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Of Pandemics, Epidemics, and Plagues

Do you sense it, too? That strange feeling in the air that things are somehow “different;” that the rules have changed, and nobody told us; that there’s a disturbance in the “Force;” that magnetic North has moved a few degrees to the West?

The last time I felt it this strong was in countries, Greece and the Philippines, that had recently declared martial law. I certainly don’t think that’s where we are going, but it makes the hair rise on the back of my neck.

I was thinking today about the boxing team I coached on the Battleship New Jersey in the early 80s. It had eight members. Four of them, two all-Navy boxers out of East St. Louis, Illinois, who were twin brothers; a baby-faced, fly-weight assassin from Kentucky; and a smiling, natural-born killer from Texas;  referred to themselves as the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse:” Death, Famine, War, and Plague. Take your choice with these dudes and say your prayers – whichever one you draw; you are going to lose.

One of the twins, who thought of  himself as the “Plague,” and who could have been the prototype for Samuel L. Jackson’s scripture-quoting hit man in the movie, Pulp Fiction, knew the Bible and liked to quote that passage from the prologue to the Book of Job where God asks Satan where he’s coming from and Satan replies: “From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it” (KJV 2:2).

The plague walking the earth today, however, at least metaphorically, is the coronavirus. Of course, it’s not actually “the” plague, which is a specific, contagious bacterial disease, characterized by fever and delirium, typically with the formation of buboes (bubonic plague) or sometimes inflammation of the lungs (pneumonic plague). However, the term, “plague,” often gets conflated with a host of other maladies, for example, as in the Biblical plagues of Egypt, which included water turned to blood, frogs, lice or gnats, wild animals or flies, pestilence of livestock, boils, thunderstorms of hail and fire, and locusts. The plagues of the Book of Revelation further “bring sores on all those with the mark of the beast, turns the sea to blood, dries up the rivers, scorches the earth with fire, and causes mighty earthquakes.”

Historically, people have trotted out the term, “plague,” euphemistically, whenever confronted with wide, uncontrolled outbreaks of a deadly, contagious disease they didn’t really understand, whether it was smallpox, malaria, cholera, even the flu. More clearly, however, there is a “progression” by which the spread of disease is measured.

Some diseases are “endemic;” they exist permanently in a particular region or population. Malaria and yellow fever would be good examples. Sixty years ago, when a ship went through the Panama Canal, you could still see the wreckage (cranes, pumps, etc.)  of the failed French attempt to build a sea-level canal. It was a crackpot idea, pushed by Ferdinand de Lesseps, who had successfully designed and built the Suez Canal in Egypt.

However, he had forgotten to plan for a little thing called the Continental Divide, which would necessitate a series of locks to raise and lower ships. The biggest problems, however, were yellow fever and malaria which killed thousands of workers. It is said that when new engineers arrived in Panama from France, they brought along their own coffins since the death rate was so high. It took a Cuban doctor, Carlos Finlay, to figure out that mosquito was the carrier of both diseases. This knowledge, and the control of the pest, enabled the United States to finally complete the canal.

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