Monday, August 21, 2017

Get Well Soon

Blackstone Audio, February 2017

Not everyone enjoys books about the history of plagues. I don't know why.

Well, all right, I do know. But I've always found them fascinating.

This is an overview of some of the greatest plagues in the recorded history of the world, starting with the Antonine plague in Rome under Marcus Aurelius, and ending with AIDS.  What Wright is focused on is less the medical details than the way both people generally and government and social leadership responded.

Plagues are always terrifying, and in the absence of effective medical treatment, the natural human response is fear. Believing that disease was spread by miasma, i.e., bad-smelling air, wholly ineffective and sometimes really damaging methods are used in useless efforts to stop it.

What Wright finds is that strong leadership, whether pragmatic or compassionate, makes a huge difference. Marcus Aurelius subsidized the cost of funerals, so that people could dispose of their family members with dignity--and so that bodies didn't pile up in the streets, spreading both panic and more disease. In contrast, in response to the emergence of AIDS in the 1980s, the Reagan administration laughed at it when they didn't completely ignore it. They blamed the victims, and weren't interested in seriously funding the search for the infectious agent that caused it. Of course, this was in the late 20th century, and unlike during the Roman Empire, we had far more developed ways of dealing with the dead whose families either couldn't afford, or refused to bury them. Yet many of the sick found themselves rejected by their families, blocked from attending school, shunned by the people who should have helped them. Elected politicians suggested AIDS sufferers should be quarantined in camps, or even killed.

And this is not just a difference between ancient Rome and modern America. Both patterns of response have been shown in different places at different times. Franklin Delano Roosevelt helped lead, even in the midst of depression and war, huge advances in the care of polio patients and in research into polio. Dwight Eisenhower, when the Salk vaccine was developed, took immediate steps to ensure no child would miss out on being vaccinated because their families couldn't afford it. I remember, as a young child, standing in a school gymnasium to line up for the free distribution of the polio vaccine. In the 19th century, the then Kingdom of Hawaii quarantined leprosy patients in a colony without even the most basic social and infrastructure supports, and conditions were horrific until the arrival of a Belgian Roman Catholic missionary, Father Damian.

In the course of  this examination of the history of plagues, Wright gives us stories that are terrifying, heartwarming, and more often than you might expect, funny. It's interesting, enlightening, and compelling.

Highly recommended.

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