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What historians can learn from the coronavirus crisis

No two pandemics are ever the same. The current coronavirus crisis, for instance, is clearly very different from the deadly plague outbreaks in the 14th and 15th centuries. Can historians learn anything from the coronavirus crisis? And what can we learn at the moment from historians? These are questions that historian Claire Weeda discusses every week with History students in her course ‘The plague and the city’.

What does the speed of an epidemic’s spread tell us about mobility?

Coronavirus was able to spread very quickly because people travel all over the world. The same was true for the plague, a disease that also – like coronavirus – originally came from China. Journeys for the purpose of trade, advancing armies and pilgrimages contributed to spreading the bacteria. The speed of the epidemic’s spread and the routes that it took give us an insight into those historical networks. Just like today, people in the 14th century understood that mobility goes hand in hand with spreading disease, so much of the transport by land and sea was suspended back then as well.

Claire Weeda

How were measures against spreading the epidemic communicated in those days?

Today, thanks to internet, telephones and media, worldwide communication is easy and fast. There are global organisations that issue advice, and countries can share their knowledge of the virus with one another. In the 15th century, too, cities and regions exchanged their strategies for most effectively protecting themselves against the plague. However, we know very little about how this was organised in those days. The importance of interregional cooperation has become particularly evident during this coronavirus crisis, while other crucial questions include who is in charge and how much do we listen to medical authorities.

‘My lecture series was overtaken by events’

A year ago, university lecturer Claire Weeda was planning a lecture series on ‘the response to the plague outbreak in Europe and the Arabic world’. This is normally a historical subject, but at the beginning of this year it suddenly became much more topical. ‘My lecture series was overtaken by events,’ says Weeda. ‘Every week from early February, we discussed the latest developments in the coronavirus crisis. In the first week I was explaining what quarantine was, but by week seven we were in quarantine ourselves. Although it’s obviously a most distressing situation, the coronavirus pandemic raises many interesting new questions about history. We discuss in detail the relevance of historical research for the present-day crisis, and vice versa. And now we all have a much better understanding of what it’s like to live in a society stricken by infectious diseases. It makes you much more able to empathise.’

How does a pandemic affect hygiene?

Washing your hands, maintaining a distance of 1.5 metres, disinfecting the staircase on a regular basis: it appears that these and other coronavirus measures are gradually having the desired effect. Hygiene was also one of the weapons used to combat the plague in the 14th and 15th centuries. The government introduced more frequent waste collections, and bed linen and clothes were washed more often. These hygiene measures already existed before the plague, but they became stricter. Although doctors in those days assumed that the disease was caused by a miasma, a noxious marsh mist emanating from rotting organic matter, they also took account of person-to-person transmission.

How do you maintain living in quarantine in the longer term?

At the moment, everyone has to stay at home and work from home as much as possible. People also knew in the 15th century that quarantine was the first and most effective way to stop the plague from spreading. The sick were placed in home isolation, and anyone who came into contact with them had to carry a white stick outdoors. Special places were later designated to isolate the sick from the rest of society. The Plague House in Leiden is one example. Just like today, it seems that governments tried to find strategies to make sure that people maintained the quarantine, and they therefore mostly avoided imposing total restriction on their freedom of movement. For example, plague nurses could attend their own special chapels, and convalescents were allowed to go out onto the streets before the morning bell was rung. This raises the question of how much resistance there was to quarantine, how governments dealt with it, and how they extended their own powers in response to epidemics. These questions are also relevant for the relationship between economic interests and health interests.

The Plague House in Leiden, with the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in the background.

What is the relationship between epidemics and stigmatisation of specific groups?

Soon after the outbreak of coronavirus, people started to look for the source of all the trouble. Especially in the first few months – before the disease had spread to Europe – there were instances of Chinese people being subjected to racist treatment or insults. In the 14th century it was mainly the Jews who were blamed: they were sometimes accused of spreading the plague by poisoning wells. From the 15th century, the plague was increasingly seen as a disease of poor people, whose bad hygiene and living conditions made the disease particularly prevalent among them. Today we see that people who can’t afford to go into quarantine, who don’t have a permanent contract, or who work in professions where quarantine is impossible, are sometimes at greater risk. What does this tell us about the course of the disease in the former times and people’s perceptions of the plague? Which social and economic groups were hardest hit, and why?

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