Ebola: the Black Death Revisited

durer_-knight, death, and the devil

We fear an extinction event. We search the environment and note the loss of plants and animals. We worry as we examine “Martha,” the last ever passenger pigeon. We examine the geological record and note that not even the mighty dinosaur survived the cataclysm of Cretaceous period.

Could that happen to us as well? We search history and note some sobering examples of global catastrophes. Few are as renowned as the “Black Death.” Early in the 1300’s Europeans received news of unprecedented diseases raging in the wealthy, remote and mysterious realm of China.

Had the plague in Asia erupted in the 10th or 11th century, it would have stayed in Asia. However, by the 14th century long dormant contacts with Asia had revived.  This was an age of globalization.  Ideas and products were traded with the Far East. And so, it turns, was disease.

In 1346 the plague arrived in the great Italian trading ports of Genoa and Venice. Galleys arrived in Genoa laden with precious cargoes of spices but also horribly infected and dying men. The citizens of the town drove them off with violence, but it was too late.  The contagion had spread to the city. The Black Death had arrived in Europe.

The manifestation of the disease was horrific: disfiguring skin eruptions, an unbearable stench, vile urine. The course of the contagion was rapid and deadly. If it attacked the lymphatic system, the victim was likely to die within ten days.  Perhaps a quarter of the sick survived this attack.  If, however, the plague attacked the lungs, death was certain within a week. The rarest form of the plague was septicemic, attacking the blood itself.  Death occurred within a day.

The most frightening aspects of the contagion were the speed with which it killed and the speed with which it spread. When the first wave hit the wealthy and densely populated city of Florence, frightened witnesses saw hundreds of corpses stacked in the street with not enough burial grounds to accommodate them. Whole families died within a week. There were no remedies.  Those who could, fled the city to find safety in isolated villas and homes in the countryside.

In Venice and Florence, hundreds of thousand citizens were dead within months. Medieval doctors were among the first to die.  Health regulations were useless and finally concentrated on disposal of the dead. Today we estimate that as the epidemic spread across Europe, 40% of all Europeans perished.

This was not an epidemic. This was a pandemic.  The change in modifier is significant. “Pan” refers to the Greek god of chaos and disruption.  It is also the source of the word “panic.” As we watched the Ebola epidemic in Africa, safely far away, we commiserated.  But now that we think that this is a world-wide contagion, we panic.

There is no rational reason to fear Ebola in the developed world. Unlike our fore-fathers of the 14th century, we know the source of contagion and have methods to deal with it.  However, panic has set in.  The New York Times this morning (October 16, 2014) featured this headline: “Experts offer steps for avoiding public hysteria, a different contagious threat.”

This pandemic is a disease but it is also a psychological contagion of irrational fear, public hysteria. This morning as I was reading a daily science post, I noted an advertisement for the “Ebola Emergency Food Kit.” It is not Ebola that is stalking the land, but anxiety and fear. An ABC newscaster yesterday asked a passenger coming off a plane whether she feared contagion.  Well, yes: there was someone coughing on the plane and perhaps they were a carrier. Note: coughing is not a symptom of Ebola.

Newspaper articles and bloggers are trying to be reassuring. After all, tens of thousands of people die annually from influenza or from hepatitis or from MRSA. This is a hopeless attempt to reassure us because millions of people have encountered these familiar scourges and are not afraid of them. Ebola is different because it is astoundingly lethal and while not air-borne, it is frighteningly contagious.  This is a new pestilence.

But it is also more than just another pestilence. It is a reminder that not only are our lives finite; our species is finite.  The globe is warming, the missile silos are still out there, medieval jihadists are stalking us, economies are cyclical:  these are familiar fears.

But a mystery disease, highly lethal, visible in the media daily? Do we share what is, for lack of a better term, a historical traumatic memory of the Black Death? Now that we understand how fragile we are on a small planet that has had tremendous disruption, is this THE disruption?




About Dr. Ewa Bacon

Dr. Ewa Bacon is a professor emerita of history at Lewis University. Her areas of expertise include the Holocaust, Auschwitz, concentration camps, Russian history and Central European history (especially Germany and Poland).

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