Humankind has always feared plagues and the accelerating spread of the coronavirus is no different. Although the global tally for death and infection as of 30 January was low – around 4 500 cases and 170 deaths – that same day confirmed that transmission from someone not displaying any symptoms is possible. That a carrier of the virus can appear to be healthy while harbouring it is a deeply worrying turn in the short and dramatic history of what Chinese President Xi Jinping describes as a “demon” virus.
In what is surely the biggest quarantine operation in history, up to 50 million people are in lockdown, confined to their cities of abode. Travel has been restricted in the country as Chinese officials scramble to implement some of the lessons from earlier medical mass emergencies such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and bird flu.
Of all such life-threatening outbreaks, the bubonic plague that struck Europe in 1347, the influenza at the end of World War I and the repeated instances of Ebola virus in Africa count as the most terrible and poignant. It was fleas on rats that had boarded ships in the Near East bound for the French port of Marseilles that brought the plague. By 1348, the disease had reached Italy, Spain and southern England, and a year later it was killing in Germany, the Netherlands and Central Europe. Death rates were estimated variously at between 10% and 50% of the population; even the lower figure indicates an awful loss of life.
Widely known as the Black Death because of its ghastly symptoms, the plague is nowhere better or more acutely described than in Italian poet and writer Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron. A contemporary of the disease – he lived from 1313 to 1375 – Boccaccio tells 100 short stories in the Decameron. The tales are told by seven women and three men, all of whom have fled the plague-ridden city of Florence for a suburban villa, where they hope to sit out and escape from the disease. Each of the 10 escapee-narrators tells 10 stories, with a set of 10 per day for 10 days (hence the title).
In the preamble to day one of the storytelling, Boccaccio gets to grip with the Black Death. Here, in the translation by John Payne published in a private printing for The Villon Society, London, 1886, is how it is described.
“I say, then, that the years [of the era] of the fruitful Incarnation of the Son of God had attained to the number of one thousand three hundred and forty-eight, when into the notable city of Florence, fair over every other of Italy, there came the death-dealing pestilence, which … had some years before appeared in the parts of the East and after having bereft these latter of an innumerable number of inhabitants, extending without cease from one place to another, had now unhappily spread towards the West …
“Yet not as it had done in the East, where, if any bled at the nose, it was a manifest sign of inevitable death; nay, but in men and women alike there appeared, at the beginning of the malady, certain swellings, either on the groin or under the armpits, whereof some waxed of the bigness of a common apple, others like unto an egg, some more and some less, and these the vulgar named plague-boils.
“From these two parts the aforesaid death-bearing plague-boils proceeded, in brief space, to appear and come indifferently in every part of the body; wherefrom, after awhile, the fashion of the contagion began to change into black or livid blotches, which showed themselves in many [first] on the arms and about the thighs and [after spread to] every other part of the person, in some large and sparse and in others small and thick-sown; and like as the plague-boils had been first (and yet were) a very certain token of coming death, even so were these for every one to whom they came.”
Not all who contract coronavirus will succumb to it. But its power to mask itself and to mutate quickly, to be a stealthy and swift killer, evokes humankind’s deepest fears of death.