Opium against cholera, veterans behind glass, and persecution of Jews: how humanity protected itself from viruses

Features of the quarantine — from Black Death to COVID-19

The current restrictive measures related to the COVID-19 pandemic are far from the first in human history. Now, for people who have been weaned from global epidemics for 100 years, the restriction of public places and the requirement to wear personal protective equipment seem egregious and unusual. Nevertheless, a couple of centuries ago, the measures taken in the face of an epidemiological threat were so severe that the current ones seem only light inconveniences against their background. For example, exactly 581 years ago, kissing was banned in England because of the plague. Realnoe Vremya recalls this and other historical facts related to the prevention of epidemics.

Quarantine and lazaret: Italy as trend maker

The word “quarantine” has Italian roots. It appeared from the phrase quaranta giorni — “forty days”. This is the time during which all vessels coming into the ports of Italy in the period of regular epidemics that occurred in Europe had to observe isolation. For the first time this practice appeared in the 14th century in Venice. Where this period came from, given that epidemiology was not developed at all, it is difficult to establish, but there is a clear correlation with religious beliefs: the Flood lasted for 40 days and 40 nights, the same length of the temptation of Christ, the duration of the Great Lent is “tied” to the number "40" in one way or another.

It is interesting to recall here another word related to medicine and coming from the same area of Italy. After the plague of 1348 (known as the Black Death), the Doge of Venice established a quarantine on the island of Lazaretto, four kilometres from the centre of Venice. The name of the island served as the basis for the word “lazaret” that exists in many languages. However, the name of the island itself, apparently, came from the name of the knights of the Order of Saint Lazarus — they were engaged in the care of patients with leprosy, also known as leprosy.

The Jews were often accused of spreading the Black Death. Photo: wikipedia.org

Black Death: blaming Jews and isolating them by bricking up doors

The Black Death is the second plague pandemic in history, with its peak occurring in 1346-1353. It appeared on the territory of China after climate disasters that led to the migration of rodents, which contributed to the spread of the disease. In China, the epidemic was around 1331 and reached Europe 15 years later. It took the lives of a third of the population (15-25 million people). At the same time, if in England from the plague there died from 30% to 50% of the population, then, for example, in Poland the figures were much lower — about 15%. The main reasons for this are as follows: agrarian Poland had a significantly lower population density than the Mediterranean countries, the largest European trade routes did not pass through Poland, and the country's borders were closed.

There are two interesting features associated with the plague pandemic of that time. A relatively low percentage of deaths from the plague were recorded in Milan. Here the reason is a strict quarantine, and the word “strict” means much more drastic measures than now — the sick were isolated together with their families in their homes, laying doors and windows with bricks.

The Jews were often accused of spreading the Black Death. Allegedly, they deliberately poisoned wells and water sources with the spread of the plague in order to destroy Christianity. In addition to “conventional” anti-Semitism, such accusations were based on that Jews were less likely to be infected with the plague. The fact that Jews were less likely to “catch” the plague is now attributed mainly to two reasons: first, they lived in closed communities and communication with people “from the outside” was reduced to a minimum, and second, they had more developed hygiene procedures. They often washed their hands and regularly took a bath, which at that time the Europeans didn't do.

The most famous was the mask with a long “beak”. Photo: wikipedia.org

Plague costume: beak, garlic and intimidating the disease with its appearance

The famous “plague costume” — a kind of classic dress of plague doctors in the current presentation — appeared later by about three centuries. It was introduced by French doctor Charles de Lorme in 1619. Before that, plague doctors wore a variety of clothes.

The costume from de Lorme was “inspired” by the leather armor of the infantry troops. It consisted of a long overcoat, trousers, gloves, boots, hat, and the famous mask. It was made of leather or canvas soaked in wax. The most famous was the mask with a long “beak”. In addition to the functional purpose (the tip of the beak was filled with strongly smelling medicinal herbs to facilitate breathing when there was an unpleasant smell around), there was also a somewhat “esoteric” aspect: the very sight of mask was supposed to “repel” the disease. There were two vents in the mask, glass inserts were made for the eyes, and the doctor constantly chewed garlic — it was believed that this would help not to get infected.

