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Pandemics are as old as humankind – now at least we have the expertise to tackle them

John Downing


Ambulance men of Florence, Italy, carrying a patient on a stretcher whilst wearing masks to ward off the plague. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Ambulance men of Florence, Italy, carrying a patient on a stretcher whilst wearing masks to ward off the plague. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Ambulance men of Florence, Italy, carrying a patient on a stretcher whilst wearing masks to ward off the plague. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

‘Neither ignorance, nor even the plague itself, is more hateful than the nonsense and tall tales of certain men who profess to know everything but in fact know nothing”.

Who wrote that? The Italian poet Petrarch. When? In 1347. What about? The Black Death. We are relieved to note that Petrarch did not live in an era afflicted with Twitter virulence.

It has not been a good weekend for those of us hoping for an early and relatively clean release from the constrictions of Covid 19. Saturday brought the warnings that things may get worse – again – before they get much better.

Yesterday brought the bombshell that AstraZeneca vaccinations were being suspended as an understandable precaution due to side-effect fears.

That gives another jolt to already shaky vaccination plans which remain our sole Covid get-out-of jail card.

Today, on the very anniversary of the day they shut the pubs on March 15, 2020, and Covid-19 suddenly crashed in upon us, our complacency about life’s simple pleasures has been well rattled. But it’s a good time to take a stand-back look at our current situation – and realise that this has all happened to humanity before.

One question is what we can learn from the past. The better question is whether we will learn anything from the present.

This writer has recently re-read that all time classic with the compelling title of Rats, Lice and History. It was published back in 1935 by the American physician, scientist and writer, Hans Zinsser, who as his name suggests, was the son of German immigrants.

Zinsser got first-hand knowledge of typhus as part of public health missions to Eastern European in the 1920s. Happily, his biography of the dreaded disease remains in print and its style remains sparkling, even if understandably the science is a bit dated.

The writer teaches us that a virus is elusive, anonymous, and nearly invisible. Every virus has a life of its own and thus has a kind of a biography.

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We learn that it starts in a specific time and place when it was born. Then it moves into the world and often has a wider family. Viruses have kept a weary, dreary company with humanity since the dawn of time.

A good companion to Zinsser’s book is another gem called The Plague Cycle and it is written by former World Bank economist Charles Kenny and was published late last year. Kenny tells us that one of the first reliable accounts of a pandemic come from Athens in the fifth century BC.

It is supposed that a version of this same virus cruelly returned to Europe in the 14th century in the form of the Black Death, provoking the writing of Petrarch, cited above.

The horror of the Black Death – believed by many to have halved mainland Europe’s population – led to Pope Clement, then residing in the beautiful French city of Avignon, consecrating the River Rhone as a burial ground. Every morning hundreds of corpses were flung into it.

The writer tells us that medicine was more usually worse than useless in the face of the Black Death and its various successors. The main weapon was isolation, often enforced, sometimes with considerable brutality. The word “quarantine”, we hear so frequently these days, comes from the Italian words “quaranta giorni”, signifying the 40 days suspect ships had to wait offshore before docking, and dates from the 14th and 15th centuries.

Another historical nugget with an Italian flavour tells of the explorer Marco Polo seeing a banquet being served by waiters wearing decorative silk facemasks. Surely a fashion statement?

Both writers reflect upon the culture of blame which accompanies a pandemic. Kenny tells us infection, through history, was blamed on the “moral or intellectual failings of the victims”.

Many of us will recall the mistreatment of AIDS sufferers in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Pandemics have often become an alibi for unleashing blind prejudices, racism, ageism and sectarianism. It has also proved a rich seam for conspiracy theorists who see sinister if absurd plots behind the use of vaccines.

The march of medical progress was slow and often contested. Most schoolchildren know of the pioneering work of the English doctor, Edward Jenner, who developed “cowpox” as a vaccine against smallpox in 1798.

The practice was in use in China two centuries earlier. Vaccination had a slow global spread but phenomenal success.

Kenny tells us vaccination has beaten smallpox, once a lethal force, and all but exterminated polio, and seriously rolled back diphtheria, tetanus, measles and other horrors. Despite production hitches, feared side-effect glitches, and perennial roll-out foul-ups, it seems odds on that vaccination will also defeat Covid-19, though maybe not as swiftly and cleanly as we would hope.

The Plague Cycle gives the bad news early: these days most people die of heart attacks and strokes. But this turns out to also be good news. Reality is that in previous centuries few lived long enough to get a heart attack or stroke.

“The more humans are loitering about – the greater the chance of illness,” Kenny tells us.

There is a grim warning about the over-use of antibiotics by both humans and their abuse in animal husbandry. He cites one UK study which suggests that by 2050 some 10 million people will die globally from antibiotic-resistant diseases.

The most encouraging aspect of the book is its stress on the need for global co-operation in research, manufacture and distribution of vaccines and medicines.

The writer sees this as the only tenable remedy in a global and interconnected world. Ireland, as a small open economy, must make its voice heard at EU and UN level on this issue. More pandemics will come our way. But we are the best equipped generation ever to tackle them.

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