Category Archives: Health and Fitness

Border closures, identity and political tensions: how Australia’s past pandemics shape our COVID-19 response


Susan Moloney, Griffith University and Kim Moloney, Murdoch University

Tensions over border closures are in the news again, now states are gradually lifting travel restrictions to all except Victorians.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison says singling out Victorians is an overreaction to Melbourne’s coronavirus spike, urging the states “to get some perspective”.

Federal-state tensions over border closures and other pandemic quarantine measures are not new, and not limited to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Our new research shows such measures are entwined in our history and tied to Australia’s identity as a nation. We also show how our experiences during past pandemics guide the plans we now use, and alter, to control the coronavirus.




Read more:
National and state leaders may not always agree, but this hasn’t hindered our coronavirus response


Bubonic plague, federation and national identity

In early 1900, bubonic plague broke out just months before federation, introduced by infected rats on ships.

When a new vaccine was available, the New South Wales government planned to inoculate just front-line workers.

Journalists called for a broader inoculation campaign and the government soon faced a “melee” in which:

…men fought, women fainted and the offices [of the Board of Health] were damaged.

Patients and contacts were quarantined at the North Head Quarantine Station. Affected suburbs were quarantined and sanitation commenced.

The health board openly criticised the government for its handling of the quarantine measures, laying the groundwork for quarantine policy in the newly independent Australia.

Quarantine then became essential to a vision of Australia as an island nation where “island” stood for immunity and where non-Australians were viewed as “diseased”.

Public health is mentioned twice in the Australian constitution. Section 51(ix) gives parliament the power to quarantine, and section 69 requires states and territories to transfer quarantine services to the Commonwealth.

The Quarantine Act was later merged to form the Immigration Restriction Act, with quarantine influencing immigration policy.

Ports then became centres of immigration, trade, biopolitics and biosecurity.

Spanish flu sparked border disputes too

In 1918, at the onset of the Spanish flu, quarantine policy included border closures, quarantine camps (for people stuck at borders) and school closures. These measures initially controlled widespread outbreaks in Australia.

However, Victoria quibbled over whether NSW had accurately diagnosed this as an influenza pandemic. Queensland closed its borders, despite only the Commonwealth having the legal powers to do so.




Read more:
This isn’t the first global pandemic, and it won’t be the last. Here’s what we’ve learned from 4 others throughout history


When World War I ended, many returning soldiers broke quarantine. Quarantine measures were not coordinated at the Commonwealth level; states and territories each went their own way.

Quarantine camps, like this one at Wallangarra in Queensland, were set up during the Spanish flu pandemic.
Aussie~mobs/Public Domain/Flickr

There were different policies about state border closures, quarantine camps, mask wearing, school closures and public gatherings. Infection spread and hospitals were overwhelmed.

The legacy? The states and territories ceded quarantine control to the Commonwealth. And in 1921, the Commonwealth created its own health department.

The 1990s brought new threats

Over the next seven decades, Australia linked quarantine surveillance to national survival. It shifted from prioritising human health to biosecurity and protection of Australia’s flora, fauna and agriculture.

In the 1990s, new human threats emerged. Avian influenza in 1997 led the federal government to recognise Australia may be ill-prepared to face a pandemic. By 1999 Australia had its first influenza pandemic plan.




Read more:
Today’s disease names are less catchy, but also less likely to cause stigma


In 2003, severe acute respiratory syndrome (or SARS) emerged in China and Hong Kong. Australia responded by discouraging nonessential travel and started health screening incoming passengers.

The next threat, 2004 H5N1 Avian influenza, was a dry run for future responses. This resulted in the 2008 Australian Health Management Plan for Pandemic Influenza, which included border control and social isolation measures.

Which brings us to today

While lessons learned from past pandemics are with us today, we’ve seen changes to policy mid-pandemic. March saw the formation of the National Cabinet to endorse and coordinate actions across the nation.

Uncertainty over border control continues, especially surrounding the potential for cruise and live-export ships to import coronavirus infections.




Read more:
Coronavirus has seriously tested our border security. Have we learned from our mistakes?


Then there are border closures between states and territories, creating tensions and a potential high court challenge.

Border quibbles between states and territories will likely continue in this and future pandemics due to geographical, epidemiological and political differences.

Australia’s success during COVID-19 as a nation, is in part due to Australian quarantine policy being so closely tied to its island nature and learnings from previous pandemics.

Lessons learnt from handling COVID-19 will also strengthen future pandemic responses and hopefully will make them more coordinated.




Read more:
4 ways Australia’s coronavirus response was a triumph, and 4 ways it fell short


The Conversation


Susan Moloney, Associate Professor, Paediatrics, Griffith University and Kim Moloney, Senior Lecturer in Global Public Administration and Public Policy, Murdoch University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Comets, omens and fear: understanding plague in the Middle Ages



A comet depicted in medieval times in the Bayeux tapestry.
Bayeux Museam, Author provided

Marilina Cesario, Queen’s University Belfast and Francis Leneghan, University of Oxford

On August 30 2019, a comet from outside our solar system was observed by amateur astronomer Gennady Borisov at the MARGO observatory in Crimea. This was only the second time an interstellar comet had ever been recorded. Comet 19 or C/2019 Q4 , as it is now known, made its closest approach to the sun on December 8 2019, roughly coinciding with the first recorded human cases of COVID-19.

