Science, not God, rendered coronavirus mild vs. medieval Black Death

Science, not God, rendered coronavirus mild vs. medieval Black Death March 30, 2020

A very readable article by American writer Katha Pollit in the April 6 edition of The Nation, a progressive weekly, reminds us amid the coronavirus pandemic that “things could be worse. A lot worse.”

plague coronavirus black death medical science god
Drawing of common “plague doctor” garb during European epidemics in the Middle Ages. They counted the dead rather than cured people. The beak-like mask housed aromatic herbs to protect from putrid smells of plague diseases, which physicians at the time believed caused illness. (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Pollit underscores this by reminding us of previous horrors of infectious disease (i.e., plague) that ravaged much of the world and were orders of magnitude deadlier than any post-medieval scourge, save perhaps for the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic that killed 50 million globally as infected soldiers returned to their home countries after World War I.

“Instead of the coronavirus, which almost all sufferers survive, we could have the Black Death, which was far more fatal,” Pollit writes. “In the 14th century, it killed roughly one-third of Europe’s population, and in 1665 about one in five Londoners succumbed. Forget about Purell or nitrile gloves or Clorox wipes or even enough hot water and soap to wash your hands a dozen times a day.”

Indeed, the existence of bacteria — the cause of plague — wasn’t even discovered until more than a decade after the London pestilence clear-cut the population. The guy who discovered “germs,” as it were, was Antony Van Leeuwenhoek, an only modestly educated Dutch lens maker but a man with burning curiosity about the physical world and robust insights about the tiny new worlds he found looking through microscopes he created. Today, he is considered the “father of microbiology.”

What Leeuwenhoek discovered ultimately transformed medicine and science, and led to further discoveries and the development of pharmaceuticals, equipment, diagnostic capabilities, and viable treatment and containment options that today keep potentially devastating pandemics from ravaging the world like wildfires, unchecked, as they once did.

Of course, this doesn’t mean game over.

Today, there are still nearly half a million active cases of coronavirus (aka Covid-19) infection worldwide, and more than 30,000 have died from the disease. The virus is beginning to spread in the U.S., where about 115,000 people currently suffer active infections, and nearly 2,000 have died.

But without the tools that modern science and knowledge have provided, the numbers of infected and dead might likely be astronomically higher.

One thing, however, is certain: The viral plague now attacking the world is not the wages of same-sex marriage, growing secularism around the planet or the arrival of the serially prophesied — but never realized — End Times.

This plague is a far more pedestrian reality: a highly infectious virus. Our morality and faith have zero effect on it. Only science can explain it and, hopefully, contain it.

To put the current pandemic in perspective, Pollit recounts what life was like in London during the 1665 plague’s devastation.

“If one person in a household showed sign of the disease, all the people in it were quarantined for a month, possibly condemning them to death, with watchmen guarding the door 24 hours a day.” she writes.

In English novelist Daniel DeFoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, which Pollit describes as “an early example of a nonfiction novel,” he characterizes the deadly, infectious chaos that gripped London in 1665.

“Defoe’s novel shows how far we’ve come medically, scientifically, and technologically, as well as in terms of our collective ability to manage emergencies,” Pollit writes. “But it also shows, if you needed more proof, that people haven’t changed. Quacks and miracle cures, which flourished during the plague, are still with us, despite our far higher levels of education and the existence of real medicine. (Crystals, anyone? Anti-vaxxers? Homeopathy?).”

She notes that Right Wing shock-jock Rush Limbaugh, in line with the president’s and his conservative base’s irrational intuitions, falsely told his radio listeners that the “19” in Covid-19 refers to the number of past coronavirus epidemics. It actually refers to 2019, the year the virus first emerged in China.

The effect of such invented notions by Limbaugh and other Republican naysayers to evidence and facts is of dangerously downplaying the real dangers of the pandemic for people who have a history of not caring to fact-check. It leaves them more vulnerable than they should be.

Defoe’s narrator in Plague Year, a prosperous saddle merchant named “H.F.,” was rationally centuries ahead of even many 21st-century Americans in discounting the popular idea of his time that the plague was “God’s judgment on the unrighteous.” He noticed, Pollit writes, “that good and bad people were equally likely to be struck down” by the plague.

For those of you who are reasonably “sheltering in place” at home, Pollit offers these relevant educational diversions that she has herself indulged in while homebound:

  • Contagion: A 2011 movie about a pandemic that kills millions worldwide.
  • A Journal of the Plague Year: Defoe’s quasi-journalistic narrative on that devastating 1665 pestilence.
  • The Decameron: Giovanni Boccaccio’s novel set amid the 1348 Black Death epidemic in Italy, as the wealthy elite frolicked and flirted in the rural countryside near Florence.

Enjoy these, if not the pandemic.

Image/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

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