So, the great cull has begun. Covid 19 targeting those in their seventies (8% mortality rate) and eighties (15% mortality rate) and solving social care and pensions in a stroke. A conspiracy theory but one that resonates – like the medieval belief that the Jews were behind the black death ie a human agency with an agenda was responsible. In the case of Covid 19 it’s the belief that bats and pangolins are useful covers for the proximity of a secret biological laboratory located close to the official source of the outbreak.
Nearly seven hundred years ago, in Basle, Jewish people were herded into barns and burnt alive, at Speyer their dead forced into great wine casks and pushed into the turbulent Rhine. Today a few Chinese people were pelted with tomatoes by the enlightened people of Brighton. Progress of sorts, no doubt.
The medieval church, faced with the obvious question as to why God allowed it came up with the obvious answer that God was punishing us for our sins - the response of some fringe evangelists today - until priests, too, began dropping like flies.
What’s fascinating are the parallels in our response to Plague then and Covid 19 now. Children are fascinated by pictures of C16th Plague doctors, who in turn would be envious of their C21st equivalents.
It’s easy to laugh at those earlier plague doctors but faced with an unknown disease their apparel was entirely logical. The smoked lenses were to ward off the evil eye rather that microbes, the beak stuffed with fragrant herbs allowed them to work surrounded by the stench of corruption and decay. The waxed leather coat was hydrophobic, which made it impervious to blood, mucus, or saliva and pus and protected the wearer within.
Our newfound interest in face masks mirrors earlier beliefs that infection was airborne. Then, people walked around sniffing aromatic pompadours in the belief that a ‘good’ smell would drive out the ‘bad’ smell of disease. The equivalent today, I suppose, is the belief amongst some that garlic, rubbing yourself with Sesame oil, or a good saline mouthwash offers similar kinds of protection.
In the past, people were forcibly incarcerated in their homes with a red cross painted on the door. For the moment we are merely encouraged to ‘self-isolate’ – though by all accounts the Chinese response is more robust.
During the great plague of London many shops refused to handle money, demanding that their customers placed their coins in vinegar laden bowls. Now, it’s reported, Chinese banks are irradiating and briefly quarantining money before recirculating it.
The Black Death of the Middle Ages was followed by an economic bounce and social improvement. Covid 19 might result in an ecological bounce — or the whole thing might just go away.