OF PANDEMICS, EPIDEMICS, and PLAGUESBy BENNY HORNSBY,
Do you sense it, too? That strange feeling in the air that things are somehow “different;” that the rules have changed, and nobody told us; that there’s a disturbance in the “Force;” that magnetic North has moved a few degrees to the West?
The last time I felt it this strong was in countries, Greece and the Philippines, that had recently declared martial law. I certainly don’t think that’s where we are going, but it makes the hair rise on the back of my neck.
I was thinking today about the boxing team I coached on the Battleship New Jersey in the early 80s. It had eight members. Four of them, two all-Navy boxers out of East St. Louis, Illinois, who were twin brothers; a baby-faced, fly-weight assassin from Kentucky; and a smiling, natural-born killer from Texas; referred to themselves as the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse:” Death, Famine, War, and Plague. Take your choice with these dudes and say your prayers – whichever one you draw; you are going to lose.
One of the twins, who thought of himself as the “Plague,” and who could have been the prototype for Samuel L. Jackson’s scripture-quoting hit man in the movie, Pulp Fiction, knew the Bible and liked to quote that passage from the prologue to the Book of Job where God asks Satan where he’s coming from and Satan replies: “From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it” (KJV 2:2).
The plague walking the earth today, however, at least metaphorically, is the coronavirus. Of course, it’s not actually “the” plague, which is a specific, contagious bacterial disease, characterized by fever and delirium, typically with the formation of buboes (bubonic plague) or sometimes inflammation of the lungs (pneumonic plague). However, the term, “plague,” often gets conflated with a host of other maladies, for example, as in the Biblical plagues of Egypt, which included water turned to blood, frogs, lice or gnats, wild animals or flies, pestilence of livestock, boils, thunderstorms of hail and fire, and locusts. The plagues of the Book of Revelation further “bring sores on all those with the mark of the beast, turns the sea to blood, dries up the rivers, scorches the earth with fire, and causes mighty earthquakes.”
Historically, people have trotted out the term, “plague,” euphemistically, whenever confronted with wide, uncontrolled outbreaks of a deadly, contagious disease they didn’t really understand, whether it was smallpox, malaria, cholera, even the flu. More clearly, however, there is a “progression” by which the spread of disease is measured.
Some diseases are “endemic;” they exist permanently in a particular region or population. Malaria and yellow fever would be good examples. Sixty years ago, when a ship went through the Panama Canal, you could still see the wreckage (cranes, pumps, etc.) of the failed French attempt to build a sea-level canal. It was a crackpot idea, pushed by Ferdinand de Lesseps, who had successfully designed and built the Suez Canal in Egypt. However, he had forgotten to plan for a little thing called the Continental Divide, which would necessitate a series of locks to raise and lower ships. The biggest problems, however, were yellow fever and malaria which killed thousands of workers. It is said that when new engineers arrived in Panama from France, they brought along their own coffins since the death rate was so high. It took a Cuban doctor, Carlos Finlay, to figure out that mosquito was the carrier of both diseases. This knowledge, and the control of the pest, enabled the United States to finally complete the canal.
When I was stationed in Pensacola, the folklore was that the original walls around the old Naval Hospital, which are still standing, were built 12 feet high as a malaria preventative because mosquitos could not fly that high. Or so it was thought in the late 1800s. That sounds quaint, but you have to remember that phrenology, or the science of diagnosing medical problems by feeling the bumps and indentations on a person’s head, was still “science” at that time.
Next, diseases go “epidemic:” a disease such as influenza or the plague, or a new virus gets out of control and attacks many people at about the same time and spreads throughout communities. One of my best friends in the Navy (we climbed Mt. Fuji in Japan together twice), a physician, had a dream of retiring and studying epidemiology at Tulane University’s School of Tropical Medicine. He made it and did so well that he was hired on the faculty. Unfortunately, he passed away soon afterward. I spoke at his funeral.
Finally, and this is us, you have a “pandemic” when an epidemic spreads throughout the entire world. It affects all people and crosses international borders. Accordingly, it takes world-wide effort, cooperation, and coordination to solve such problems, as we will, hopefully, continue to see in the days to come.
I have absolutely no medical knowledge or coronavirus advice to share, except what you hear: wash your hands, don’t touch your face, and avoid crowds, particularly if you’ve reached your “three-score-and ten;” but I have seen quite a few dead bodies in my time, some blood-curdling anatomy lessons, if that means anything. The first one, many years ago, was floating in the Bay of Naples, in Italy, the epicenter of the current pandemic, and nobody seemed to care. We notified the harbor police, the “Polizia Portuale,” but they never showed up. My captain said, he “wasn’t getting involved,” and we just watched the guy drift out toward Capri. Bon voyage.
We all see things through the lens of our own interests and experience. For me it’s ships and literature. Early on, for example, lots of attention was given to the unlucky passengers trapped in quarantine on cruise ships, especially cruise ships refused port entry. Even as we speak, there are three giant cruise ships (two Carnivals and a Royal Caribbean) laid up or anchored offshore just down Highway 49 in Gulfport, with their crews of about 1,000 each onboard, quarantined until further notice. A few days ago, two French nationals from one of the Carnivals jumped ship and apparently flew back to France, to the consternation of the local health authorities.
As a sailor, it’s also interesting to me how often ships have been “vectors” in pandemics. For example, ships were involved in all of the so-called “Six Great Plague Pandemics.” The first, the Plague of Justinian, (541AD), named after the Byzantine emperor of Constantinople, modern Istanbul, supposedly reached Europe carried by infected rats on merchant ships from Africa, causing many years of famine and destruction, resulting in over 25 million deaths.
