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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 62 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Plagues and Possibilities

Copyright © 2014 by Ralph Couey

This past year, I received a gift from my sister in the form of a book entitles "A Distant Mirror" by the inestimable Barbara Tuchman. Ms. Tuchman can best be described, not as an historian, but a writer who loves history.  This is a benefit to the reader of her many books, as the writing style is a more lyrical narrative that is easy to read, easy to follow, and a great source for learning.

Her list of books includes "The Guns of August", the history of the complex interrelationships among the European powers that led directly to World War I.  It was a book that seemed to have a beneficial influence on President Kennedy as he maneuvered the U.S., and the world, through the crucible that was the Cuban Missile Crisis.

My sister chose the book on the strength of my research into our family history.  I had been able to peel back the years into pre-Medieval France, capturing a connection, admittedly still ephemeral, to the powerful clan of knights known as de Coucy.  Tuchman's research revealed new details to me about this powerful family, at one point considered stronger than the throne of France.

However interesting that was, I found myself captured by the recount of the human tragedy we know as the Black Plague.

Between 1348 and 1350, a pandemic of Bubonic plague grew out of central Asia, spreading along the primary trading route known as the Silk Road.  The disease hit that region hard.  Rumors reached Europe claiming that as many as 23 million had died in India and some 20 million in China.  The Mongol hordes penetrated to the gateways of Europe, bringing the plague with them.  During the siege of the trading city Caffa in the Crimean, the Mongols catapulted infected bodies over the city's walls,  In terror, the inhabitants fled.  Some went by ship to the port of Marseilles in southern France.  The primary vector of infection, the fleas of infected rats, went with them.  From there, the pestilence spread with terrifying speed.  Within a year, people all over Europe were dying at rates that defy modern comprehension.  Exact numbers are hard to come by, but it is estimated that as much as 60% of all Europeans perished.  World wide, the human population was reduced by 100 million people.

Medical knowledge was not even in infancy in that time.  You could say it was barely fetal.  What care that was available was overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of victims, which included many of the practitioners.  The Plague was ferociously aggressive, killing in as little as five days from the onset of symptoms.  In a culture driven primarily by superstitious religion, it was seen as God's punishment, despite the fact that it killed both saint and sinner, the powerful and the poor.

My degree is in Political Science, and I have used that education to explore the processes of human interaction and humanity's collective response to large-scale stimuli.  I was interested to see how this disaster affected and influenced historical trends.  But my study of this pandemic yielded a far more disquieting question of how the human race today would react to a situation where death came out of the air to strike randomly.

Humans seem to operate best when we feel we have some measure of control over our lives and destinies.  When events spin out of hand and rational thought is replaced by fear, our civilized natures become overwhelmed by the feral instinct of survival.

The Plague might have been the worst disaster in human history.  There have been other tragedies, to be sure.  But those were confined to relatively small areas of size and scope.  At its height, people were dying in stunning numbers from India and China to the British Isles, and from North Africa to the Nordic countries.  Had there been any humans traveling to North America during this time, there is little doubt that the contagion would have spread here as well.  A similar outbreak today would result in a death toll into the billions, spurred by the larger population densities and the airline industry.  Medical science is light years ahead of the 14th century.  Many diseases that routinely killed thousands in the past have been all but eradicated or at least brought under control.   That doesn't mean we're out of the woods. Viral diseases, notably influenza, AIDS, and Ebola still evade advanced medical cures.  In addition, there is a very real fear that bacteriological diseases, tamed by antibiotics, could mutate into forms resistant to those medicines, causing new and even deadlier outbreaks, for which there would be no immediate cure.

What would be our reaction?  How would we behave when confronted by death coming random and unseen?  We'd like to think that we're smarter than the 14th century version of ourselves.  We're better educated, more sophisticated in our knowledge and outlook.  To look around and realize what we have built makes us proud.  Surely we could sustain ourselves through such a desperate time!

It would seem that our accomplishments have become our enemy.  14th century people understood hardship; it defined their lives.  I'm afraid that, deprived of our infrastructure upon which we've become dependent, and faced with death of a singularly nightmarish type, we would revert to animal instincts in fairly short order.  Concerns of life and death would narrow our attentions to a very small circle to the exclusion of everyone else.

That is, I admit, a rather dark and cynical judgment.  After all, the unselfish and neighborly response of people after the violent tornadoes in Kansas and Oklahoma, and post-Katrina in the state of Mississippi may be the sigils of hope that we truly are a better society now.

If that hope can become reality, if we can retain our humanity in the face of crisis, then our survival will be assured.

If not, then the human race will die a craven and cowardly death.
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