Pandemics like COVID-19 are nothing new. Through the centuries, humankind had gone through a number of episodic plagues and virulent pestilences that only the fittest survived. European archeologists have found evidence that the first pandemic sprang after the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, in 405 BCE. The Roman legions contracted a kind of small pox in the Near East and spread it through the empire. It was called the Antonine Plague (165-180 A.D.). Centuries later, a shipload of asymptomatic conquistadores were carriers of small pox that almost wiped out the Aztec population, had not Our Lady of Guadalupe intervened.
The Black Death (1346- 1353) which killed millions in Europe was a strain of the Yersinia pestis bacteria which, according to Swedish scientists, was first discovered in a 5,000-year old tomb. Now we know that the Spanish Flu of 1918, a.k.a “Spanish Lady” did not originate in Spain but from a battlefield in Europe during the First World War. One of the first victims of the “Spanish Lady” was an American Army cook of Camp Funston in Kansas, so you can imagine how fast the disease spread among the 54,000 troops bivouacked there. The Spanish flu wreaked havoc in the Philippines where about 80,000 died; among those who perished was a two-year old native of Ermita named Gemma Guerrero.
The Black Death ravaged Europe for 7 long years and if COVID-19 is its latest iteration, how much longer will it take us to control the disease and get on with our lives?
In the Middle Ages, the “sword-and-sandal” approach was considered the best way to flatten the ever-rising Black Death curve, simply because they did not know its real cause. There were a few famous physicians like Guy de Chauliac, doctor to three popes who knew about anesthesia and wrote a treatise on surgery. There were Arab physicians in Granada and Cordoba. Yet, the “sandal” part prevailed which means that the plague was attributed to the “wrath of God” sent to earth in “sheets of fire” or “ foul blasts of wind.” No one connected the dots that led to the swarms of rats that packed merchant vessels and spread the plague at every port of call. No one connected the dots to the fleas that burrowed in the beddings and curtains of even the most luxurious homes. What most physicians perceived was the inexplicable relation between disease and astrology: what caused the plague was “a triple conjunction of Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars in the 4oth degree of Aquarius said to have occurred on 10 March 1345 ( B. W. Tuchma 1978).”
Families may have quarantined themselves, without being ordered to do so, especially when neighbors began dropping dead on streets and plazas, covered with bulbous black eruptions. Dead bodies piled up and stray dogs gorged on decaying flesh. So horrifying was the pandemic that the Pope declared it could only be the wrath of God because people had become sinful. He ordered the faithful to stop committing the seven capital sins and to buy indulgences to appease the Divine.
In Germany, a group of Christians, mostly men, began to roam the streets, shirtless, flagellating themselves with iron-tipped whips, chanting and praying to beg for God’s forgiveness. Many of them fell dead in their tracks, not for blood loss but of contagion; the mortification of the flesh defied the protocols of sanitation, so God was not pleased.
We have long emerged from that realm of ignorance and in the 21th century, there are scientific methods of producing piercingly effective methods to combat the mutations of any medieval plague. But, so far, COVID-19 seems to be the most challenging for our level of scientific competence. The medieval belief that an epidemic is inextricably linked to astrology seems like a sustaining myth. For instance, In the USA, the most powerful country in the world, President D. Trump has praised and recommended a doctor from Nigeria who preaches that COVID-19 comes from alien DNA and that there are evil spirits roaming the earth impregnating women. At the same time, President Trump has politicized the pandemic at the national level and is using it as a diplomatic weapon against the People’s Republic of China.
There are more deaths in the USA than in the Philippines, which probably means that our government agencies concerned are doing something right. That is why I am mystified by our tough guy President’s very touchy reaction to that letter from doctors and health care workers, those whom we call frontliners. Why does he think they are fomenting a revolution? They are much too exhausted to do so, all they want is a good rest and a review of government strategies, using the experience they have gained during the past four months. They are not “demeaning” the government by airing their feelings and recommendations to the public.
At this writing, President R. Duterte has just re-imposed the Modified Enhanced Community Quarantine (MECQ) over Metro Manila, Laguna, Cavite, Bulacan, and Rizal, mainly due to the request of the frontliners who have worked indefatigably, sparing us from this scourge of God. The least I can do is to comply by staying home willingly and following all the protocols strictly.