Influenza Plagues and Pestilence have been with us since early times, originally seen by superstitious people as the result of offending the gods. Influence - power from heaven – Influenza was considered punishment for disobeying authority.
One of the earliest records of plagues was one Moses unleashed on Egypt when Pharaoh would not free the enslaved Hebrews. It was divine punishment for injustice, and an assertion of religious power in the battle between Egypt’s gods and the god of the Hebrews.
Ancient mythologies #
In Homer’s The Iliad, Agammemnon has unknowingly captured the daughter of a priest of Apollo and refuses a request from him to give her back.
When a priest of Apollo begs Agamemnon for the return of his daughter, Chryseis, Agamemnon refuses so Apollo sides with the Trojans with pestilence - pre-covid - and joins the battle.
In Greek mythology - Sophocles Oedipus, has Hera, sending The Sphinx, as punishment against the Thebans for failure to atone for the crimes of Laius. The Sphinx was eating Thebans, until Oedipus arrives solving the puzzle. Twenty years later, after Oedipus has unwarily killed his father and married his mother and sired four children, the pestilence arrives demanding Laius’ death be avenged, Oedipus is forced to confront his past and his destiny.
Pandemics are the world wide spreading of infectious deseases. They have occurred regularly over the past thousands of years. Generally they attack the weak and vulnerable while the stronger members of the society develop immunity. Years later, it comes back and attacks the young, non-immune.
Pandemic have dire implications for our civil liberties unless safeguards are put in place. Measures, “capable of infringing our human rights” often “last longer than the actual crisis”.
For 16 years of Marcus Aurelius’ reign as Roman Emperor (161-180 CE), the empire was ravaged by the Antonine plague, which took five million lives.
Justinian plague #
Recurrent waves of plague which ravaged Europe and Asia for two centuries, appearing suddenly in the Egyptian port of Pelusium in 541 AD. It spread from there to Alexandria, then moved rapidly through Syria, north and east into Greek Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, and Persia.
The death toll from this “Justinianic plague” was terrible. Eyewitnesses speak of the depopulation of entire regions, a third of the people of Palestine dead, whole villages and towns utterly deserted. When the disease reached Constantinople, deaths climbing from five thousand, to seven thousand, to twelve thousand, until as many as sixteen thousand corpses, mostly of the poor, were being removed every single day. It persisted for two centuries in several re-occurences.
The corpses were heaped along the seashore in piles of up to five thousand, then loaded onto ships and dumped at sea or on unpopulated shores as far away as possible. Lester K. Little
The Black Death #
Black Death killed 50 million people in the 14th century, 1346-53, or 60 per cent of Europe’s entire population. Having arrived in Europe in the 1340s, it returned in 1360, 1369 and 1374. It would not really go away until the 1700s, returning with wearying regularity and with varying degrees of virulence every generation.
The black rat, likes to live close to people. After the plague has killed off most of a contaminated rat colony, fleas gathered on the remaining, but soon- dying, rats to find new hosts - humans. From the bite site, the contagion drains to a lymph node that consequently swells to form a painful bubo, most often in the groin, on the thigh, in an armpit or on the neck. Hence the name bubonic plague.
Unfortunately the Black Death killed off half the population, followed by the Peasant’s Revolt which fomented social unrest.
The smallpox epidemic of 1789 that killed as many as seven in 10 Aboriginal people of the new colony for which Cook’s arrival paved the way.” GUARDIAN AUSTRALIA
The Eora historian Keith Vincent-Smith refers me to midshipman Newton Fowell’s letter to his father on 31 July 1790. Fowell writes:
“The Small Pox raged among them with great Fury and carried off Great Numbers of them [Aboriginal people]. Every boat that went down the Harbour found them laying Dead on the beaches and in Caverns of Rock forsaken by the rest as soon as the diseases is discovered on them.” Paul Daley
When the Canadian Pacific Rail¬road was being built through Saskatchewan in the early 1880s, that province’s Native Americans, who had previously had little exposure to whites and their germs, died of tuberculosis at the incredible rate of 9 percent per year.
The greatest single epidemic in human history was the one of influenza that killed 21 million people towards the end of the First World War. It killed more people than the war - about 15 million. Erroneously called the Spanish Flu, because the Spanish were not at war and so failed to keep it quiet, it actually began in America and spread to Europe by new recruits.
Asiatic cholera, one of humanity’s greatest scourges in the modern period, came to Europe for the first time in the years after 1817, traveling by ship and caravan route from the banks of the Ganges.
Cholera, a plague that stains its victims’ faces crimson, is transmitted by contaminated drinking water, and between 1831 and 1866 there were three major cholera outbreaks in London. Tens of thousands died. By 1832, it had spread to America. Asiatic cholera, one of humanity’s greatest scourges in the modern period, came to Europe for the first time in the years after 1817, traveling by ship and caravan route from the banks of the Ganges, where it was endemic.
Cholera was by no means the greatest of the killer diseases of the nineteenth century; tuberculosis had a far higher incidence and claimed nearly four million victims in England and Wales alone between 1851 and 1910, and typhoid, smallpox, and measles had higher mortality rates. But there is no doubt that its psychological impact was unequaled.
William H. McNeill has written that the cholera bacillus produced violent and dramatic symptoms—diarrhea, vomiting, fever and death—often within a few hours of the first signs of illness. The speed with which cholera killed was profoundly alarming, since perfectly healthy people could never feel safe from sudden death when the infection was anywhere near. In addition, the symptoms were peculiarly horrible: radical dehydration meant that a victim shrank into a wizened caricature of his former self within a few hours, while ruptured capillaries discolored the skin, turning it black and blue. The effect was to make mortality uniquely visible: patterns of bodily decay were exacerbated and accelerated, as in a time-lapse motion picture, to remind all who saw it of death’s ugly horror and utter inevitability.*
In 1995, In DR Congo, thousands died from cholera.
During the first half of the twentieth century, summertime polio epidemics left wakes of paralysis and death behind them, forcing summer camps, movie theatres, and public pools to close. Newspapers regularly featured horrific images of children struggling to walk or breathe. The poliovirus vaccine developed by Jonas Salk in 1955.
Natural disasters were also often attributed to humans.
In 1755, a huge earthquake had struck the Portuguese capital, Lisbon, followed by a tsunami. Within minutes, tens of thousands were dead.
The recriminations soon began. Protestants saw in Lisbon’s destruction divine judgement on Catholicism. Catholics proposed, with equal implausibility, the especial sinfulness of the Lisbonites as the disaster’s cause. Pyres were erected in the streets to burn heretics, as scapegoats for the disaster.
This combination of senseless death and even more senseless human responses outraged Voltaire. His first response was the impassioned:
“Poem on the Lisbon Disaster of 1755: #
As the dying voices call out, will you dare respond
To this appalling spectacle of smoking ashes with,
[…] ‘God is avenged. Their death is the price of their crimes’?