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.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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