While we know that this is merely coincidence, in medieval times authorities regarded natural phenomena such as comets and eclipses as portents of natural disasters, including plagues.

One of the most learned men of the early Middle Ages was the Venerable Bede, an Anglo-Saxon monk who lived in Northumbria in the late seventh and early eighth centuries. In chapter 25 of his scientific treatise, De natura rerum (On the Nature of Things) , he describes comets as “stars with flames like hair. They are born suddenly, portending a change of royal power or plague or wars or winds or heat”.

Plagues and natural phenomena

Outbreaks of the bubonic plague were recorded long before the Black Death of the 14th century. In the 6th century, a plague spread from Egypt to Europe and lingered for the next 200 years. At the end of the seventh century, the Irish scholar Adomnán, Abbot of Iona wrote in book 42 of his Life of St Columba of “the great mortality which twice in our time has ravaged a large part of the world”. The effects of this plague were so severe in England that, according to Bede, the kingdom of Essex reverted to paganism.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that 664 “the sun grew dark, and in this year came to the island of Britain a great plague among men (‘micel man cwealm’ in Anglo Saxon)”. The year 664 held great significance for the English and Irish churches: a great meeting (or synod) was held in Whitby in Northumbria to decide whether the English church should follow the Irish or Roman system for calculating the date of Easter. By describing the occurrence of an eclipse and plague in the same year as the synod, Bede makes this important event in the English Church more memorable and meaningful.

In the Middle Ages, comets like 2019’s C/2019 Q4 signalled a calamitous event on earth to come.
NASA, ESA & D. Jewitt (UCLA), CC BY

Plague and medieval religion

In the Middle Ages, occurrences like plague and disease were thought of as expressions of God’s will. In the Bible, God uses natural phenomena to punish humankind for sin. In the Book of Revelation 6:8, for example, pestilence is described as one of the signs of Judgement Day. Medieval scholars were aware that some plagues and diseases were spread through the air, as explained by the seventh-century scholar Isidore of Seville in chapter 39 of his De natura rerum (On the Nature of Things):

Pestilence is a disease spreading widely and infecting by its contagion whatever it touches. When plague (‘plaga’) smites the earth because of mankind’s sins, then from some cause, that is, either the force of drought or of heat or an excess of rain, the air is corrupted.

Bede based his On the Nature of Things on this work by Isidore. In a discussion of plague in the Old English version of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History we find a reference to the “an-fleoga”, meaning something like “the one who flies” or “solitary flier”. This same idea of airborne disease is a feature of Anglo-Saxon medicine. One example comes from an Old English poem we call a metrical charm, which combines ancient Germanic folklore with Christian prayer and ritual. In the Nine Herbs Charm, the charmer addresses each herb individually and invokes its power over disease:

This is against poison, and this is against the one who flies,

this is against the loathsome one that travels throughout the land …

if any poison come flying from the east,

or any come from the north,

or any from the west over the nations of men,

Christ stood over the disease of every kind.

As well as fearing plague, medieval scholars attempted to pinpoint its origins and carefully recorded its occurrence and effects. Like us, they used whatever means they could to protect themselves from disease. But it is clear medieval chroniclers presented historical events as part of a divine plan for humankind by linking them with natural phenomena like plagues and comets.The Conversation

Marilina Cesario, Senior Lecturer, School of Arts, English and Languages, Queen’s University Belfast and Francis Leneghan, Associate Professor of Old English, University of Oxford

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Uprisings after pandemics have happened before – just look at the English Peasant Revolt of 1381



In this 1470 illustration, the radical priest John Ball galvanizes the rebels.
The British Library

Susan Wade, Keene State College

As a professor of medieval Europe, I’ve taught the bubonic plague, and how it contributed to the English Peasant Revolt of 1381. Now that America is experiencing widespread unrest in the midst of its own pandemic, I see some interesting similarities to the 14th-century uprising.

The death of George Floyd has sparked protests fueled by a combination of brutal policing, a pandemic that has led to the loss of millions of jobs and centuries of racial discrimination and economic inequality.

“Where people are broke, and there doesn’t appear to be any assistance, there’s no leadership, there’s no clarity about what is going to happen, this creates the conditions for anger, rage, desperation and hopelessness,” African American studies scholar Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor told The New York Times.

Medieval England may seem far removed from modern America. And sure, American workers aren’t tied to employers by feudal bonds, which meant that peasants were forced to work for their landowners. Yet the Peasant Revolt was also a reaction brought on by centuries of oppression of society’s lowest tiers.

And like today, the majority of wealth was held by an elite class that comprised about 1% of the population. When a deadly disease started to spread, the most vulnerable and powerless were asked the pick up the most slack, while continuing to face economic hardship. The country’s leaders refused to listen.

