As I write this, in December 2021, we are on the brink of being overrun by the Omicron variant of the coronavirus. Though it sounds like a disaster film with the production value of a Dunder Mifflin training video, the Omicron variant is in fact a highly transmissible form of COVID-19. It has the potential to inflict more bodily harm than any of the other plagues tracked by the World Health Organization, even Pilates. The WHO is of course very worried, and not only because of Omicron. After suffering through years of the Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta variants, it has nearly exhausted its supply of Greek letters. It may have to start naming COVID variants with Roman numerals, which would be a public health disaster not seen on Earth since Caddyshack II.
But just because the world is ending, there’s no reason to despair. We have lived through plagues before. In 2015, the Zika virus spread from a monkey to humans, triggering worldwide alarm and sowing deep suspicion between the Man with the Yellow Hat and Curious George. In 2014, the viral hemorrhagic fever known as Ebola spread from Africa to the United States, compelling hundreds of public health officials to implement an emergency plan to sell their stocks. And in the 1990s, a devastating plague swept through the world with such terrifying ferocity that even now, a generation later, I can barely whisper its name: Boy Bands
The list of plagues goes on. One of the earliest in recorded history was the Athenian Plague, which took place, as the same suggests, in the ancient city of Athens, Georgia. Much of what we know of this ancient disease is thanks to the writings of the Greek scholar and writer Thucydides. A true Renaissance man, Thucydides was a visionary well ahead of his time, not only because the Renaissance was still thousands of years away, but also because he had written an unusually progressive comedy about a mischievous Greek married to a Cuban bandleader, a concept he later developed into a sitcom called I Love Thucy. But fortunately for us, Thucydides put aside his screenwriting to record the progress of the disease as it devastated Athens. It was from Thucydides, for example, that we learned that the symptoms of the plague included stomach cramps, vomiting, and coughing up blood-symptoms that today are only associated with prolonged exposure to social media. Still, Thucydides tended to overdramatize. His accounts of the plague, though generally consistent with other accounts of the period, probably overstated the number of car chases.
After the Athenian Plague, humanity got a few centuries of relief. In particular, the people of the Roman world were feeling pretty good. They had reason. They had recently learned, when the years finally started counting up, what BC stood for. But their joy only lasted until 165 AD, when another plague began to sweep across the Roman Empire, one initially named by the physician Galen as the Antonine Plague, but later changed to the Plague of Galen at the insistence of his publisher. The Plague of Galen killed tens of thousands of people. It even may have killed the great Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, though this claim is not without controversy. According to some historians, it was not the plague that killed Marcus Aurelius, but rather Marcus Aurelius’s son, Joaquin Phoenix, who killed his father to take control of the Roman Empire and prevent the ascension of Russell Crowe. The principal argument against this claim, however, is that these historians had may have confused Hollywood cinema with historical fact, something they would have known had they consulted the seminal work of Roman history, Spartacus. Even so, most experts in the field agree that Gladiator was awesome.
Then there was the big one. The Pestilence. The Black Death. The Bubonic Plague. The most important thing to know about the Bubonic Plague is that bubonic is an adjective for “bubo.” Technically, buboes are inflamed swellings of lymph nodes. But to my mind they sound more like furry little woodland creatures with magical powers who live in peace and harmony in a faraway land, and whose only purpose is to wrap you up in great big hugs. Only that’s a terrible idea because buboes, if you open your arms for an embrace, will latch onto your skin, swell to the size of apples, rot off your flesh, and ultimately give your body over to delirium, coma, organ failure, and death. Buboes are very naughty. In their cruelty they rival only the Smurfs.
But even in the Black Death there was something to cheer. It was during the Plague that modern medicine was born. The medically trained bloodletters and leech farmers of the day learned to observe the sick, track the progress of disease, identify probable methods of transmission, and from this conclude that the disease had its origin in a bad alignment of planets. So medicine was getting better, but still had a long way to go. Despite these medical achievements, the Black Death killed as many as 150 million people. Such a figure makes me grateful to live in an age when humanity, in the face of a worldwide pandemic, can put its differences aside and come together to stop a plague in its tracks before it kills millions.
Ha, ha! I am joking of course. Our differences are as entrenched as ever. Yet I still have hope that we might learn the lessons of history and put them into practice in our fight against COVID. The study of history might just be worth it after all.
I wonder if Netflix has Gladiator.