If you’re like me, you probably lost interest in news stories about the pandemic a long time ago. In an overly quantified era, most coronavirus “news” is nothing more than a running tally—deaths, vaccinations, or some morbid ranking of countries—wrapped in a ribbon of decorative words. The counting of the coronavirus—along with its bastard cousin, the predicting of the coronavirus—has drowned out conversations that we could be having about this pandemic but aren’t.
Say, for example: With all the advances in modern medicine, why do pandemics keep happening?
Dr. John Froude, a practicing physician and infectious-disease specialist, has been on the front lines of more plagues than most of us have lived through, including cholera in Nigeria, AIDS in New York City, and the coronavirus in Ulster County, New York. In his new book, Plagued: Pandemics from the Black Death to COVID-19 and Beyond, Froude combines his scientific knowledge and frontline clinical experience with a man-of-letters range of social, literary, and historical reference points to give us the definitive account of how plagues have shaped and reshaped human history.
Ticket to Ride
Sometimes, numbers do tell an interesting story. Whereas it took smallpox 200 years to spread around the world, it took syphilis only 50, the Spanish flu a single year, and SARS-CoV-2 a mere four months. “This is not a property of the virus,” our traveling physician explains. “It is an attribute of the airplane.” More than a billion people travel by air each (non-pandemic) year, and a contagious person could hypothetically travel anywhere on earth within 20 or so hours. “Plagues don’t travel—they ride,” Froude writes. Whatever the pandemic du jour, in other words, it is as much about us as it is about the scourge itself.
It’s taken us a long time to get to that simple realization. Over the centuries, Froude writes, we’ve blamed plagues on practically everything but ourselves. We’ve pointed the finger at comets—the original name for the flu was influenza delle stelle, or “influence of the stars.” We’ve implicated things that smell—“malaria” derives from mal aria, or “bad air.” We’ve blamed them on earthquakes. And Egypt. And, always, the hand of God, or divine providence.
Tuberculosis, also known as “the king’s evil,” was said to be curable if the king touched you. Philip of France used le toucher royale, Froude tells us, as did Edward the Confessor in England. But Voltaire lost faith in the therapy when one of Louis XIV’s mistresses died of scrofula in spite of the king’s royal touch.
The chapter “Let Us Consider the Flea” deftly summarizes the bubonic plague: a flea bites a rat and then you. The real saga is the wider human toll. “Emperors fell, empires collapsed, armies disintegrated, famine and more war followed,” writes Froude. “The history of mankind was changed forever because a bacteria secreted a stick protein that blocked up the esophagus of a flea.”
Consumption, meanwhile, hit England so hard that the signs of suffering became fashionable. It ravaged the Brontë family, with Anne, Emily, and their brother, Branwell, dying from it at the young ages of 29, 30, and 31. Charlotte died at 40. The poet John Keats also died of consumption.
Across the channel, Guy de Maupassant had syphilis of the brain, known to this day as Maupassant’s sign. (Both syphilis and smallpox cause baldness, which accounts for the popularity of wigs in that era.)
We’ve pointed the finger at comets—the original name for the flu was influenza delle stelle, or “influence of the stars.” We’ve implicated things that smell—“malaria” derives from mal aria, or “bad air.” We’ve blamed them on earthquakes.
Did you think claims of immunity were just a Donald Trump thing? It’s more like a political-expedience thing. In the year 1900, faced with the very real possibility of Stateside bubonic plague, the San Francisco Examiner ran the headline WHY SAN FRANCISCO IS PLAGUE PROOF. Why? Because, as Froude writes, “then, as always, plagues were bad for business.”
As to the ongoing believability of newspapers, Froude writes about the time he helped fight back cholera in Nigeria in 1975. “Cholera stool is like water. It is so thin you could read a newspaper through it. Should you have attempted this unlikely act with a Nigerian newspaper at that time, the headline would say, NO CHOLERA IN NIGERIA. This was read by all Nigerians to mean CHOLERA DEFINITELY IN NIGERIA.”
In 2021, we may have put too much faith in science to save us. Our belief in the power of science is so complete that we are convinced that this pandemic will come to an “end.” But will it?
No, it won’t. The coronavirus will keep coming, and there will be more pandemics after that. Plagued reminds us that pandemics mostly just come and then never go away again. Smallpox is the only plague humans have eradicated from the Earth. All the rest—cholera, tuberculosis, AIDS, malaria, and more—are still here and, as often as not, afflicting more people than they ever did before. The only thing that changes is that we stop talking about them.
Duff McDonald is the author of Tickled: A Commonsense Guide to the Present Moment, to be published by Harper in October. He is also a co-host of the podcast How to Tickle Yourself