Eventually, the peasants decided to fight back.

Clamoring for higher wages

Surviving letters and treatises express feelings of fear, grief and loss; the death tolls from the 14th-century plague were catastrophic, and it’s estimated that between one-third to one-half of the European population died during the its first outbreak.

The massive loss of life created an immense labor shortage. Records from England describe untilled fields, vacant villages and untended livestock roaming an empty countryside.

The English laborers who survived understood their newfound value and began to press for higher wages. Some peasants even began to seek more lucrative employment by leaving feudal tenancy, meaning the peasants felt free to leave the employment of their landowning overlords.

Rather than accede to the demands, King Edward III did just the opposite: In 1349, he froze wages at pre-plague levels and imprisoned any reaper, mower or other workman in service to an estate who left his employment without cause. These ordinances ensured that elite landowners would retain their wealth.

Edward III enacted successive laws intended to ensure laborers wouldn’t increase their earning power. As England weathered subsequent outbreaks of the plague, and as labor shortages continued, workers started to clamor for change.

Enough is enough

The nominal reason for the Peasant Revolt was the announcement of a third poll tax in 15 years. Because poll taxes are a flat tax levied on every individual, they affect the poor far more than the wealthy. But similar to the protests that have erupted in the wake of Floyd’s death, the Peasant Revolt was really the result of dashed expectations and class tensions that had been simmering for more than 30 years.

Things finally came to a head in June 1381, when, by medieval estimates, 30,000 rural laborers stormed into London demanding to see the king. The cohort was led by a former yeoman soldier named Wat Tyler and an itinerant, radical preacher named John Ball.

Ball was sympathetic to the Lollards, a Christian sect deemed heretical by Rome. The Lollards believed in the dissolution of the sacraments and for the Bible to be translated into English from Latin, which would make the sacred text equally accessible to everyone, diminishing the interpretive role of the clergy. Ball wanted to take things even further and apply the ideas of the Lollards to all of English society. In short, Ball called for a complete overturn of the class system. He preached that since all of humanity constituted the children of Adam and Eve, the nobility could not prove they were of higher status than the peasants who worked for them.

With the help of sympathetic laborers in London, the peasants gained entry to the city and attacked and set fire to the Palace of Savoy, which belonged to the Duke of Lancaster. Next they stormed the Tower of London, where they killed several prominent clerics, including the archbishop of Canterbury.

A bait and switch

To quell the violence, Edward’s successor, the 14-year-old Richard II, met the irate peasants just outside of London. He presented them a sealed charter declaring that all men and their heirs would be “of free condition,” which meant that the feudal bonds that held them in service to landowners would be lifted.

The Peasant Revolt was one of Richard II’s first tests.
Westminster Abbey

While the rebels were initially satisfied with this charter, things didn’t end well for them. When the group met with Richard the next day, whether by mistake or intent, Wat Tyler was killed by one of Richard’s men, John Standish. The rest of the peasants dispersed or fled, depending on the report of the medieval chronicler.

For the authorities, this was their chance to pounce. They sent judges into the countryside of Kent to find, punish and, in some cases, execute those who were found guilty of leading the uprising. They apprehended John Ball and he was drawn and quartered. On Sept. 29, 1381, Richard II and Parliament declared the charter freeing the peasants of their feudal tenancy null and void. The vast wealth gap between the lowest and highest tiers of society remained.

American low-wage laborers obviously have rights and freedoms that medieval peasants lacked. However, these workers are often tied to their jobs because they cannot afford even a brief loss of income.

The meager benefits some essential workers gained during the pandemic are already being stripped away. Amazon recently ended the additional US$2 per hour in hazard pay it had been paying workers and announced plans to fire workers who don’t return to work for fear of contracting COVID-19. Meanwhile, between mid-March and mid-May, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos added $34.6 billion dollars to his wealth.

It appears that the economic disparities of 21st-century capitalism – where the richest 1% now own more than half of the world’s wealth – are beginning to resemble those of 14th-century Europe.

When income inequalities become so jarring, and when these inequalities are based in long-term oppression, perhaps the sort of unrest we’re seeing on the streets in 2020 is inevitable.

[You need to understand the coronavirus pandemic, and we can help. Read The Conversation’s newsletter.]The Conversation

Susan Wade, Associate Professor of History, Keene State College

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Australia and the Spanish Flu/COVID-19 Pandemics



The Spanish Flu Pandemic



Lockdowns, second waves and burn outs. Spanish flu’s clues about how coronavirus might play out in Australia



National Museum of Australia

Jeff Kildea, UNSW

In a remarkable coincidence, the first media reports about Spanish flu and COVID-19 in Australia both occurred on January 25 – exactly 101 years apart.

This is not the only similarity between the two pandemics.

Although history does not repeat, it rhymes. The story of how Australia – and particular the NSW government – handled Spanish flu in 1919 provides some clues about how COVID-19 might play out here in 2020.

