BOGOTÁ — There's something about the way the arrival of a new contagious disease conjures up myriad tales of the past. Those old words reappear like "quarantine," "contagion" and "infested," circling around the dreaded: Plague. It all parades in our minds like a procession of ants, bringing to life the tale-teller or novelist, the frightened rumor-monger and brave doctor or nurse, as parallel scenes and flourishing accounts heighten our fear and curiosity.

Plagues and literature have lived side by side since antiquity, and every new one provokes opposing reactions among the living. There are those who believe that God, or destiny, ordains our last day and the hour of death is already written. Such "fatalists" would tell you it is useless to take your distance, protect or cover yourself, or to take precautions.

Then there are those who think our personal destinies are, in part at least, in our own hands — which is precisely why we wash them. And we cover our mouths and nose to fight the contagion. There is no doubt we are destined to die, but something can be done to postpone the date.

The infected were confined to Milan's leprosy ward.

I am fascinated not just by the disease, but the literature of plagues and their sufferers. I will briefly cite some of the notable: Boccaccio's The Decameron is a paradigm of the most important elements: its tales of love, humor and eroticism are an antidote to the death decimating the city at the time. Ten youngsters, seven of them women and three men, leave the city of Florence around 1350 and distract each other with stories to distance themselves from death. Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year is a fictitious diary written by a saddler who decides to stay in plague-ridden London in 1665. It is a systematic, precise and one might even say journalistic account of the bubonic plague in the English capital.

In all plagues, generally, the richest are the first to leave town. Defoe's Journal notes this as it describes the coaches hastily taking the gentry and their servants out to the countryside, far from the throes of pestilence. In Chapter 28 of The Betrothed (I promessi sposi), Alessandro Manzoni relates the reactions of the Milanese to the city's plague in 1648. The infected were confined to the city's leprosy ward, with the idea of curbing contagion. More than 10,000 men, women and children were picked up around the city and forced into the lazaretto's 288 rooms, and not surprisingly, most of them died there. Shops closed, factories emptied and 100 or so died in the plague prison every day.

Illustration of Décameron by Boccaccio, Black Death in Florence, 1348. Sciences et Avenir

And there is a much more recent piece of pestilential fiction - La Peste, (The Plague) by Albert Camus. Its protagonists are the physician Bernard Rieux, and the young Jean Tarrou who keeps a meticulous notebook of events during the said outbreak. Like the Chinese government in Wuhan, French authorities ordered the infested town of Oran cordoned off, and barred residents from leaving to prevent the plague from spreading.

Rieux is separated from his wife, but fights death alongside Tarrou. We, too, have been reading these days about hundreds of Chinese doctors and nurses becoming infected and dozens dying. In the Camus novel, the plague is not just a physical event but symbolic of the evils of fascism and Nazism, which had just been defeated in Europe. Rieux makes some important conclusions at the end of the book: that it is important not to keep quiet and to leave a favorable testimony for the infected.

He concludes that amid plagues you find "more things worthy of admiration among men than of contempt." Above all, he warns, victory against a plague is never definitive: to prevent the triumph of death, the battle against fear must carry on.


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