The Sunday News
From the Hamin Mangha and Miaozigou plagues of China 5 000 years ago to the coronavirus pandemic of the present, killer diseases do not walk alone. The biological and bodily maladies are always accompanied by certain social diseases that tend to pour fuel on the fires of pandemics and lead to many more otherwise unnecessary deaths.
The biggest such social disease, perhaps, is the human propensity to make myths and think conspiratorially. This is a killer social disease that should have long been declared a plague on its own. It is for that reason that when a pandemic strikes what Slavoj Zizek called “good science” must at all times be allowed to lead.
When HIV and Aids were ravaging the world in the 1980s some marchers on World Aids Day in New York carried a big banner with the sobering words: “HIV/Aids; we need research not hysteria.” The natural blow of a disease that spreads like fire and leaves dead bodies in its wake unfortunately does not encourage the calm and composed determination that is required in scientific research, however.
The strike of a pandemic provokes panic, frenzy and indeed hysteria. Yet, the scientific counter-pandemic war that eventually wins over disease requires that calm, collected and determined resolve to study and know the disease in question and establish the cold and dry facts about it. Only cold and dry facts from scientific research about a disease can lead to a societal and systemic response to the illness that can eventually win. Alarmist and conspiratorially myths and fictions about diseases lead to panics and stampedes that help rather than hinder the diseases at the end of it all.
Some pandemic myths of all time
Religions of the world are especially notorious for generating mythical and even conspiratorial information about diseases. The first of these myths is usually that diseases are sent down from the gods and or the ancestors as punishment for the sins and other transgressions of the living.
Religious thinking and activity leads the assailed people to gather more to pray and in the process further inflame an infectious pandemic. In the Russian Plague of 1770 to 1772 quarantined crowds of believers rioted and destroyed property. The Archbishop Ambrosius that was discouraging them from gathering to worship was lynched by the sick, angry and faithful mob.
True to the Bishop’s counsel, religious gatherings had become what in the language of today we call “super-spreaders” but the faithful and deadly mob thought the Archbishop was a true anti-Christ ever to discourage religious gatherings.
When in 1793 a flue that became known as the Philadelphia Yellow Fever struck America an unfortunate belief spread around that the malady was punishment, finally, from God for the crime of enslaving black African people.
Some slave owners freed their slaves in supplication and others paid their slaves yet to be established amounts of money in appeasement. More dangerous was that the authorities of the time fell for the false belief that black African slaves were immune from the disease and turned them into nurses of the sick white people. The slaves died in their multitudes as a result.
The Plague of Athens in 430 BC hit the Greek city when a war between the Greeks and the Spartans was afoot. Witchcraft and biological war were suspected. The Greek historian Thucydides describes the symptoms in his 1914 account of the Peloponnesian War thus: “People in good health were all of a sudden attacked by violent heats in the head, and redness and inflammation in the eyes, the inward parts, such as the throat or tongue becoming bloody and emitting an unnatural and fetid breath.”
It was a typical strong fever but the good Greeks believed it was witchcraft from the Spartans until the invaders also started dying in numbers, though after winning the war.
In the heat of World War I, in 1917 to 1918 the Spanish Flu hit Europe. The big myth is that it was ever a Spanish Flu.
Spain was a neutral factor in the war and had a free press that openly published details about the new disease in Europe. The Flu became Spanish by publication in Spain and not in its true origins. As I write some scientists believe that the coronavirus did not originate in China but was first detected there because of vigilant Chinese science. Yet Donald Trump and others would like it recorded that it is a “virus made in China.”
Similarly, when cholera struck Great Britain in the 19th Century the going belief became that it was caused by some smelly air that came to called “Miasma.” It took a slow and sure scientist called John Snow to locate the source of the death that was finishing off the British; the British waters that were dirty and contaminated. The thick masks that the people wore to prevent Miasma from entering their wind pipes were as useless as any fashion statement against a disease that people were literally drinking. Boiling and disinfecting water were supposed to be the sure remedy.
Miasma was as false the cause of death as it was that the so-called Black Death had nothing to do with black people but was a disease from Europe and Asia.
In 1981 when Aids blew up in the United States of America it became known as a diseases of homosexuals. Heterosexual people took their time getting to know and believe that it was their disease as well, and in that long holiday, many were infected and were to die of the pandemic that although now manageable, is still eating away at the world’s population.
Strong and “good science” have brought HIV and Aids firmly under control the world over. In the beginning there were so much stigmata about Aids as a disease of sinners, Satanists and consumers of dark narcotics.
What were called the American Plagues of the long Sixteenth Century, which included Small-Pox, preceded the fall of the Inca and Aztec Empires and their civilisations. The plagues, like the Ten Plagues of Egypt, in the Christian Bible were considered portends that spoke of the defeat and fall of the great Empires of the time. The cold and dry facts are that the diseases were brought to the Americas by sick European explorers that had infiltrated the Americas in different places and posts.
The myths about the diseases and the conspiracies about them led to more deaths than were supposed to be witnessed if the diseases were correctly studied and understood from the beginning.
Cetshwayo Zindabazezwe Mabhena writes from the Wits Centre for Diversity Studies, University of the Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg. Contacts: [email protected]