Plagues and Quarantines

 

Here’s my Holland Sentinel column for April…

Plagues and quarantines are nothing new. History isn’t crowded with them, but there have been enough of them that we should have learned a few things over the centuries.

One of the earliest examples was the Plague of Justinian. It arrived in Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, in 541 CE. Historians believe that the pathogen came over the Mediterranean Sea from Egypt, a recently conquered land paying tribute to Emperor Justinian. No one knew what to do then to avoid getting sick except to avoid sick people.

One of the worst plagues in history was the Bubonic Plague or Black Death which devasted Europe in the mid-14th century. Many millions of people died, perhaps 60 percent of the population. Eight hundred years after the Plague of Justinian, people still had no scientific understanding of the problem, but they remembered that proximity to sick people was bad. That’s why forward-thinking officials in Venice determined that ships arriving from infected ports should sit at anchor for 40 days before landing. The practice known as quarantine took its name from the Italian words quaranta giorni, which means 40 days.

A friend who teaches at Calvin University recently suggested, somewhat facetiously, that the Bible is filled with examples of quarantine. “I suppose,” she writes, “we could read the Exodus as one interminable, sand-scoured, post-slavery quarantine.” She notes that Jesus returned to the desert after his baptism in the Jordan River, possibly because the Jordan “was a veritable petri dish of germs. Maybe the forty days in the desert was a noble act of self-isolation, just in case. Jesus wanted to spread love and forgiveness, not the plague.”

More seriously, chapters13-15 in the Book of Leviticus contain a surprising amount of instruction regarding infection and quarantine. Several hundred years before the birth of Christ, the ancients were clearly discussing reasons to keep distance from each other.

Given the history of plagues, and the success of quarantines, I scratch my head in wonder at the response in recent weeks to the new coronavirus. College students on spring break still crowded the beaches in Florida until some (but not all) were closed, and church goers still showed up for worship at a surprising number of churches.

A recent funeral in Albany, Georgia, a city of 70,000, resulted in what epidemiologists call a “super-spreading event.” In the words of the coroner, “It hit like a bomb.” Hundreds became infected, and dozens have died, with many more deaths expected. A six-month stockpile of protective equipment for hospital staff and first responders was gone in seven days.

Young adults think they are immortal, so their behavior may be understandable, if lamentable. But what about church goers? Shouldn’t we expect something better from them?

The first plague to be ended by vaccine was smallpox. In the late-18th century, a British doctor named Edward Jenner found that milkmaids infected with a milder virus called cowpox seemed immune to the disease. The vaccine for Covid-19, however, won’t be available until early next year at the earliest.

What should we be doing until then? The answer seems clear. We should stay home and stay safe.

Another lesson we can draw from our history with plagues is that blaming others for them is an inevitable, but sad outcome. In medieval Europe, Jews were blamed “so viciously for the Black Death that from 1348 to 1351 more than 200 Jewish communities were wiped out, their inhabitants accused of spreading contagion or poisoning wells.” Jews were often less affected by the plague than other people, and one reason may be that they lived in isolated communities or ghettos, a kind of quarantine. Another reason might be the washing or purification rituals which led to greater cleanliness.

Christian leaders in the U.S. have a well-documented history of scapegoating groups for natural disasters and disease. Recent hurricanes, beginning with Katrina in 2005, have been described as God’s judgment on all sorts of behavior, from abortions to environmental activism. A pastor who leads a weekly bible study for members of President Donald Trump’s cabinet wrote recently that the coronavirus pandemic could be blamed on several groups, including those who have “a proclivity toward lesbianism and homosexuality.” America, he wrote, “is experiencing the consequential wrath of God.”

I don’t think much of these public statements, except to feel ashamed of them. If God is unhappy about someone’s behavior, I always assume that it’s probably mine I should be concerned about. That’s the faith I learned from my parents and Sunday school teachers.

During the Black Death, many Christian leaders acted with courage and compassion, often putting their own lives at risk to care for others. I learned this week that in the outbreak of 1527 Martin Luther and his wife Katherina (who was pregnant at the time) turned their home into a hospital (or hospice) at a time when many others were fleeing the city of Wittenberg. Just a few years earlier, Ulrich Zwingli selflessly ministered to infected people in Zurich and then caught the disease. (He later recovered.)

Julian of Norwich, a Christian mystic who lived through the worst of the Black Death and who first encountered the plague when she was only six years old, wrote about her visions to fellow Christians as a way to provide hope and comfort. A quote for which she may be best known: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.

2 Responses to Plagues and Quarantines

  1. Catrina Hamilton April 1, 2020 at 7:51 am #

    Thank you for this, for the information, and for the words of encouragement.

  2. Linda April 1, 2020 at 8:44 am #

    That’s my favorite Dame Julian quote and I didn’t know the origin of thst word “quarantine.” I learned things!