The Black Death of 1347 spread via Italian sailors returning home to Messina, Sicily, from the Crimea. Often, most of the sailors on the ships arriving in port were dead. Those still alive were covered with black boils that oozed blood and pus. This particular pandemic killed one-half of the population of Europe and was blamed on everything from God’s wrath for the world’s sins, a misalignment of the stars, and even Jews poisoning the wells, which kicked off more of the horrible pogroms which this proud people have been subjected to over the years.
It was during this pandemic that versions of iconic plague doctor costume began to appear. It consisted of a long leather coat, topped with a mask that had a curved beak shaped like a bird’s bill. This beak, held in place by straps, was filled with herbs and spices, and acted as a type of respirator to keep away the bad smells, known as miasmas, which were thought to cause the disease. This was long before the invention of germ theory or the discovery that infected fleas passed the plague to humans via rats.
The Italian Plague of 1629 began when troop ships returning from the Thirty Years War carried infections into several Italian cities, including Verona, Milan, Venice, and Florence, almost causing the demise of Venice as a powerful city-state in the Mediterranean. I’ll be honest, when I first heard the term, “coronavirus,” I associated it with the Italian city of Corona; however, I soon learned that it’s a scientific term: when the virus is viewed through an electron microscope, it looks like a crown, related to our English word, “coronation.” On 31 December 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) named the coronavirus, “COVID-19,” an acronym that stands for COronaVIrus Disease of 2019, after a strange new pneumonia of unknown cause was reported when several cases had appeared in Wuhan, a city in the Hubei Province of China. We know the rest, except for the ultimate cause.
Some wags, of course, have attributed it to Corona, the yellow Mexican beer. President Trump, on the other hand, rightly but politically incorrectly calls it the “Chinese” virus. There are all kinds of conspiracy theories out there: some of them will set your hair on fire: the virus escaped from a CIA lab; it’s a secret Chinese bioweapon; it was caused by the development of 5G technology; it’s the Rapture; the beginnings of a race war; the start of a white ethnostate; take your pick. As far as that goes, old-timers around Baxterville will tell you that “things have been a little strange around the Devil’s Backbone since the government set off those nuclear explosions in the salt dome.” In all probability, somebody in China probably just ate the wrong dead bat.
In 1665, the Great Plague of London, supposedly brought in by sailors on ships inbound from Sicily, killed 20% of the population, This was technically the second infestation of the bubonic plague, and the death toll was so high that mass graves appeared which are, even today, being discovered as new buildings are constructed and more subway lines are built. Thousands of cats and dogs were slaughtered as they were somehow thought to be the cause of the disease. This calamity was followed the next year by the Great London Fire.
During the Great Plague of Marseilles (1720), infected passengers arrived on a merchant ship, from the Middle East, the “Grand Saint Antoine,” and infected the whole city. The ship was quarantined, but the mayor, who also owned the ship, persuaded the authorities to allow the ship to unload its cargo, releasing plague-carrying rats into the city. So many people died, they built plague walls to keep plague out, much like mosquito walls in Pensacola
The so-called “Third-Pandemic” started in 1885 in the Chinese province of Yunnan and was spread over the world for several decades by steamships. The ubiquitous presence of ships in all of these outbreaks is understandable as ships were the primary mode of international travel for thousands of years. In our own “New World,” ships enabled the infamous “Columbian Exchange” where European explorers plundered the Americas of gold, silver, tomatoes, potatoes, etc., and left, in exchange, the smallpox, syphilis, whopping cough, etc., which decimated the native populations. Why did the Europeans come here? It’s the Willie Sutton Principle: “Why do you rob banks? Because that’s where the money is.
As far as literature, one of my favorite books, “The Plague” (“La Peste,”1947) by the Algerian-French existential writer, Albert Camus, analyzes how Oran, a community in Morocco on the Mediterranean coast, finally takes action only after a serious epidemic has taken hold. In this case, the “plague” is cholera, and the book illustrates human reaction to the “absurd,” a comment that I’ve heard several times regarding our cloistered condition, closed restaurants, empty shelves, financial crisis, and general ennui.
You want to read about isolation or “social distance?” Read “The Decameron” (1353), by Giovanni Boccaccio. It includes tales told by seven young women and three young men “sheltering in place” in a secluded villa outside Florence, Italy, to escape the Black Death. During their two weeks in isolation, they tell each other over 100 stories of love, wit, practical jokes, and life stories. It is considered a masterpiece of Italian prose.
How about masks? Try Edgar Allen Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death” (1842), a short story in which Prince Prospero, also one of Shakespeare’s characters, seeks to avoid the plague, known as the “Red Death,” by hiding in his abbey. He gets bored, throws a big masquerade party, and one of the guests, unmasked, turns out to be the Grim Reaper, with dire consequences for all attendees.
At this point, you have to wonder if Thomas Malthus was wrong. In his famous essay of 1798, “An Essay on the Principle of Population,” he argued that population growth is potentially exponential while the growth of food is linear. Simply put, he argued that eventually the population would exceed the food supply, famine would occur, and mankind would disappear.
Perhaps it won’t be starvation that brings about the human Armageddon, but pandemics, epidemics, and plagues. There are many: the Black Death, smallpox, polio, the Zika virus, Ebola, the Spanish Flu, tuberculosis, the Swine Flu, SARS, AIDS, etc. On the other hand, as we are seeing, except for some hoarding and price-gouging, a crisis such as we are now in brings out the best in us, like the brave Chinese medical professionals who first blew the whistle on the coronavirus. There’s hope.
Light a candle for me.
Hattiesburg’s Benny Hornsby, a native of Lumberton, is a retired Navy captain. Send him a note via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org and read previous columns online at bennyhornsby.com