In the middle of the 14th century, however, there seemed to be no rational explanation for it. No one knew exactly how the Black Death was transmitted from one patient to another–according to one doctor, for example, “instantaneous death occurs when the aerial spirit escaping from the eyes of the sick man strikes the healthy person standing near and looking at the sick”–and no one knew how to prevent or treat it. Physicians relied on crude and unsophisticated techniques such as bloodletting and boil-lancing (practices that were dangerous as well as unsanitary) and superstitious practices such as burning aromatic herbs and bathing in rosewater or vinegar.
In many ways we can see distinct similarities between the Black Death and the current outbreak of the Ebola virus in western Africa, Like the medieval plague then there is no known cure for Ebola now and despite all of the wishful thinking, despite all of the advances in medicine in the last 600 years we are just as powerless to stem the spread of this disease. And I am sorry to be the bringer of bad news but I think that this disease is going to have a similar effect on the population of Africa as the Plague had on 14th century Europe. We can certainly expect that the death toll will soar into the millions as efforts to contain it continue to fail.
Why do I expect such a large death toll?
This is a virus that not only spread through the exchange of bodily fluids but also remains active in the items that those fluids fall upon, thus bedding and clothing that the infected have touched becomes vectors for the disease to reach new victims. Add to that cultural practices pertaining to the care of the sick that funds family looking after their own, a low level of education, the effects of other diseases poverty and crowded living conditions and it’s not had to see just how optimistic any suggestion that the disease can be contained are. Just look to the example of the response to one man with the disease who is now gravely ill in the United States to get some idea of just how much effort is needed if you are too truly contain the infection: This level of response is just not possible in third world west Africa and so it seems inevitable to me that the infection is going to spread exponentially just as the black death spread exponentially in 14th century Europe.
So what can the modern west do to help stem the spread of the disease in Africa?
Well not much at all really, we risk losing a large number of our very skilled people if we send them into the disease hot spots firstly because the treatment that is available essentially boils down to trying to keep patients hydrated and waiting to see who has the natural ability to fight the infection. Those brave souls who are trying to treat the currently infected are trying to do so while wearing Hazmat suits that are essentially a fancy yellow plastic bag which I’m sure you will realize is nothing short of tortuous in the tropical climate of the region. So not only do the health workers run the very real risk of contracting the infection but also they risk dying from heatstroke in the suits they try to prevent infection with. Several health workers who have caught the Ebola virus have been evacuated so that they can be treated in Western hospitals but if the numbers of infected western heath workers were to increase I can foresee the practice of repatriating them being wound back or even abandoned in the effort to contain the disease. Aid in the form of medical supplies, certainly can and should be provided but the major imperative now has to be containment, and quarantine of all parts of Africa where the disease has been found.
The Environmental bigger picture, or accepting the will of Gaia
In the natural world there are clear limits to the population of any species. Be it the amount of substance that a particular species can find or something in the environment that find them tasty and therefore limits their numbers through predation. Human beings are very clever in their ability to eat almost anything that is nourishing and in many ways we have become the apex predator in every part of the eco-system. That in conjunction with our ability to mitigate that other limit to population, disease. Has seen our numbers soar beyond 7billion souls on this small planet. I would seem to me that pandemics are one of the ways that Gaia addresses the problem of too many people on the surface of the planet. Oh humanity certainly has dodged a bullet from pandemics in the recent past. But this disease is not going to be so easily dodged. I think that it has already reached a critical mass that makes it virtually unstoppable. Heck thanks to modern air travel I will be very surprised if is even just contained on the African continent.
Things are going to get a great deal worse before they get better
During the Black Death whole towns succumbed to the disease they were left with only the dead in residence sometimes the dead were not even buried and it’s not hard to imagine that happening again in Western Africa if Ebola really starts to take off as I am expecting it to do.
What we need to realize is that modern medicine is good, its clever and its largely been the bringer of better lives for all of those it has touched, from the poor children spared the mortal diseases of childhood that used to take so many children well before they reached maturity to the wonders of surgery that can see the imperfections and damages to our bodies repaired and replaced in a way that would seem magical to a medieval man contemplating the plague yet here we stand in the same place as that medieval man facing a disease pandemic that we cannot stop and a death toll that we dread will be larger than anything humanity has not seen in the last six centuries.
If this danse macabre does play up a storm it will change every aspect of global human society we could well go from a place where the people desperately compete for places in the economy to one where skilled workers will be in very short supply in many parts of the planet. The mechanized west where we already have machines that enable a very small number of people to grow the crops to feed the many or to operate the machines will probably get through this upcoming disaster well enough but any society still that practices subsistence agriculture can expect the same hard times that befell Europe after the plague because there was simply not enough people to plant and harvest the crops. Those who have been worried about climate change May well find all of their concerns are moot because a world with less people on it will not be producing anywhere near the emissions growth they are so certain is the problem. On the other hand the worlds mercantile economy is likely to be severely affected by both the loss of potential customers and the cost of trying to address the disease.
One other thing that we should recognize is that many people see the world through the lens of their religion and those religions that have a millenarian tendency may well see Ebola as some sort of divine retribution for our “sins”. A faith like Islam on the other hand which places such value in the observance of a mass gathering like their Haj could well be both a vector for the spread of the disease and suffer a huge number of casualties among its faithful.
The innocent childhood game of ring around a rosey actually has its origins in the time of the black death.