Plagues and Civilization

How Civilization Gave Rise to Plagues

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Just because the Covid-19 pandemic is your first experience living through a plague, it is by no means a rare experience in the annals of history. My own grandmother used to tell me horrifying stories of her childhood when she lived through the 1918 Spanish Flu as a little girl. She vividly described to me how corpses were strewn around her tiny Native village in Alaska, and how sled dogs and bears consumed the unburied dead. The Spanish Flu killed an estimated 60-100 million people globally. The Black Death (1346-1353) killed an estimated 75-200 million people worldwide, decimating about one-third of the population of Europe.

History, literature, and art give witness to a long record of humanity’s experience with plagues. The Old Testament mentions plagues frequently (think Exodus). Even Jesus mentions plagues a number of times in the Gospels. Ancient writings abound with mention of plagues. Thucydides wrote about the origins of the Plague of Athens in 430 B.C.E. (above photo), tracing its origin from Ethiopia to Egypt to Athens. The earliest recorded instance of bio-warfare describes catapulting infected corpses over city walls during a siege.

Shakespeare frequently mentioned plagues in his plays such as in Romeo and Juliet when a dying Tybalt curses the two families for their feud: “A pox (plague) on both your houses!” Almost prescient of today’s political turmoil in regards to Covid-19, he wrote “The time’s plague, when madmen lead the blind.” More recently, Albert Camus, the Algerian novelist and philosopher who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957, wrote in his aptly titled novel, The Plague (1947): “But what does it mean, the Plague? It is life. That’s all.” Art throughout history has depicted the horrific ravages of plagues. The depictions show that the rich perish just like the poor (see below). Even Roman emperors like Marcus Aurelius may have died of plague. Pandemics don’t discriminate who they infect. They are equal opportunity viruses.

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(Death leading aristocrats to their demise during a plague)

There’s a good reason why accounts of plagues litter history: because we made them possible. The diseases that give rise to epidemics don’t come accidentally. They come because of our activities; they come because of what we eat. The rise of epidemics coincides with the rise of civilization. As humanity abandoned hunting-gathering for agriculture and domestication of livestock and plants, we created more opportunity for these diseases to transmit to human beings and then from person to person.

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As cities grew, so too did the possibility of increased transmission of diseases. Many ancient cities were abandoned because of plagues and their continual resurgence or mutation (variants). As trade routes extended across continents and even seas, diseases from one region were introduced relatively quickly to new hosts in new regions. Highways leading into cities speedily transported disease along with food and other goods. History is full of accounts of “plague ships” returning from faraway ports laden with goods for the ever-expanding cities. Some of the oldest accounts of writing describe plagues and plague ships and how the ships and crew were quarantined on pain of death. Viruses, bacteria, parasites, and fungi were unseen stowaways. Unseen, that is, until members of the ship crew began to get sick and die during their voyage. In some cases, the invisible death onboard was undetected—the goods unloaded at ports; the infected crew milling about in the towns and cities interacting with townspeople. But nowadays, diseases can spread so much faster aboard jet planes, trains, buses, highways, and subways. Our interconnectedness makes us more vulnerable to future pandemics, not less.

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(Cholera arriving in port via ship)

Diseases with origins from contact with animals (or insects) are called zoonotic diseases. Many of our diseases can be directly traced to our proximity, production, JS Plagues 5storage, and consumption of these foods. The list of zoonotic origins of diseases is long, including pigs, cows, dogs, sheep, goats, chickens, ducks and geese, and other animals. The way we stored food attracted rodents carrying diseases. As vast swaths of wilderness were cleared away for agriculture, new diseases were encountered and will continue to be encountered. Our global economy doesn’t protect us from epidemics. Sir David Attenborough—the long-time narrator of BBC’s Nature series—says our global economy is one of the primary causes of pandemics. He warns about future plagues: “It’s coming home to roost over the next 50 years or so. It’s not just climate change; it’s sheer space, places to grow food for this enormous horde. Either we limit our population growth or the natural world will do it for us, and the natural world is doing it for us right now.”

Shakespeare lived through a number of plagues in England. His 11 year old son, Hamnet, may have died from plague. Because of the perennial threat of plague, Shakespeare mentioned plagues frequently in his plays. Some of our most common sayings come from his writings, like “A plague on both your houses” from Romeo and Juliet. Just like in the comical, yet historically accurate, Monty Python skit, undertakers would have traveled the streets of London ringing a bell and announcing to the terrified citizens hiding in their homes to “Bring out the dead!” Plague pits on the outside of towns and cities were quickly filled with the dead. The same process is practiced today. Mass graves for Covid-19 victims abound around the world. In an effort to isolate the infected and to stop the spread of disease, the doors of infected homes and shops were marked with crosses and warnings.