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Spanish flu arrives

Australia’s first case of Spanish flu was likely admitted to hospital in Melbourne on January 9 1919, though it was not diagnosed as such at the time. Ten days later, there were 50 to 100 cases.

Commonwealth and Victorian health authorities initially believed the outbreak was a local variety of influenza prevalent in late 1918.

Consequently, Victoria delayed until January 28 notifying the Commonwealth, as required by a 1918 federal-state agreement designed to coordinate state responses.




Read more:
Fleas to flu to coronavirus: how ‘death ships’ spread disease through the ages


Meanwhile, travellers from Melbourne had carried the disease to NSW. On January 25, Sydney’s newspapers reported that a returned soldier from Melbourne was in hospital at Randwick with suspected pneumonic influenza.

Shutdown circa 1919: libraries, theatres, churches close

The NSW government quickly imposed restrictions on the population when Spanish flu first arrived.
National Library of Australia

Acting quickly, in late January, the NSW government ordered “everyone shall wear a mask,” while all libraries, schools, churches, theatres, public halls, and places of indoor public entertainment in metropolitan Sydney were told to close.

It also imposed restrictions on travel from Victoria in breach of the federal-state agreement.

Thereafter, each state went its own way and the Commonwealth, with few powers and little money compared with today, effectively left them to it.

Generally, the restrictions were received with little demur. But inconsistencies led to complaints, especially from churches and the owners of theatres and racecourses.

People were allowed to ride in crowded public transport to thronged beaches. But masked churchgoers, observing physical distancing, were forbidden to assemble outside for worship.

Later, crowds of spectators would be permitted to watch football matches while racecourses were closed.

Spanish flu subsides

Nevertheless, NSW’s prompt and thorough application of restrictions initially proved successful.

During February, Sydney’s hospital admissions were only 139, while total deaths across the state were 15. By contrast, Victoria, which had taken three weeks before introducing more limited restrictions, recorded 489 deaths.

At the end of February, NSW lifted most restrictions.

Even so, the state government did not escape a political attack. The Labor opposition accused it of overreacting and imposing unnecessary economic and social burdens on people. It was particularly critical that the order requiring mask-wearing was not limited to confined spaces, such as public transport.

There was also debate about the usefulness of closing schools, especially in the metropolitan area.

But then it returns

In mid-March, new cases began to rise. Chastened by the criticism of its earlier measures, the government delayed reimposing restrictions until early April, allowing the virus to take hold.

This led The Catholic Press to declare

the Ministry fiddled for popularity while the country was threatened with this terrible pestilence.

Sydney’s hospital capacity was exceeded and the state’s death toll for April totalled 1,395. Then the numbers began falling again. After ten weeks the epidemic seemed to have run its course, but as May turned to June, new cases appeared.

The resurgence came with a virulence surpassing the worst days of April. This time, notwithstanding a mounting death toll, the NSW cabinet decided against reinstating restrictions, but urged people to impose their own restraints.

The government goes for “burn out”

After two unsuccessful attempts to defeat the epidemic – at great social and economic cost – the government decided to let it take its course.

It hoped the public by now realised the gravity of the danger and that it should be sufficient to warn them to avoid the chances of infection. The Sydney Morning Herald concurred, declaring

there is a stage at which governmental responsibility for the public health ends.

The second wave’s peak arrived in the first week of July, with 850 deaths across NSW and 2,400 for the month. Sydney’s hospital capacity again was exceeded. Then, as in April, the numbers began to decline. In August the epidemic was officially declared over.

Cases continued intermittently for months, but by October, admissions and deaths were in single figures. Like its predecessor, the second wave lasted ten weeks. But this time the epidemic did not return.




Read more:
How Australia’s response to the Spanish flu of 1919 sounds warnings on dealing with coronavirus


More than 12,000 Australians had died.

While Victoria had suffered badly early on compared to NSW, in the end, NSW had more deaths than Victoria – about 6,000 compared to 3,500. The NSW government’s decision not to restore restrictions saw the epidemic “burn out”, but at a terrible cost in lives.

That decision did not cause a ripple of objection. At the NSW state elections in March 1920, Spanish flu was not even a campaign issue.

The lessons of 1919

In many ways we have learned the lessons of 1919.

We have better federal-state coordination, sophisticated testing and contact tracing, staged lifting of restrictions and improved knowledge of virology.

Australia’s response to coronavirus has seen sophisticated testing and contact tracing.
Dean Lewis/AAP

But in other ways we have not learned the lessons.

Despite our increased medical knowledge, we are struggling to find a vaccine and effective treatments. And we are debating the same issues – to mask or not, to close schools or not.

Meanwhile, inconsistencies and mixed messaging undermine confidence that restrictions are necessary.

Yet, we are still to face the most difficult question of all.

The Spanish flu demonstrated that a suppression strategy requires rounds of restrictions and relaxations. And that these involve significant social and economic costs.

With the federal and state governments’ current suppression strategies we are already seeing signs of social and economic stress, and this is just round one.

