A date with death: Time travel through plagues and pandemics – Lifestyle News

By Soma Das

It’s not a time machine for the faint-hearted. Authors Julia Hauser, a Germany-based modern historian, and Sarnath Banerjee, a graphic book artist, have collaborated on a graphic non-fiction, The Moral Contagion, that takes us on a ride through sixth-century Constantinople, 14th-century Europe, 17th-century London to 18th-century Aleppo, 19th- and early 20th-century Hong Kong, Bombay, San Francisco, disembarking us at station Covid-19 pandemic, the world at large in the 21st century.

The book—an accessible albeit a bit oversimplified read—is a broad-stroke attempt to wake us up from the collective global amnesia about plagues and pandemics, and the behavioural responses of people to a survival trigger of an epidemic. “Those who developed symptoms were left to die alone… people died so rapidly that church towers stopped ringing bells for the dead. Funerals were abolished because of the threat they posed to health” or ‘Houses whose inhabitants had caught the disease were quarantined…their doors marked…” have not been extracted from the chapter on Covid-19.Meet Sheila Singh, mother-in-law of MS Dhoni – She is the CEO of a Rs 800 crore company: Take a look at her journey and net worthAnant Ambani’s pre-wedding celebrations clock in at Rs 1200 crore, wedding bill is to cost approximately…From dishwasher to dosa king: The inspiring journey of Jayaram Banan, the founder of Sagar RatnaFrom dishwasher to dosa king: The inspiring journey of Jayaram Banan, the founder of Sagar Ratna

These are descriptions from chapters on epidemics in Florence and London a few hundred years ago. The nub of these echoes of outbreaks across generations is how strikingly similar the human response has been through the timescale. Unknown and invisible threats to life— pathogens—have stoked up a heady cocktail of superstition and misinformation from ancient to post-modern times. They have conjured images of apocalypse. “The end is near. In three days’ time, the sea will rise and it will swallow everything”. “Harvests had failed… Through the bed of the river, a large number of serpents had come up”, “fishermen saw… boats with figures sitting in them, whose heads seemed to have been severed” according to historical accounts of sixth-century Constantinople (Istanbul). In 1347, when plague had reached Italy, historical accounts claim, “strange phenomena were associated with its onset—earthquakes, balls of fire falling from sky, heavy rainfall missed with worms, frogs and snakes”. Pushed to the brink in these times, people resorted to desperate measures. Wearing petrified lumps of indigestible materials from animals’ intestines as amulets, dried herbs, prayers and magic charm-infused alcohol were not highly uncommon in the plague-infected London of 1666. When someone claimed that throwing earthenware from windows could chase the ‘ghost’ of plague away in Constantinople hundreds of years ago, people started throwing pots and pitchers onto streets. This doesn’t sound too different from banging plates during Covid-19 to create vibrations to drive away the virus.

The plagues and pandemics throughout history have created fault lines across class and ethnicities. “When the plague first hit the city, it was the homeless… who fell prey to it,” the author writes of Constantinople outbreak. In the Hong Kong plague of 1894, the victims were subaltern Chinese, while Europeans were able to secure refuge. When the Chinese got sick, they were taken on board a former warship turned into a hospital, the Hygeia, and other facilities where standards were far lower than hospitals that catered to the Europeans. The sick were placed on the bare ground, and mortality was as high as 90%, and people reported that no one ever came back alive from Hygeia. Patients’ families camped outside the hospital ship to protest. Similar discrimination was seen in San Francisco in the epidemic of 1900 against Chinatown, when police cordoned it off after a working-class Chinese was suspected of dying of bubonic plague in a hotel. Americans argued that rice eaters were more susceptible to plague than meat eaters, and it was an Asian disease afflicting hygiene-deficient people. Over a century later, when hordes of migrants started leaving cities in India for their villages on foot, helpless against Covid-19, when rich countries cornered most vaccines while people in poor countries resigned to their fate, defenceless, the question to be asked is, despite the technological and economic progress over the centuries, has humanity evolved at all on these counts?

The book also explores how extraordinary conditions can bring out different aspects of individuals. As death and darkness raged with the pandemic in London in 1665, so did Samuel Pepys’ libido. A rich man of the time, his diary entries on one hand speak of increasing number of graves, how he feared buying wigs for the fear of wearing a dead man’s wig who had contracted plague, and on the other he describes numerous flings with women of all types, as he left his wife in the countryside to keep her safe. About his experience in the days of doom, he concludes that he had never lived a merrier life. And yet, there are stories of superheroes of the time— scholars, scientists—who jumped into the adversity risking their own lives, to find a solution to the problem at hand. While Ibn Khatib, Ibn Khatima, Ibn Khaldun, chronicled the plague in their intellectual output, Japanese microbiologist Kitasato Shibasaburo and Alexandre Yersin decoded the pathogen during the Hong Kong plague of 1894. At a time when everyone stayed miles off hospitals, Yersin bribed a hospital attendant to let him into the morgue to lay his hands on pus and made a make-shift hospital next to poor hospitals so that he could access bodies for research. The same heroic trait was shown by scientists during Covid-19 who collaborated across nations to develop vaccines in record time.

And, vaccines polarised then as well as now. The Bombay Plague of 1896 follows the story of two sisters—Shirin a medicine student who actively advocated a vaccine, and Mehtab, a follower of nature cure who distributed leaflets advocating cow-dung, not serum, asking patients to dab nature cure on their plague bumps. In this time-travel, some expressions stand out as timeless. “Ultimately, physical harm might have been less frightening to them than being separated from their loved ones,” the book says on why people continued to be with sick relatives despite knowing that it could kill them.

A scholar and a graphic artist are an unusual but interesting combination, and the result is amusing and informative. After all, using graphics to tell the story of the biggest health tragedies is no mean feat. Banerjee’s striking artwork elevates the narration. Seen from the perspective of bringing attention to an important topic as a creative tool, the book succeeds. But the storytelling is not gripping and Banerjee’s images, though brilliant in flashes, do not succeed in building memorable characters that outlast your reading, barring a few. While the book gets full marks on conception and innovation, it could have done better on execution.

As the world leaders pore over the readiness to address Disease X, the next unknown pandemic, one hopes the authors do not get a chance to update this book soon.

Soma Das is the author of The Reluctant Billionaire and an adviser to multiple agencies in the development space.

Book: The Moral Contagion

Authors: Julia Hauser & Sarnath Banerjee

Publisher: HarperCollins

Pp 140, Rs 699

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