Plague riots: Moscow and Sevastopol, dissatisfied with epidemics

As for Russia, during the plague epidemic of 1770-1772, the last major outbreak of the disease in Europe, which came to Moscow during the Russian-Turkish war, there was the famous Moscow plague riot. Against the background of the epidemic, Moscow Archbishop Ambrose imposed a ban on holding prayers at the Bogolyubsky Icon of the Mother of God. Ambrose thus tried to prevent a mass gathering of people. But people did not appreciate it — they believed that the icon saved from the illness. As a result, the crowd looted the Chudov and Donskoy monasteries, the archbishop himself was killed, and then began to rob rich houses, quarantine and plague hospitals.

Another “plague riot” took place 60 years later in Sevastopol. During the next war with Turkey, a cholera epidemic began in southern Russia, which was initially mistaken for the plague. In May 1828, a quarantine cordon was established around Sevastopol, in the summer of 1829, the quarantine was tightened — all visitors to the city had to stay in the quarantine zone for 2-3 weeks, and in March 1830, residents were forbidden to leave their homes at all. In May, this ban was lifted, but in one of the villages the quarantine was extended for another week, and then for two more. As a result, residents formed an armed resistance, which was joined by the military. The quarantine was lifted.

The plague riot of 1771, watercolour by Ernest Lissner. Photo: wikipedia.org

Opium against cholera and Pushkin on self-isolation

This cholera epidemic contributed to other riots, this time “cholera” one. They were connected, as in the case of Sevastopol, with dissatisfaction with the quarantine. The epidemic itself, having started in the South, began to move further to the North of the country: from Astrakhan to Saratov and Tambov. A month later (by the end of September 1830), it reached Moscow and Tver, and by June 1831, it reached Saint Petersburg.

Movement between cities was then very difficult — they had to spend 14 days in each outpost. In addition to “protective” measures, the following solutions were offered: people were recommended to wipe their hands and body with lime chloride as a precautionary measure, “questionable” patients were subjected to two-week observation. It was considered effective to “smoke” people, premises and things with sulphur. As a treatment, it was offered “opium ingestion”, bloodletting, rubbing the body with alcohol.

A quarantine was also declared — this is how Pushkin's famous Boldino Autumn appeared in 1830, which is considered to be the most productive creative time in the writer's life. Pushkin spent 3 months at Bolshoe Boldino estate (on the territory of today's Nizhny Novgorod Oblast), from September to December, and he could leave for Moscow on the third attempt, despite the quarantine. Two years later, in 1832, the death penalty was introduced in Russia for non-compliance with the quarantine.

The measures that were taken during the largest pandemic of the 20th century, the Spanish flu, are already very similar to the current ones. Photo: wikipedia.org

Spanish flu and COVID-19: protective screens and ban on spitting

The measures that were taken during the largest pandemic of the twentieth century, the Spanish flu, are already very similar to the current ones and are much more humane than those taken in the past. For example, in the United States, a ban on public meetings was introduced — trips to bars, theatres, churches and schools were banned. In Chicago, the sick were forbidden to leave their homes, at the same time, there was an instruction to wear protective masks or cover their face with a handkerchief. It is interesting that along with this, for example, people were forbidden to spit in the street — for this they were fined.

In the 21st century, during the current COVID-19 pandemic, measures remain roughly the same — except that various personal protective equipment has become more sophisticated. For example, a respirator can protect the person who wears it (as opposed to a mask that protects others). Masks appeared in a very wide variety (however, the effectiveness of many of their types raises questions). In stores and other retail outlets, protective screens have become ubiquitous — which separate the seller from the buyers.

Similar screens were used in Kazan during the Victory Day parade on June 24 — such partitions “separated” veterans from each other for safety reasons. By the way, similar devices — face shields — are now quite easy to buy and wear on a permanent basis. So, compared to past centuries, the current pandemic passes as easily as possible — at least in terms of the ease with which personal protective equipment can be applied.

By Maksim Matveev