Would Australians today tolerate a “burn out”?

The Spanish flu experience also showed that a “burn out” strategy is costly in lives – nowadays it would be measured in tens of thousands. Would Australians today abide such an outcome as people did in 1919?

It is not as if Australians back then were more trusting of their political leaders than we are today. In fact, in the wake of the wartime split in the Labor Party and shifting political allegiances, respect for political leaders was at a low ebb in Australia.

Australians today may not tolerate the large numbers of deaths we saw in 1919.
James Gourley/AAP

A more likely explanation is that people then were prepared to tolerate a death toll that Australians today would find unacceptable. People in 1919 were much more familiar with death from infectious diseases.

Also, they had just emerged from a world war in which 60,000 Australians had died. These days the death of a single soldier in combat prompts national mourning.

Yet, in the absence of an effective vaccine, governments may end up facing a “Sophie’s Choice”: is the community willing and able to sustain repeated and costly disruptions in order to defeat this epidemic or, as the NSW cabinet decided in 1919, is it better to let it run its course notwithstanding the cost in lives?




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Coronavirus is a ‘sliding doors’ moment. What we do now could change Earth’s trajectory


The Conversation


Jeff Kildea, Adjunct Professor Irish Studies, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Before epidemiologists began modelling disease, it was the job of astrologers



Women, representing nature, argue the influence of the zodiac with scholars in this undated 17th century engraving.
Wellcome Collection, CC BY

Michelle Pfeffer, The University of Queensland

The internet is awash with comparisons between life during COVID-19 and life during the Bubonic plague. The two have many similarities, from the spread of misinformation and the tracking of mortality figures, to the ubiquity of the question “when will it end?”

But there are, of course, crucial differences between the two. Today, when looking for information on the incidence, distribution, and likely outcome of the pandemic, we turn to epidemiologists and infectious disease models. During the Bubonic plague, people turned to astrologers.

Exploring the role played by astrologers in past epidemics reminds us that although astrology has been debunked, it was integral to the development of medicine and public health.

The flu, written in the stars

Before germ theory, the Scientific Revolution and then the Age of Enlightenment, it was common for medical practitioners to use astrological techniques in their everyday practice.

Hans Holbein’s Danse Macabre woodcut (1523-25).
Wikimedia

Compared to the simplistic horoscopes in today’s magazines, premodern astrology was a complex field based on detailed astronomical calculations. Astrologers were respected health authorities who were taught at the finest universities throughout Europe, and hired to treat princes and dukes.

Astrology provided physicians with a naturalistic explanation for the onset and course of disease. They believed the movements of the celestial bodies, in relation to each other and the signs of the Zodiac, governed events on earth. Horoscopes mapped the heavens, allowing physicians to draw conclusions about the onset, severity, and duration of illness.

The impact of astrology on the history of medicine can still be seen today. The term “influenza” was derived from the idea that respiratory disease was a product of the influence of the stars.




Read more:
Altered mind this morning? Hehe, just blame the planets


Public health and plague

Astrologers were seen as important authorities for the health of communities as well as individuals. They offered public health advice in annual almanacs, which were some of the most widely read literature in the premodern world.

Almanacs provided readers with tables for astrological events for the coming year, as well as advice on farming, political events, and the weather.

The publications were also important disseminators of medical knowledge. They explained basic medical principles and suggested remedies. They made prognostications about national health, using astrology to predict when an influx of venereal disease or plague was likely to arise.

These public health predictions were often based on the astrological theory of conjunctions. According to this theory, when certain planets seem to approach each other in the sky from our perspective on earth, great socio-cultural events are bound to occur.

When Bubonic plague hit France in 1348, the King asked the physicians at the University of Paris to account for its origins. Their answer was that the plague was caused by a conjunction of Saturn, Mars, and Jupiter.




Read more:
How medieval writers struggled to make sense of the Black Death


Predictions from above

Astrological accounts of plague remained popular into the 17th century. In this period, astrology was increasingly attacked as superstitious, so some astrologers tried to set their field on a more scientific grounding.

In an effort to make astrology more scientific, the English astrologer John Gadbury produced one of the earliest epidemiological studies of disease.

In London’s Deliverance Predicted (1655), Gadbury claimed his contemporaries couldn’t explain when plagues would arrive, or how long they’d last.

Gadbury proposed that if planets caused plagues, then planets also stopped plagues. Studying astrological events would therefore allow one to predict the course of an epidemic.

He gathered data from the previous four great London plagues (in 1593, 1603, 1625, and 1636), scouring the Bills of Mortality for weekly plague death rates, and compiling A Table shewing the Increase and Abatement of the Plague. Gadbury also used planetary tables to locate the planets’ positions throughout the epidemics. He then compared his data sets, looking for correlations.

Gadbury found a correlation between intensity of plague and the positions of Mars and Venus. Plague deaths increased sharply in July 1593, at which point Mars had moved into an astrologically significant position. Deaths then abated in September, when Venus’s position became more significant. Gadbury concluded that the movement of “the fiery Planet Mars” was the origin of pestilence and the “cause of its raging”, while the influence of the “friendly” Venus helped abate it.

