Flashback Friday – Black Death

Since we have so recently gone through our own plague, it seems a good time to remember those good old days of the Black Death. This was originally published in 2020, but I have substantially rewritten and updated it.

It turns out that epidemics and pandemics all end the same way. People get tired of worrying about being sick and say “Life or death, I don’t want the rest of my life to be spent in hiding.”  It helps to not be part of the “if you get it, you’re dead” category of citizens, although many people who were not supposed to be at risk die anyway and no one is entirely sure why.

Bubonic or Pneumonic plague has no effective vaccine. You can’t get a “shot” that will prevent you from getting it and while heavy doses of antibiotics help, it can still kill you. Its favorite targets are young, healthy people, not very young or very old folks.

Why don’t we see Bubonic Plague these days? Ah, but we do. We’ve given it a new name that is less scary.

We do. Since it showed up in Europe in 1347 and decimated the population, it has made its way around the world, killing millions, including in the United States where the last cases were in 1900 and again in 2015 when the U.S. had a total of 1,036 cases. In 2015, sixteen people in the Western US developed Plague, including 2 cases in Yosemite National Park.

The Plague has never disappeared. It is lying low and will come back, but hopefully not soon. Even with antibiotics, it’s a dangerous disease.

How did it end? The most popular theory of how the Plague ended is through the implementation of quarantines. The uninfected would typically remain in their homes and only leave when it was necessary, while those who could afford to do so would leave the more densely populated areas and live in greater isolation.  Also, the plague stopped being dependent on fleas and became Pneumonic, which meant that coughed up droplets or sneezes could spread the disease from person to person, without no need for rats or fleas.

Museum of London, Plague 1665-1666

While it might seem as if the Black Death was the only instance of the bubonic plague epidemic, there were many other bouts with it through the centuries, including a pandemic that started in Asia in the 19th century. The World Health Organization didn’t consider this pandemic officially over until 1959 when the annual deaths finally dropped to fewer than 200.

In 1920 Galveston, that “oozy prairie,” as early settlers described it, was only 20 years removed from the devastating 1900 hurricane. Then came Plague. A 17-year-old feed store worker was the first to contract and die from the disease. The first case was diagnosed in early June 1920. Over the following months, eighteen people were diagnosed. Seven survived.

There was initial mishandling with Plague. In two cases the doctors noted in their report that the patient isolation “was not accomplished as rapidly as desired,” both because families were slow to call in a doctor and because the doctor didn’t consider bubonic plague to be an real possibility.

Vaccines don’t work on Black Plague. Vaccines only work on viral diseases and Plague is bacterial. There are, however powerful antibiotics that do work — if the disease is diagnosed promptly — and the patient is not in some other way, fragile.

The plague bacteria, Yersinia pestis, had lain dormant in China’s Gobi Desert for centuries. But in the 1300s, it emerged with a vengeance, fanning out via trade routes from Asia to Europe and killing millions of people along the way. The plague was transmitted by fleas harbored by rats, which flourished in the overcrowded, filthy cities of the Middle Ages. By the end of the 1500s, between a third and half of Europe’s population had died from the Black Death. Some think it might have been as high as 75% — and in a few areas, 100%. Even during the 1900s, the plague still killed millions of people, but since then, the advent of better hygiene and antibiotics has reduced this killer.

Human reaction to pandemic outbreaks hasn’t changed much in thousands of years. We blame others. We persecute others. We run away when we can. Rich and poor, we die.

People believe rumors while others spread them.

In the end, life goes on, but not like before the plague. This “return to normal” is not a return to the world before plague. It’s a social return, but does not mean people stop dying. Diseases don’t care about your opinion.

Economies do not recover in a month or two. Not ever in the history of the world has that happened. Nations fall, governments collapse, economies are decimated. Plagues change everything, not just human lives. The fallout and backlash from plagues can and has lasted for centuries. It has certainly ripped up this country.

And, just in case this isn’t scary enough, you might want to read this article from “NewScientist.”

Did bubonic plague really cause the Black Death?

Categories: #Health, Coronavirus - Covid 19, Culture, Epidemic - Pandemic - Plague, History, Marilyn Armstrong, medieval history, Politics

Tags: , , , ,

2 replies

  1. Interesting info! I especially liked the line about how diseases don’t care about your feelings. Turns that stupid Ben Shapiro “facts” phrase right on its head!


    • An awful lot of people seem to REALLY believe that a positive attitude is better than a vaccination. The graveyards are full of them.

      They really don’t “get” the difference between opinion or belief and facts. I don’t get THEM.

      Liked by 1 person

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