In the absence of a vaccine, we are fighting coronavirus with methods that date back centuries. And the objections against the mandatory measures that have been introduced are just old as the search for a guilty party. A look back at history can provide interesting insights into the current situation.
Before the corona pandemic, the inhabitants of Europe had personally experienced neither social distancing nor quarantine. But in earlier centuries, banning gatherings, isolating the sick and cordoning off areas with large numbers of infected people were common practice during dangerous epidemics. Between 1560 and 1640, larger waves of the plague occurred in central Europe around every ten years. In response, rulers issued so-called plague orders. These included bans on assembly, isolation and quarantine measures, as well as the forced transfer of sick people to plague hospitals. The measures taken during that time are described by the historian Mischa Meier in his book Pest: Die Geschichte eines Menschheitstraumas (The Plague: The History of a Human Trauma) – and they are surprisingly topical.
Just like today, many people back then did not want to simply accept the restrictions. They took legal action in court against the burning of clothing, furnishings or even entire houses that were ordered by doctors or city governments. Others disregarded the bans on public assembly, which had an impact not only on fairs and dances but also on religious festivities. This despite the fact that it had long been noted that such occasions were regularly followed by a surge of new cases of infection. Disputes with the church in particular often escalated: in 1630, in the Italian town of Volterra, it even went so far that the Pope excommunicated the members of the secular Florentine health council because they wanted to enforce such a ban.
The current conflict between economic and health concerns, and official attempts at cover-ups can also be found in Europe’s history books: for example, Bremen imposed no embargos during the plague outbreak from 1623 to 1628, probably against its better judgment. At that time, the Hanseatic city was under the influence of the Danish king and his troops relied on goods from the city. And when war refugees flooded Bremen in 1627, the city’s government did not impose any assembly bans. In total, about 10 000 of the city’s 25 000 inhabitants died as a result.
The last outbreak of the plague in Europe is also attributable to international trade: in 1720, a ship from Syria arrived in Marseille with the plague on board. The city had at that time already introduced strict ship inspections and prophylactic quarantine measures. As a result, the cargo was confiscated, and the sailors were quarantined. However, they managed to sell some bales of cloth from the cargo, which unfortunately were full of infected fleas.
The first deaths were officially explained as caused by a fever. But the truth soon came out. Many citizens fled to the surrounding areas and spread the plague in nearby Provence. Marseille’s trading partners quickly introduced embargos. Thanks to a closely guarded medical cordon around the whole of Provence, the disease was contained. In total, however, at least 50 000 people died in Marseille, more than half the city’s population.
Parallels to earlier times can be seen not only in the resistance against official mandatory measures, but also in the search for the causes or a guilty party. Psychotherapy has taught us that in the face of severe suffering, explanations and meaning are sought. Disasters lead humans as individuals to see themselves and their identity as being subjected to an existential threat. This threatens the leitmotif of their life story, explains Bernd Rieken, Professor of Psychotherapy Science at the Sigmund Freud University Vienna.
People severely affected by catastrophes also associate such events with the concept of fate, especially when they lose family members. Martin Voss, Head of the Disaster Research Unit at the University of Berlin, is currently conducting several research projects on the perception of COVID-19 and its consequences. One of the biggest questions is often why a person is so affected and others not. “People find it difficult to leave anything unanswered,” says Voss. This has the potential to give rise to trauma. People cannot deal well with these questions without having an answer, even if it is the wrong one. In this type of situation, religious and mythical explanations make incomprehensible things graspable for people.
Today, as in the past, the question of guilt or cause is answered by official authorities, but also by perceived authorities. In Christian Europe, the theological interpretation of the plague as a punishment dominated. In other words, the sinful actions of humans lead to the plague as a punishment, which should motivate people to live a better life. Wild conspiracy theories flourished back then, such as of evil men who smeared chairs and walls with a plague-inducing ointment. In Geneva, for example, a pharmacist, his wife and others were executed in 1530 for allegedly spreading the disease through infected handkerchiefs.
Much more drastic was the persecution of the Jews in numerous European cities between 1348 and 1353: in search of a scapegoat, Jewish people – from whom many people had borrowed money at the time – were accused of poisoning wells with the plague and were murdered by angry crowds. The anti-Semitic interpretation contains frightening parallels to today. In order to distract attention from their own powerlessness, the authorities at the time in most cases did nothing. Which is why the plague was later often passed off as poisoning by military enemies or foreign rulers. In Milan, the French were given the blame, in Naples the Spanish and in Spain the Milanese.
also in intercultural comparisons. This is confirmed by the historian Franz Mauelshagen, from the University of Vienna, who examined disasters from a comparative cultural perspective. But why was Europe, despite its long and well-documented history of catastrophes and epidemics, not better prepared for coronavirus? Mauelshagen has a suspicion: perhaps it was simply because the past had been forgotten. It has been a long time since a serious epidemic has occurred in Europe, says the expert: “We have been free of epidemics for so long that some people now consider measures such as quarantine, a concept that Europeans brought to Asia over a hundred years ago, to be an import from Asia.”
Images: AKG-media and Wikipedia
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