Gadbury then applied his findings to the pestilence plaguing London at the time. He was able to correlate the beginnings of the plague in late 1664 and its growing intensity in June 1665 with recent astrological events.

He predicted the upcoming movement of Venus in August would see a fall in plague deaths. Then the movement of Mars in September would make the plague deadlier, but the movements of Venus in October, November, and December would halt the death rate.

The black death in London, circa 1665. Creator unknown.
The black death in London

Looking for patterns

Unfortunately for Gadbury, plague deaths increased dramatically in August. However, he was right in predicting a peak in September followed by a steep decrease at the end of the year. If Gadbury had accounted for other correlates – such as the coming of winter – his study might have been received more favourably.

The medical advice in Gadbury’s book certainly doesn’t stand up today. He argued the plague was not contagious, and that isolating at home only caused more deaths. Yet his attempt to find correlations with fluctuating mortality rates offers an early example of what we now call epidemiology.

While we may discredit Gadbury’s astrological assumptions, examples such as this illustrate the important role astrology played in the history of medicine, paving the way for naturalist explanations of infectious disease.The Conversation

Michelle Pfeffer, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in History, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Bleach, bonfires and bad breath: the long history of dodgy plague remedies



Hippocrates refusing the gifts of Artaxerxes. Engraving by Raphael Massard, 1816.
Wellcome Images, CC BY-NC-SA

David Roberts, Birmingham City University

When a future researcher compiles a list of sayings of US presidents, this one from Donald Trump in April 2020 about using bleach as a possible treatment for coronavirus will surely make the cut: “Is there a way we can do something, by an injection inside or almost a cleaning?” Trump’s words prompted panicky warnings from bleach manufacturers to people not to drink their product and a spike in phone calls to help lines.

Press outlets leapt to describe Trump as a “mountebank – an itinerant quack doctor parading his wares from a platform (in Italian classic comic theatre, or Commedia Dell’Arte, the character is typically called Charlatano). In Ben Jonson’s 1606 comedy, Volpone, the eponymous hero dresses as Scoto of Mantua, purveyor of Scoto’s Oil. The original “snake oil”, it’s more expensive than bleach but neither harmful nor, indeed, beneficial if ingested.

Perhaps the comparison is unfair. Trump has simply joined the long line of those who, desperately seeking real cures, have found fakes. In Athens in 430BC, an epidemic struck. The air was thought to be diseased and in need of cleansing. The ancient Greek “father of medicine” Hippocrates himself is said to have come up with a solution – light bonfires, throw herbs and spices on them, and wait for the infection to pass.

Two thousand years later, bonfires were still in fashion. At the onset of the Great Plague in 1665, the College of Physicians pronounced that:

Fires made in the Streets, and often with Stink-Pots, and good Fires kept in and about the Houses of such as are visited … may correct the infectious Air.

The college added that the “frequent discharging of Guns” would have the same effect – something that might appeal to the US president’s more ardent supporters.

But in 1665, not everyone could agree on what to burn. Should it be coal or wood? If wood, was it better to burn a more aromatic variety such as cedar or fir? The author of Golgotha (identified only as J.V.), one of a large number of plague books published in 1665, denounced as “a costly mischief” the burning of “sweet-scented Pomanders”. That did not stop him from recommending instead “Wormwood, Hartshorn, Amber, Thime or Origany”.

But hang on. It was already a hot summer in 1665. Wouldn’t all those fires warm up the infected air and cause the plague particles to multiply? Not necessarily. There were two kinds of heat, according to the 1666 work Loimographia, by 17th-century apothecary William Boghurst. There was the fierce, dry sort generated by fires in chilly northern climates, and there was the soggy, exhausting sort you found in the tropics. The former was cleansing. The latter opened the pores and made you susceptible to infection (as well as lazy and deserving enslavement).

Smoke to your good health

If this all seems like the effusion of bad science and worse ideology, consider tobacco. Recently it was reported that smokers might be less prone to catching COVID-19 (although other evidence suggests smoking makes the disease worse).

The idea of tobacco as protective has a distinguished heritage. Another treatise of 1665 recommends tobacco as “a good Fume against pestilential and infected air”, said to be effective for “All Ages, all Sexes, all Constitutions, Young and Old … either by chewing in the leaf, or smoaking in the Pipe.” On June 7 1665, the diarist Samuel Pepys was so unnerved by the sight of an infected house that he bought “some roll-tobacco to smell and to chew, which took away my apprehension”. It would later be claimed that no tobacconist died during the Great Plague.

Like Trump – but without the benefit of modern science – the bonfire lighters and tobacco chewers grasped the shadow of reality. So did the professors of heat.

Fleas carry diseases including the plague, caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis.
Janice Haney Carr via Shutterstock

Since 1894 and the identification of the bacillus Yersinia pestis, we have known that bubonic plague was largely transmitted by fleas. Well, certain odours may deter some types of flea. And the bacillus can survive for up to a year given the right combination of warmth and humidity.