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(Marked Plague houses and plague pits outside of London, 1665)

Demographers worldwide know that humanity is increasingly leaving rural areas and migrating to cities, where more opportunity abounds. The 2020 U.S. Census shows this to be the case in America. As human population increases in the future so too will the numbers of megacities: cities with populations exceeding ten million people. Many cities will grow to thirty, forty, or even fifty million. Tokyo already has a population of over 37.4 million. Other megacities include Shanghai, Beijing, Delhi, Cairo, Dhaka, Mumbai, New York, and Mexico City (below).

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To a plague/epidemic, a crowded city is a veritable smorgasbord. As cities become denser, with more vertical housing in the form of skyscrapers and with sprawling public mass transit systems that efficiently transports the populace to and from place to place, the threat of spread will increase. Airplanes transport infected people so quickly that symptoms may not manifest until days after their arrival. As they wait for the beverage cart to come down the aisle, the infected passengers may feel they have a touch of a cold coming on. Epidemics will burn through such populations faster than ever. Look at the numbers of fatalities in the most densely populated nations like India. The very fate of humanity rests in our ability to take safety precautions once outbreaks occur to minimize transmission of the disease until vaccines are developed. Mask wearing and social distancing are the only means of reducing spread until vaccines are developed and administered to a significant portion of the population. Once vaccines are developed, the populace needs to get them as quickly as possible.

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(Dhaka, Bangladesh, the densest city in the world)

Epidemics, pandemics, plagues . . . whatever you call them, these scourges of disease have been part of the story of humanity and civilization. They say we are social beings who need to be around other people. But our need to be around others can also be our undoing. History records the ways we have survived them in the past: by social distancing, mask-wearing, publicly identifying places of infection to avoid spread, embargoes on goods and people coming into a region or city, and even escaping the infected regions until the coast was clear (of course, they may have inadvertently carried the plague with them into the country). Even Shakespeare and his players knew this when they left London for the country.

The pandemic won’t go away simply because you’re tired of it, what we call “Covid-Fatigue.” It has a one-track mind: Infect as many human hosts as possible, thereby perpetuating its own survival on earth. It doesn’t care that you miss going to movie theaters and rock concerts or that it messed up your vacation plans. The more room we give it to spread, the more likely mutations will occur. Eventually, these mutations may give birth to a variant we cannot control, one more transmissible and more deadly than the ones that exist today.

Even during the Black Death of the mid-1300s, folks knew enough to wear masks to help spread disease. Plague Doctors traveled from house to house wearing Raven-beak-like masks stuffed with herbs to filter diseased vapors (air). Those masks were a far cry from our modern N95 masks that can filter particles down to 0.1 microns.

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The one thing that all those previous generations of humanity had in common is that they did not have the benefit of vaccines like we do. They accepted the high mortality rate as part of life. But we don’t have to. We can choose to save lives. We can choose to protect children. Thanks to science and medical research, we are armed with knowledge of how to more effectively combat these diseases. And while those ancestors would marvel at our smart phones, flat screen televisions, airplanes, Fit Bits, and lighters that produce fire with a flick of the thumb, they would be dumbfounded by the sheer number of people who refuse to wear masks or to get the life-saving vaccine—medicine that was never available to them. They would be stunned to learn how so many people listen to the misinformed and politically-motivated opinions of people who have no medical or scientific education whatsoever and who tell them to take horse and cow de-worming medication meant for a thousand pound animal or to ingest poisonous household disinfectants. Those people of the past would be horrified to hear elected politicians—congressmen and women, governors, and mayors—tell citizens to take no precautions whatsoever to ebb the tide of pandemic, no vaccine, no mask, at a time when the overall death toll is approaching 700,000 and when their state hospitals are overburdened with sick and dying Covid patients. They tell the families of those dead to do nothing to combat the needless dying at a time when over 1,500 Americans are dying every single day. Worse still, they say what they say for personal benefit: to appease a small minority of voters and to increase their campaign purse.

As far back as the mid-1700’s, the French philosopher Voltaire warned us that “opinions have caused more ills than plagues or earthquakes on this little earth of ours.” This is a battle we have to win. If we continue with the anti-masking and anti-vaccination trends of today, the future of humanity will be dark indeed. It’s no exaggeration to say that America’s “Rugged Individualism” and resistance to doing anything productive to slow the spread of Covid-19 may be the death of us all . . . or at the very least, the death of a great many of us.

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