It was Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Masque of the Red Death that probably sparked my early fascination with epidemics. I remember checking it out of my elementary school’s library over and over. It both terrified and intrigued me. Prince Prospero is hiding in his castle from a disease ravaging his kingdom known as the Red Death. To celebrate their success in evading the Red Death, he and other nobles host a masquerade ball in the castle. Of course, a person comes dressed as the Red Death, and makes their way through the ball. Only it wasn’t a costume. Letting their guard down in a quarantine, even to have a celebration, was quite literally a fatal mistake for the Prince and his nobles.
As a side note, I wonder if a story about disease, death, and quarantine was “appropriate” for an elementary school student to read (I was maybe in third grade?). But that gets into a whole other discussion about what is age appropriate for books – I believe just about any book can be age appropriate as long as there’s an adult willing to answer questions a child might have, and be willing and open to discuss any feelings or fears that might arise.
Poe is hardly the only author to use an epidemic or pandemic in their writing. A cholera epidemic kills the parents of the main character in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. The plague is, naturally, the culprit in Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, based on the plague’s resurgence in London, England in 1665. More modern works, like Stephen King’s The Stand and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera also use epidemics as a story arc.
So, if you’re interested in this sort of thing, support your local small bookstore and see if they can get you any of the above titles for your reading pleasure (and provide no-contact delivery or pickup).
Hard-Learned Lessons from Past Pandemics
WASH YOUR DAMN HANDS.
Governments ignoring or downplaying the disease is fatal – literally.
Keep things as clean and sanitary as possible.
Masks are important to prevent the spread and should be used in conjunction with other precautions.
Social distancing works.
Restrictions may be eased, but that does not mean the threat is gone.
Restrictions, quarantines, and masks are NOT about you. There is a greater good that they are serving.
Are there reasons to worry because of a pandemic? Yes, of course there are – health, mental health, and economic ones, for both you yourself and your loved ones. But let cool heads prevail. We now know so much more about how diseases spread than they did in the Black Death period, and doctors now rarely recommend the use of leeches to suck out the bad blood. Listen to the experts. Stay at home unless it is absolutely necessary to leave. Utilize services such as no-contact drop off or curbside pickup of groceries and other food items. If you must leave your home, wear a mask, and use soap and water (preferred) or hand sanitizer (decent) after touching things. Be aware of your surroundings and avoid people who make the decision to flaunt guidelines and restrictions. Maintain caution even after restrictions are eased – remember, it was the second wave of the 1918 Flu that was the deadliest. A little common sense and empathy will mean more of us make it through this, and future, pandemics.
One thing that’s helped my mental health during this quarantine is imagining what social changes we’re seeing (workplace flexibility, healthcare system changes, basic income, and I didn’t even go into how many of the more recent epidemics have started from eating animals, and so on) that, with some organizing, could become full-time realities. Maybe examine one thing you’d like to see change from this pandemic and commit yourself to working towards that greater goal, starting now and continuing once we’ve gotten to a point of a cure. I also adopted a kitten about a month and a half before Pennsylvania shut down, and she has been fantastic for my mental health. So, when in doubt (and provided you have the resources), adopt an animal who needs a home.
A lifetime fascination with the Black Death and Yersinia pestis, including a visit to Italy to see some of the sites where the plague hit particularly hard.
Barnett, Frances Hodgson. The Secret Garden; The American Magazine; 1911
Camus, Albert: The Plague; 1947 (French), 1948 (English)
Defoe, Daniel: A Journal of the Plague Year; E. Nutt; 1722
He, et al.: Inferring the causes of the three waves of the 1918 influenza pandemic in England and Wales; Proceedings. Biological Sciences; 2013
King, Stephen: The Stand; Doubleday; 1978
Marquez, Gabriel Garcia: Love in the Time of Cholera; Alfred A. Knopf (US); 1985 (Spanish), 1988 (English)
McKenna, David: Eyam Plague: The Village of the Damned; BBC.com; November 5, 2016
Monty Python and the Holy Grail; Python, Monty, et al.; EMI Films; 1975
Poe, Edgar Allan: The Masque of the Red Death; 1842
Routt, David: The Economic Impact of the Black Death; Economic History Association; undated
Anne E. Lynch is the Executive Director of Three Rivers Community Foundation, an organization dedicated to funding progressive social change in the Southwestern Pennsylvania region. She graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a BA in anthropology and a minor in history. She penned On This Day in Pittsburgh’s Progressive History, a small book with important events and people from the region that furthered social justice, and from that developed the Progressive History of Pittsburgh Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/ProgressiveHistoryOfPittsburgh/). She is also the author of two cookbooks under her Vegan Goddess persona. She has some odd passions, however, one of which is the history and imagery of the Black Death and other plague outbreaks.
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