What about transmission? Physicians in 1665 struggled with distinct sets of symptoms and chances of survival. How was it that some people developed buboes over many days and had a 25% chance of recovery, while others without evident symptoms suddenly keeled over?

They named the cause “the fatal breath”. Pulmonary or pneumonic plague, we say now. It is caught like coronavirus or a common cold: the only form of the disease transmitted directly between people and is 95% deadly.




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Still, it was not quite as lethal as some people imagined. Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year reports a stubbornly held belief. If a man so infected breathed on a hen, rotten eggs would follow. In really severe cases, the hen would just drop dead.

Design for an amulet to ward off the plague, 17th century.
Wellcome Images, CC BY-NC-SA

The prize for bogus medicine, however, goes to the amulets and other trinkets people of 1665 carried to ward off the plague. Defoe dismisses them as “hellish Charms”, and claims they were often seen hanging round the necks of bodies in the dead carts. He captures their essence in a word the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “deceit, fraud, imposture, trickery”. The word? “Trumpery”.The Conversation

David Roberts, Professor of English and National Teaching Fellow, Birmingham City University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Stay alert, infodemic, Black Death: the fascinating origins of pandemic terms



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Simon Horobin, University of Oxford

Language always tells a story. As COVID-19 shakes the world, many of the words we’re using to describe it originated during earlier calamities – and have colourful tales behind them.

In the Middle Ages, for example, fast-spreading infectious diseases were known as plagues – as in the Bubonic plague, named for the characteristic swellings (or buboes) that appear in the groin or armpit. With its origins in the Latin word plaga meaning “stroke” or “wound”, plague came to refer to a wider scourge through its use to describe the ten plagues suffered by the Egyptians in the biblical book of Exodus.




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An alternative term, pestilence, derives from Latin pestis (“plague”), which is also the origin of French peste, the title of the 1947 novel by Albert Camus (La Peste, or The Plague) which has soared up the bestseller charts in recent weeks. Latin pestis also gives us pest, now used to describe animals that destroy crops, or any general nuisance or irritant. Indeed, the bacterium that causes Bubonic plague is called Yersinia pestis.

The bacterium Yersinia pestis, which causes Bubonic plague.
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The Bubonic plague outbreak of the 14th century was also known as the Great Mortality or the Great Death. The Black Death, which is now most widely used to describe that catastrophe, is, in fact, a 17th-century translation of a Danish name for the disease: “Den Sorte Død”.

Snake venom, the original ‘virus’

The later plagues of the 17th century led to the coining of the word epidemic. This came from a Greek word meaning “prevalent”, from epi “upon” and demos “people”. The more severe pandemic is so called because it affects everyone (from Greek pan “all”).

A more recent coinage, infodemic, a blend of info and epidemic, was introduced in 2003 to refer to the deluge of misinformation and fake news that accompanied the outbreak of SARS (an acronym formed from the initial letters of “severe acute respiratory syndrome”).

The 17th-century equivalent of social distancing was “avoiding someone like the plague”. According to Samuel Pepys’s account of the outbreak that ravaged London in 1665, infected houses were marked with a red cross and had the words “Lord have mercy upon us” inscribed on the doors. Best to avoid properties so marked.

The current pandemic, COVID-19, is a contracted form of Coronavirus disease 2019. The term for this genus of viruses was coined in 1968 and referred to their appearance under the microscope, which reveals a distinctive halo or crown (Latin corona). Virus comes from a Latin word meaning “poison”, first used in English to describe a snake’s venom.

The word vaccine comes from the Latin ‘vacca’, meaning ‘cow’.
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The race to find a vaccine has focused on the team at Oxford University’s Jenner Institute, named for Edward Jenner (1749-1823). It was his discovery that contact with cowpox resulted in milkmaids becoming immune to the more severe strain found in smallpox. This discovery is behind the term vaccine (from the Latin vacca “cow”) which gives individuals immunity (originally a term certifying exemption from public service). Inoculation was initially a horticultural term describing the grafting of a bud into a plant: from Latin oculus, meaning “bud” as well as “eye” (as in binoculars “having two eyes”).

Although we are currently adjusting to social distancing as part of the “new normal”, the term itself has been around since the 1950s. It was initially coined by sociologists to describe individuals or groups deliberately adopting a policy of social or emotional detachment.




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Its use to refer to a strategy for limiting the spread of a disease goes back to the early 2000s, with reference to outbreaks of flu. Flu is a shortening of influenza, adopted into English from Italian following a major outbreak which began in Italy in 1743. Although it is often called the Spanish flu, the strain that triggered the pandemic of 1918 most likely began elsewhere, although its origins are uncertain. Its name derives from a particularly severe outbreak in Spain.

To the watchtower

Self-isolation, the measure of protection which involves deliberately cutting oneself off from others, is first recorded in the 1830s – isolate goes back to the Latin insulatus “insulated”, from insula “island”. An extended mode of isolation, known as quarantine, is from the Italian quarantina referring to “40 days”. The specific period derives from its original use to refer to the period of fasting in the wilderness undertaken by Jesus in the Christian gospels.

