Among the Peasants

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So I was looking for a book located somewhere in this house, The Black Death. Yesterday that led me to a complete sidetrack with wayward animals, and I never made it back to my search. I have been thinking about this book, a history book group selection, for some time now, inasmuch as it details the horrendous plague of the 1300s.

I don’t know that we can call that a worldwide pandemic, because airplanes didn’t get to the “New World” as often back then, and I believe those residents were spared for another 150 years, until Europeans thoughtfully gifted smallpox and other contagions that were easily every bit as lethal. And I’m not sure how far it spread into Africa, mostly because I’m unaware of scholars who devote a lot of research into the preliterate Sub-Sahara. (There must be such people; I’m just unaware of them.)

Since I can’t find my book without actually looking, we will turn to the internet for a quick review: Originating out of the East via a single ship docking in Genoa, Italy, the bubonic plague devastated Eurasia and northern Africa, wiping out an estimated quarter to possibly a third of the population in about four years, 1347-1351.

It didn’t really go away, and there were resurgences later that century and more along the way, breaking out in England at least into the late 1600s. So let’s not get too hopped up on thinking that wishing bad germs away will make it so.

But what I’ve been wondering about, and why I’d like to go back to my book, which I read several years ago, is the quotidian existence of Europeans during this time. As most of us go about our daily lives right now in altered fashion, and argue at a global level about whether wishful thinking is the proper approach, it makes me wonder about our forbears, who generally weren’t terribly literate themselves and thus didn’t leave a lot of blogs for me to look through.

If people around you are dying at the rate of every fourth or third person, do you just pick up your scythe and head out to work, hoping you didn’t grab the Grim Reaper’s by mistake? Do you shelter in place, hunkered down with your beads wishfully praying this pestilence gone? Do you argue about the efficacy of masks, because if your noble doesn’t wear one, you won’t either?

While our technology has improved and literacy rates have soared to the point where everyone who wants to post their ramblings for the world to see can easily do just that, and in theory our knowledge has progressed past the point where we kill the dogs and cats in misguided blaming that really then leaves the pestilence-carrying fleas free to hitch rides on humans, so far I’m not feeling like we’re approaching this pandemic any better than our 14th-century brethern and sistern.

There’s an entire globe of examples out there, and we have much faster access to their information than when pestilence-filled ships brought their misery to the New World, which, despite being a completely different disease, is estimated to have wiped out a full quarter or more of the population. Sound familiar?

If you take, for instance, three countries we often lump together due to their Scandinaviousness, Norway, Sweden and Finland —

[Since high school I have used this mnemonic to keep them in order: National Science Foundation. That may not be such a good remembrance these days.]

— we can see very different thought processes at work. I have to say, Sweden has surprised me with its “live and let die” approach. I doubt they’re calling it this, but they said they trusted their countrypeople to use common sense and self-social distance with the aim of building up “herd immunity” while not shutting down their economy.

I don’t have economic numbers at hand, just viral, but Norway and Finland have 4 and 5 deaths per 100,000 people, while Sweden has 32. Of course, Sweden is now squabbling with Britain over whose approach was better, because up until the British prime minister got sick, his approach was similar to Sweden’s — and then the country went on lockdown, voluntarily tanking the economy. Britain’s death rate? 48.

In Australia and New Zealand, they went into strict lockdown early on, and are just now emerging. New Zealand, a small set of islands, has had 21 deaths, not per 100,000 (that’s .4), but total. The prime minister of Australia, vilified not so many months ago for his poor response to raging wildfires, has seen his street cred rise by more than 30 percentage points since adapting a bipartisan approach to ugly viruses, and to date the Australians have 97 deaths, or that same .4 per 100,000.

There are those theorizing that these countries have been aided by their hot summer weather, but Brazil seems to be in a reasonably comparable latitude, and while its official rate is 5 per 100,000, many think — as bodies pile up in the streets — that number is grossly under reported.

I did find this downright ironic: the governor of Florida, who never wanted his state locked down and welcomed spring breakers even after the dangers of doing so became apparent, said this: “Brazil has great scientific and economic capacity, but clearly its leadership has an unscientific stance on fighting coronavirus.”

In fact, the Brazilian response, which somehow has been marked by the United States as rather unhinged, features denial of the scale of the threat, anger at the lockdowns imposed by state governors, and deep rifts between the president and some of his cabinet officials. This darling of the right spends a lot of time on Facebook, downplaying the virus and raging at the World Health Organization.

When asked last week by a reporter about the 5,500 confirmed deaths, Bolsanaro shrugged and replied, “So what? I’m sorry. What do you want me to do?” Brazil has a “woefully insufficient testing operation.” The health minister has left his post, among other reasons, because of Bolsanaro’s touting of untested hxdroyochloroquine as a miracle cure, and the justice minister has also left, because the president is trying to hinder investigations into his sons. He rails against the media and the left.

I’m sorry; what country are we talking about again?

You’d like to think, wouldn’t you, that in this day and age of reason and enlightenment, or at least easy access to technology, that our human response to pandemic would be more thought-out than those that took place when people were considered less learned.

Although, if you read what history there is of the common people, you find this continuum straight from the first scribblings through to today’s pixillated ramblings: people love, hate, fear, champion, ignore, protest and cheer exactly the same way. We always have, and we probably always will.

I just wish — and here’s my wishful try-to-think-things-away — that since we have it at our fingertips, that we would try paying attention to the science. Or at least not revel in our ignorance. I suppose I might just as well trying swinging my scythe at the virus.

Niece Emily (not to be confused with niece Ellie) posted this on her Facebook page, although who knows where it originated:

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