A Lesson From History: Why The New Black Death Outbreak Isn't Really That Serious
Updated: Jul 28
I could sit here now and bleat on about the reaction of the tabloid press to the reports coming out of China of a new outbreak of the Black Death or bubonic plague, but that's now become money for old rope. To be honest, it's probably more interesting to focus attention onto the reaction of us normal folk, which I suppose is fed by the media themselves. It's all a vicious circle.
As I sit and write this, the phrase Black Death is trending on Twitter, as people relate the current outbreak to the Black Death of 1348, one of the deadliest pandemics in the last two millennia. What people don't seem to have grasped at this current moment is that the understanding of medicine has changed since the 14th century. We aren't going to see another 50 million killed as happened during the Middle Ages. The disease does still infect a small amount of people each year, modestly thought to be anything from 1000-2000, including a small handful in the USA, but that's nowhere near the numbers experienced hundreds of years ago.
It's important to stress that we're a lot more clued up about medicine now than back in the middle of the 14th century. For a start, there's a vaccine against the plague - there has been since 1890, and therefore, unlike the current pandemic which is still very much raging across the world, the plague can easily be treated by a course of antibiotics - it's caused by bacteria, not a virus. More important however is the fact that medical science has advanced a lot in the last seven-hundred or so years. Back in the Middle Ages, the average life expectancy was anything from 30 to 35 years old, and methods of disease prevention were primitive by modern standards. People continued to believe in the idea of phlebotomy (blood-letting), leeches and the supernatural - the Black Death was blamed on anything from God sending a punishment, the wrong alignment of planets or that it was caused by miasma - foul air. If it's any other proof that medical science has moved on, people also believed that miasma caused other diseases such as cholera and chlamydia.
For more proof, the general public still went on the teachings of Galen and Hippocrates, centuries-old teachings even by standards in the Middle Ages. That teaching was administered by the Church and the books written by monks. Galen's Four Humours (Phlegm, Black Bile, Yellow Bile, Blood) were still the cornerstone explanation of any illness - if they became unbalanced, you then became ill. By contrast, in modern times, as society has become more secular, the Church's influence has waned and science has been at the forefront of modern medicine for at least three hundred years or more.
This new Black Death isn't anything majorly serious, despite what you may see people discussing on social media. People may choose to bring up death figures from six-hundred-and-seventy years ago to suit their argument, but it's always important to check the dates associated with any facts or figures as odds-on, they'll be outdated. When people bring up the fact that the Black Death wiped out half the world's population, it cultivates a startling reaction amongst others, or when they quote the fact that it killed anything from 50 to 200 million people, it sends people berzerk, especially given that they don't check the facts.
It seems that people aren't using context or fact-checking when reading anything at the moment. Yes, 2020 has been one of the most topsy-turvy years so far in recent memory, but that doesn't mean it's right to take the disaster film line of "We're all going to die!". Instead, read around and check the sources and lines they're taking - it's how proper and rational decisions are made - and if you do see something as out-there as another outbreak of the bubonic plague, be sure to check your facts to see if the hysteria is justified.