What the Plague Can Teach Us about the CoronavirusRoundup
tags: history of science, Italy, Medieval, epidemics, coronavirus
Hannah Marcus is an assistant professor in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard and is the author of the forthcoming book “Forbidden Knowledge: Medicine, Science, and Censorship in Early Modern Italy.”
The city that gave us the word quarantine nearly 600 years ago is once again facing an epidemic. On Feb. 23, officials in Venice canceled the final days of its Carnival festival, which brings hordes of tourists to the notoriously overcrowded lagoon city. The coronavirus Covid-19 had arrived.
Faced with a novel virus, it’s worth reconsidering Italy’s long experiences with epidemics and heeding the lessons. Though the etiologies of plague and the present coronavirus differ hugely, the social consequences of these outbreaks resonate in alarmingly similar ways.
As a historian of medicine, my research focuses on Italy in the early modern period, from 1400 to 1700. In this period, many of our current public health approaches, including tallying fatalities, emerged in response to outbreaks of plague. The word quarantine derives from the Venetian word for 40 days, the length of the isolation period imposed on ships during times of plague. City officials during the Renaissance, faced with recurring bouts of plague, developed our statistical approach to tracking outbreaks. From the 1450s in Milan and the 1530s in Venice, all deaths in these cities were systematically recorded to monitor outbreaks. In 17th-century England, these tallies were printed weekly as broadsheets, which counted plague deaths by parish under the gloomy headline “Lord have mercy upon us.”
The distant past is not our best source of advice for pathogen containment. But it does offer clear lessons about human responses to outbreaks of infectious disease.
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