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Lessons from the Black Death in the time of Covid-19

Swapan Dasgupta / Khmer Times Share:
Medical workers transfer a patient to a hospital in Seoul, South Korea, March 11, 2020.

The Black Death that devastated Asia and Europe between the 1330s and 1350s and led to the deaths of an estimated 75 and 200 million people was marked by a desperate search for preventive measures. In his highly readable Black Death, first published in 1969, the historian Philip Ziegler, described some of the “lifestyle” measures taken by desperate citizens in Europe.

“Diet was important. Anything which went quickly bad in hot weather was to be avoided. So was fish from the infected waters of the sea. Meat should be roast rather than boiled. Eggs were authorised if eaten with vinegar but should never be taken hard-boiled. Anyone trying to follow the advice of every expert would have been sadly perplexed. Ibn Khatimah approved of fresh fruit and vegetables but no one else agreed. Gentile of Foligno recommended lettuce, the Faculty of Medicine at Paris forbade it. Ibn Khatimah had faith in egg plant, another expert deplored its use… Gentile believed that it was best to keep steady the heat of the liver by sleeping first on the right side and then on the left. To sleep on one’s back was disastrous since this would cause a stream of superfluities to descend on the palate and nostrils. From thence these would flow back to the brain and submerge the memory.”

There was also a view since bad drove out the bad, “to imbibe foul odours was a useful if not infallible protection.” This was more so because it was observed that: “Attendants who take care of latrines and those who serve in hospitals and other malodorous places are nearly all considered to be immune.” Consequently, Zeigler noted that it “was not unknown for apprehensive citizens of a plague-struck city to spend hours each day crouched over a latrine absorbing with relish the foetid smell.”

While people were generally advised to stay at home and fumigate the interiors with aromatic scents, for those who had to venture out “a prudent precaution would be to carry an amber or smelling apple” made of paste from “equal portions of black pepper and red and white sandal, two portions of roses and a half portion of camphor.”

As for immunity boosters, pills of aloes, myrrh and saffron were popular. One “expert” suggested “ten-year-old treacle blended with some 60 elements, including chopped-up snakes, and mixed with good wine.” On his part, Gentile of Foligno recommended powdered emerald: “A remedy so potent that, if a toad looked at it, its eyes would crack.”

It is easy to mock the quackery of the Middle Ages, but today’s Covid-19 has witnessed desperate people attempting whatever promises immunity or even a glimmer of protection against the deadly virus. People are popping vitamin pills, zinc tablets, different forms of homeopathic concoctions and herbal cocktails, not to mention a small group of diehards who have fallen back on gaumutra (cow’s urine).

While there is certainly a greater chance of an infected person recovering from Covid-19 today than was the case when the virus first made its appearance six months or more ago, the so-called preventive steps appear to as tenuous as those recommended against the plague 700 years ago. Certainly, the steady rise in the numbers of those infected suggests that this aspect of medical science at least is tantamount to whistling in the dark.

Even something as basic and innocuous as the wearing of masks in public places has witnessed strong differences of opinion. Initially, even the medical fraternity believed that masks offered no additional benefits but since then this has changed with the advance of the virus. Instead, the wearing or non-use of the mask has become a point of political discord, with the upholders of individual freedom railing against the right of the State to dictate personal behaviour.

Likewise, the administrative strategies to contain the spread of the pandemic have led to the “experts” fighting bitterly among themselves, with all the groups invoking science. This week, for example, two rival groups of “eminent” scientists have suggested different approaches to the United Kingdom government’s attempts to contain a “second wave”. One has suggested that restrictions be limited to the over-65s, while the other is in favour of harsh lockdowns, in anticipation of a magic vaccine. Meanwhile, a third group persists with the Swedish model, it could also be called the Donald Trump model, that is centred on the notion of individual responsibility, economic freedom at all cost and, wherever feasible, acquired herd immunity.

Finally, there are eccentric interpretations of medical correctness. In the House, Members of Parliament (MPs) from the ruling party in West Bengal boasted about being guided by a Global Advisory Board headed by a Nobel Prize winner in economics. However, its belief that random, and negotiable, lockdowns for a day or two will confuse the virus seems based on either numerology or fantasy. The whole exercise seems as bizarre as the Spanish government’s attempt to divide urban neighbourhoods into health zones, with different sides of a street expected to observe different norms.

The first six months of the Covid-19 pandemic has punctured the 21st century claim of being driven by the imperatives of science. By definition, science is centred on verifiable certitudes which, in the context of the war against the Wuhan virus, is only a half-truth.

The notables of the 14th century had no such pretensions and subordinated science to God and experience. Maybe the discovery of the vaccine will tilt the scales back in favour of science. But till then, it seems a case of history repeating itself, with less intensity, 700 years later.


Swapan Dasgupta is Member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha. The views expressed are personal and first published in Hindustan Times


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