A Plague of Obsessive Proportions

We are, as a collective, utterly fascinated by plagues, as evidenced by the intense media scrutiny of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, the wide coverage of avian and swine flu in years previous, the hyperfocus on HIV/AIDS before then, the flood of coverage of the Spanish Flu (somewhat unfairly named, to be honest) at the turn of the 20th century, and so forth. If large numbers of people are getting ill, especially if they are dying, people are fascinated by it, and they want to know more, and more, and more, seeking any and all information they can track down. If there’s no currently ongoing plague, it’s time to turn to historical records — I am not the only person with shelves filled with medical texts and histories, with a special focus on epidemiology and outbreaks of disease.

It is concentrated, focal outbreaks that people are interested in, not the long, slow attrition of endemic disease. Thus, issues like malaria, rotavirus, and various diarrhoeal diseases are kept on the back burner, primarily of interest to NGOs, some health organisations, and the people who deal with them on a daily basis. The thought that millions of people, particularly children, are dying of such infections worldwide every year is perhaps too large, while at the same time too mundane — it happened to other people, over there somewhere — for people to grasp; but when we’re talking about an exotic virus, bacterium, or other infectious agent, suddenly everyone is all ears. For what could be more interesting, more personally fulfilling, more intriguing, than watching a plague unfold?

Poe’s ‘Masque of the Red Death’ speaks to the fascination and fear people have with plagues, presenting the reader with a wealthy man locking himself in his palace along with his closest friends to throw a big party, only to have death stalk them anyway. In his narrative, the plague is almost embodied, much as it is in current understandings of infectious disease among laypeople; Ebola is not just a viral infection that ruthlessly tears through patients and kills them, but an actual being. The kind of language we use to describe it is far from neutral or clinical — ‘tears through,’ for example, implies that the virus itself is able to rise up, take form, and rip through the body of the patient.

I’m not quite sure why people are so drawn to plagues, why this phenomenon has such a long history, even as I, too, am drawn to epidemiology and narratives about infectious disease, and am constantly hungry for more information about them. Perhaps it is the sense of mortality they carry, with a side of thrill — we are outside observers who can remain cold and detached, because we are not personally affected. Maybe it’s the reminders they offer of the small size of the world, of what draws humans together, as when Ebola breached the Barrier of Sacred Whiteness and made landfall in the US, thereby triggering a mass panic as people realised that, like HIV, Ebola doesn’t discriminate on the basis of race. It is an equal opportunity virus, interested only in replicating itself.

The plague doctors of old traveled their towns, cities, and villages swathed from head to toe in protective gear, fearing the ‘bad air’ or ‘miasmas’ that they were convinced carried the plague. Oddly enough, their safety measures echoed those being used by epidemiologists today; while physicians caring for Ebola patients didn’t wear long, beak-like masks, they too donned whole-body outfits and in at least some cases were are afraid of their patients even as they are committed to their wellbeing. Of course, modern research has led us to understand that poor hygiene was actually the issue during the Black Plague, and that the real problem was zoonoosis and the transmission of the virus through fleabites between humans and rats. Eradicate the rats, or get them out of human-occupied areas, and eradicate the plague.

There is, however, a pneumonic form of the plague, which can be spread by coughing and sneezing. Those infamous masks, designed more to conceal odors via the use of scented herbs and oils in their tips than anything else, would have protected their wearers from air-borne illness, but would have done nothing to prevent contracting bubonic Yersinia pestis infection. If anything, fleas and the bacteria would have set up camp more easily in clothing kept tight to the wearer’s body, allowing for multiple bits and settlement deep within the seams and folds of the fabric.

The plague doctors of old, and the doctors and nurses who deal with outbreaks today, braved something terrifying and sometimes unknown, as in the case of Ward 86, to help their patients. They believed in the paramount importance of medical care even though they were afraid, while observers around them crowded to watch in silence, intrigued, demanding stories, but not actually willing to push through their fear to contribute directly to the fight. The same kind of morbid fascination and defiance that undoubtedly reigned in wealthy households during the plague was mimicked in responses to Ebola in the West, where people convinced themselves that the disease would only strike ‘Africans’ as a vague collective, or outliers — and this perhaps speaks to why we are so fascinated by disease.

We want evidence of our exceptionality and superiority, whether it be as people in the West who could never be infected with Ebola, or people who live outside communities grappling with mysterious infectious like hantavirus and Legionnaire’s disease. We all want to believe that we are immune to disease. Many of us are convinced that if we study it long enough and hard enough, dancing at the edge of knowing and plunging into actually being there, we’ll stay safe. We’re obsessed with plagues like we tongue canker stores: If we keep reminding ourselves that they exist, we can chill ourselves but ultimately know that they’ll fade away.

Image: Medico della peste, Thomas Leplus, Flickr