Lockdown, the most extreme form of social containment, in which citizens must remain in their homes at all times, comes from its use in prisons to describe a period of extended confinement following a disturbance.

Many governments have recently announced a gradual easing of restrictions and a call for citizens to “stay alert”. While some have expressed confusion over this message, for etymologists the required response is perfectly clear: we should all take to the nearest tall building, since alert is from the Italian all’erta “to the watchtower”.The Conversation

Simon Horobin, Professor of English Language and Literature, University of Oxford

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Fleas to flu to coronavirus: how ‘death ships’ spread disease through the ages



Cushing/Whitney Medical Library

Joy Damousi, Australian Catholic University

One of the haunting images of this pandemic will be stationary cruise ships – deadly carriers of COVID-19 – at anchor in harbours and unwanted. Docked in ports and feared.

The news of the dramatic spread of the virus on the Diamond Princess from early February made the news real for many Australians who’d enjoyed holidays on the seas. Quarantined in Yokohama, Japan, over 700 of the ship’s crew and passengers became infected. To date, 14 deaths have been recorded.

The Diamond Princess’s sister ship, the Ruby Princess, brought the pandemic to Australian shores. Now under criminal investigation, the events of the Ruby Princess forced a spotlight on the petri dish cruise ships can become. The ship has been linked to 21 deaths.

History shows the devastating role ships can play in transmitting viruses across vast continents and over many centuries.




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Rats in the ranks

Merchant ships carrying rats with infected fleas were transmitters of the Plague of Justinian (541-542 AD) that devastated the Byzantine Empire.

Ships carrying grain from Egypt were home to flea-infested rats that fed off the granaries. Contantinople was especially inflicted, with estimates as high as 5,000 casualties a day. Globally, up to 50 million people are estimated to have been killed – half the world’s population.

The Black Death was also carried by rats on merchant ships through the trade routes of Europe. It struck Europe in 1347, when 12 ships docked at the Sicilian port of Messina.

The people of Tournai bury victims of the Black Death.
Wikimedia Commons

Subsequently called “death ships”, those on board were either dead or sick. Soon, the Black Death spread to ports around the world, such as Marseilles, Rome and Florence, and by 1348 had reached London with devastating impact.

The Italian writer, poet and scholar, Giovanni Boccaccio, wrote how terror swept through Florence with relatives deserting infected family members. Almost inconceivably, he wrote, “fathers and mothers refused to nurse their own children, as though they did not belong to them”.

Ships started being turned away from European ports in 1347. Venice was the first city to close, with those permitted to enter forced into a 40-day quarantine: the word “quarantine” derives from the Italian quarantena, or 40 days.

By January 1349, mass graves proliferated outside of London to bury the increasing numbers of dead.




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Army and naval ships, as well as travellers around the globe, also carried cholera pandemics throughout the 19th century. In the first pandemic in 1817, British army and navy ships are believed to have spread cholera beyond India where the outbreaks originated.

Egyptians boarding boats on the Nile during a cholera epidemic, drawn by CL Auguste (1841-1905.)
Wellcome Collection, CC BY

By the 1820s, cholera had spread throughout Asia, reaching Thailand, Indonesia, China and Japan through shipping. British troops spread it to the Persian Gulf, eventually moving through Turkey and Syria.

Subsequent outbreaks from the 1820s through to the 1860s relied on trade and troops to spread the disease across continents.

At war with the Spanish Flu

The Spanish influenza of 1918-1919 was originally carried by soldiers on overcrowded troop ships during the first world war. The rate of transmission on these ships was rapid, and soldiers died in large numbers.

One New Zealand rifleman wrote in his diary in September 1918:

More deaths and burials total now 42. A crying shame but it is only to be expected when human beings are herded together the way they have been on this boat.

The SS Port Darwin returned from Europe, docked at Portsea, Victoria. Soldiers are waiting to pass through a fumigation chamber to protect Australia against the Spanish Flu.
Australian War Memorial

The flu was transmitted throughout Europe in France, Great Britain, Italy and Spain. Three-quarters of French troops and over half of British troops fell ill in 1918. Hundreds of thousands of US soldiers travelling on troop ships across the Atlantic and back provided the perfect conditions for transmission.

The fate of cruising

A new and lethal carrier in the 21st century has emerged in the pleasure industry of cruise ships. The explosion of cruise holidays in the past 20 years has led to a proliferation of luxury liners plying the seas.

Like historical pandemics, the current crisis shares the characteristic of rapid spread through ships.

The unknown is in what form cruise ships will continue to operate. Unlike the port-to-port trade and armed forces that carried viruses across continents centuries ago, the services cruise lines offer are non-essential.

Whatever happens, the global spread of COVID-19 reminds us “death ships” are an enduring feature of the history of pandemics.The Conversation

Joy Damousi, Director, Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences, Australian Catholic University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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