When the world gets closer.

We help you see farther.

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter.

EL ESPECTADOR

Coronavirus: Will It Earn A Spot In The Literature Of Plagues?

Contagious diseases through history have inspired authors, describing the horror, but also instances of nobility born of courage and compassion.

Spraying disinfectant in Hunan province, China
Spraying disinfectant in Hunan province, China
Héctor Abad Faciolince

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.

You've reached your monthly limit of free articles.
To read the full article, please subscribe.
Get unlimited access. Support Worldcrunch's unique mission:
  • Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.
  • Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries
  • $2.90/month or $19.90/year. No hidden charges. Cancel anytime.
Already a subscriber? Log in

When the world gets closer, we help you see farther

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
Society

How India’s Women Are Fighting Air Pollution — And The Patriarchy

India is one of the world's worst countries for air pollution, with women more likely to be affected by the problem than men. Now, experts and activists are fighting to reframe pollution as a gendered health crisis.

A woman walking through dense fog in New Delhi

*Saumya Kalia

MUMBAI In New Delhi, a city that has topped urban air-pollution charts in recent years, Shakuntala describes a discomfort that has become too familiar. Surrounded by bricks and austere buildings, she tells an interviewer: "The eyes burn and it becomes difficult to breathe". She is referring to the noxious fumes she routinely breathes as a construction worker.

Like Shakuntala, women’s experiences of polluted air fill every corner of their lives – inside homes, in parks and markets, on the way to work. Ambient air in most districts in India has never been worse than it is today. As many as 1.67 million people in the country die prematurely due to polluted air. It is India’s second largest health risk after malnutrition.

This risk of exposure to air pollution is compounded for women. Their experiences of toxic air are more frequent and often more hazardous. Yet “policies around air quality have not yet adequately taken into account gender or other factors that might influence people’s health,” Pallavi Pant, a senior scientist at the Health Effects Institute, a nonprofit in the U.S., told The Wire Science.

“It’s unacceptable that the biggest burden [rests on] those who can least bear it,” Sherebanu Frosh, an activist, added. People like her are building a unique resistance within India.

Keep reading...Show less

When the world gets closer, we help you see farther

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
You've reached your monthly limit of free articles.
To read the full article, please subscribe.
Get unlimited access. Support Worldcrunch's unique mission:
  • Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.
  • Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries
  • $2.90/month or $19.90/year. No hidden charges. Cancel anytime.
Already a subscriber? Log in
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS

Central to the tragic absurdity of this war is the question of language. Vladimir Putin has repeated that protecting ethnic Russians and the Russian-speaking populations of Ukraine was a driving motivation for his invasion.

Yet one month on, a quick look at the map shows that many of the worst-hit cities are those where Russian is the predominant language: Kharkiv, Odesa, Kherson.

Watch VideoShow less
MOST READ