state of hygiene, the impact of the plague on relationships, and systems of beliefs. There is social distancing in all the episodes, but it’s between the rich and poor. The poor are labelled super spreaders.

The other uniform thread is how various rulers – or in later centuries, governments or the colonising civilising missions – reacted to the contagion, the way they floundered and their sheer powerlessness. Chapter 6 which is an account of the outbreak of plague in Hong Kong in1894 and also the discovery of the bacillus that spread plague is particularly riveting. The Chinese population objected to the medical methods of the British and trouble brewed.

The story of the plague in Bombay in 1896 – the chapter has a catchy title ‘Dirt in My Ghee’ - is somewhat similar. The story of Haffkeine’s serum development and inoculation movement runs parallel with the way the British colonial authorities bulldozed slums indiscriminately and how there were violent protests against their plague measures. 

Repeat of history

Meanwhile Waldemar Haffkine’s serum appalled orthodox Hindus and Parsis and inoculation divided families. Sounds familiar? It’s truly fascinating to see how history repeats itself at every turn.

If Hauser’s writing is compelling and unputdownable, then she has an able collaborator in Sarnath Banerjee whose illustrations for this book can easily go into any art exhibition . Sometimes dour and grim, sometimes wryly humorous they add atmosphere to each page.

This is a book that is not just to be read and passed on, but a keeper to be treasured.

Check out the book on Amazon.

About the book
Title: The Moral Contagion 
Author: Julia Hauser
Publisher: HarperCollins
Price: ₹699
Pages: 140