Pandemic, Then and Now

California 1918. Notice that one asshole with the mask under her nose?

I often wonder if we ever really learn anything as a global society. Or even a local one for that matter. I’d like to think we do but researching past pandemics it seems like we don’t or it takes hundreds even thousands of years.

Of all the things capable of killing massive amounts of people, wars, regular old age, human negligence nothing is as scary as a worldwide pandemic. It can’t be stopped without everyone working together for a common goal before it gets overwhelmingly devastating. History and basic human nature leads me to believe that just won’t happen (I still have the tiniest sliver of hope that it actually can).

I found a list of pandemics, because I’ve unfortunately had the time. I expected Covid 19 to be at the top. Maybe that’s my very human shortsightedness showing. It’s actually number nine. NINE!

I won’t bore you or myself with my assessment of how this got to be so out of control here in the U.S. Like, not disclosing how bad this thing was so people wouldn’t go and do something crazy like cancel expensive travel plans, sell stocks or anything else that would harm the economy.

February 2020

Let’s look at two other pandemics higher on the most morbid list of all time and you can draw conclusions on any similarities you find. I found a lot.

The “Spanish” Flu 1918 – 1920 #2

Should we call it that? Killed 17-100 million people worldwide. Most have settled on 50 million deaths.

The Mayor of Farmington Charles Henry Giessing made this decision but recinded it a month later asking people to be cautious but make their own decisions as to whether or not they should gather.

Wikipedia says: The Spanish flu, also known as the 1918 influenzapandemic, was an unusually deadly influenza pandemic caused by the H1N1 influenza A virus. Lasting from February 1918 to April 1920, it infected 500 million people – about a third of the world’s population at the time – in four successive waves.

Four waves? Which one are we on now? This gives COVID 19 hope of climbing the death toll ladder. COVID 19 would like to thank a lack of hindsight!

You might think this virus began in Spain. There’s actually no evidence of that. It’s called that because the US censored news publications from reporting on the gravity of the illness in a misguided attempt to maintain national morale in a post World War I America. They did not however, prohibit news publications from reporting on a deadly virus running rampant in neutral Spain.

There were cases there as well as Germany, France and the U.K. all of which had cases, a month after the U.S. Not surprisingly, the Spanish press dubbed this virus as the “French” flu. It’s easier to bury your head in the sand when you can blame someone else. We can live safely there.

Well, not for long.

Many believe the virus came from soldiers returning from the war and the virus effected mostly young thought to be healthy people and the elderly. The first wave was similar to the seasonal flu and infected people more than killed them. Fever, chills, nausea, diarrhea….

The second wave was often coupled with bacterial pneumonia which proved to be quick and deadly. Symptoms such as skin discoloration. It’s described as two mahogany patches above the cheek bones which makes me wonder if medical journals at the time bothered to record symptoms in black people. It ends with bleeding from the mouth, nose and ears. If that happened, you were dead within a matter of days.

This pandemic lasted two years. As you can see from the picture at the top of this post, there were anti maskers, people who just refused to believe this was a reality which I’m sure prolonged this thing longer than it should’ve. Not to mention wishy washy public policy and a particularly cold and wet climate that year.

The Justinian Plague #3 541AD – 549AD

The Justinian plague, or as the locals called it plague of Justinian, was named after Byzantine ruler Justinian I. It killed somewhere in the ballpark of 15-100 million. It’s not given the prestigious world wide pandemic title, it’s thought to have devastated only Europe and Asia. It wiped out 25-60% of that population. Nothing to sneeze at.

St. Sebastian begs Jesus for the life of a gravedigger dying from Justinian plague in this painting by Jose Lieferinxe 1497-1499

Wikipedia says: The Plague of Justinian or Justinianic Plague was the beginning of the first plague pandemic, the first Old World pandemic of plague, the contagious disease caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis.

This was the OG bubonic.

A characteristic is Yersinia pestis. Necrosis of the hand.

Well, you have to start somewhere and what better place than the Byzantine empire. King Justinian dealt with the staggering amount of deaths by raising taxes. Why? Because the workers that were building his many buildings and statues kept dying. He was like, fuck if I’m not building that monument in my honor! Nero played the violin while Rome burned, Justinian threw a financial temper tantrum and made everything worse. He even held family members accountable for any debt left behind by plague victims. Then those people died, other family members owed both debts, then those people died, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

Justinian couldn’t catch a break!

This fuckin’ guy! Justinian I

There isn’t much recorded about this plague but there are some writings from historian Procopius. He wrote that as many as 10,000 people a day were dying in Constantinople. Funeral rites couldn’t be kept up with and there was no room to store the dead. According to him, bodies were just piled in the streets giving the city a deathly stench.

All the while, Justinian sat in his castle, shaking his fist.

Procopius described neurological symptoms of the disease. Delirium, hallucinations as well as the death of limbs.

Procopius was so dissolutions with Justinian that in his writing, Secret History, he claimed that someone had seen Justinian in demon form late at night.

He wrote:

And some of those who have been with Justinian at the palace late at night, men who were pure of spirit, have thought they saw a strange demoniac form taking his place.

Contemporary scholars have decided that the disease came from Egyptian rats that stowed away on trade ships and feasted in granaries, which Constantinople had plenty of. It’s Egypt’s fault.

Number one is given to The Black Death, 1346 – 1353 AD. Bubonic plague the sequel. The one everyone talks about. The one with the horrifying masks?

I won’t get into that here because I don’t have the stomach for it.

There’s a strange comfort in looking into these past tragedies if for nothing more than getting myself out of the “this is the worst thing that’s ever happened” mindset I’ve sat alone with since March 2020.

Thanks for reading and I’d love to hear your assessment of this situation as it relates to history!

Published by Cindy

For money, I’m what you call a banquet captain. That means I’m in charge of timing and staff at special events, weddings, benefits, movie premiere parties...ect. I’m also a filmmaker and freelance writer. I’m owned by two cats, Samantha and Harrison Chase who reluctantly allow me to travel, something I’m made to do.

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