17th century plague doctor

PPE in the 1600s. Herbs & salts were stuffed in the beak, and the clothes were coated with wax. Not so different from PPE today, really.

Are we living through a plague?

Medically, no.

A plague, in medical terms, refers to a specific family of illnesses. It’s bacterial, and gets to humans through fleabites. Plague is treatable with antibiotics. It was a terrible scourge for many centuries, but at this point it’s relatively rare.

The novel coronavirus, on the other hand, is not caused by a living organism like a bacterium. Viruses are not alive, and antibiotics don’t kill them. It’s interesting that evolutionary forces work on things that aren’t alive — when they propagate successfully, viruses thrive.

In a non-medical sense we are living through a plague: in plague’s other meaning, as a calamity, a dreadful evil. As in, a plague of locusts, or, to a family member who drinks their coffee too noisily, stop plaguing me.

The Practice of Sheltering Goes Way Back

And though we’re not living through a plague as scientifically defined, we are now practicing measures developed in response to plagues of long, long ago. Though people in the 14th century didn’t know what air was composed of — or if it was composed of anything at all — and had no way of seeing tiny particles like bacteria or viruses, they could tell that the Black Death spread from person to person, ship to shore, house to house. So they made efforts to isolate people, as we’re doing now.

14th century Venetians invented quarantine — our word is taken from an Italian phrase, quaranta giorni, meaning forty days. They suffered much more than we are now: Discover Magazine quotes archaeologists who say that on a quarantine island outside Venice, hundreds of bodies were apparently buried on top of each other in layers, “like lasagna.”

Like modern sufferers, Venetian and other governments had problems telling who was sick in time to sequester them. They didn’t have tests, either. And so, like now, authorities often confined the well with the sick.

As Does Our Lack of Mobility

Halting mobility to stop the spread of a disease, another practice recently (and sporadically, through the centuries) revived from the Renaissance era, is called cordon sanitaire. Perhaps the most famous example is from 1665, when a small village in England called Eyam imposed a travel restriction on itself and probably saved thousands of lives in surrounding areas, though 3/4 of its own population died of the plague.

Their cordon sanitaire was used as a firebreak — a wall preventing disease from marching across a country. Our current “shelter in place” is doing the same thing, county by county but also house by house. By walling ourselves off from contact, each of us is sparing our neighbors from possible infection.

It’s not the plague. But in many ways, we are living with some of the same effects.