Lessons from the Black Death regarding coronavirus

The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague” by Dorsey Armstrong, a professor at Purdue, talks about places that were spared from most of the waves of plague that swept through Europe starting in 1348.

If we don’t want to die from coronavirus, what can we do?

Iceland was an example of a place that escaped plague for more than 50 years. It took a long time to reach Iceland by ship so asymptomatic carriers of the plague couldn’t walk off into port in Iceland. More likely they, and all of their crewmates, would die before reaching Iceland.

People today travel by plane, however, which is nearly instantaneous. So the “far away by ship” advantage does not seem likely to be realized by any country today.

Finland remained substantially plague-free, says the author, despite having land borders with Sweden, Norway, and Russia, as well as being integrated into the sea trading network of the time that had spread the disease so quickly throughout the Mediterranean and to the British Isles. The secret in Finland was low population density.

Wikipedia says, regarding the influenza pandemic of 1918: “In the U.S., about 28% of the population of 105 million became infected, and 500,000 to 675,000 died (0.48 to 0.64 percent of the population).” Our population is more than 3X the 1918 level and therefore our population density is more than 3X the 1918 level. So the Finland trick cannot work for Americans in general. But maybe for an individual American it could. Move to a non-urban area of a spread-out state, e.g., Alaska or Wyoming. Follow Barbra Streisand and the rest of the Hollywood #Resist crowd to Canada (or pick a different low-density country, such as Argentina).

The professor says that governments that shut down or severely restricted links to the outside world ended up saving most of their citizens and/or subjects. So maybe North Korea or a similarly restricted nation will be comparatively safe?

The professor says that cities with good sanitation did not escape the plague, but death rates were lower. So Japan and Switzerland might have fewer cases of coronavirus? “Mortality burden of the 1918–1919 influenza pandemic in Europe” says that Switzerland was not significantly different from France (but sparsely populated Finland suffered only half the death rate).

Integrating what we know from the Black Death and present-day statistics and conditions, Iceland and New Zealand seem like the most obvious places to run for a re-enactment of the Decameron. They’re islands. They have lower population densities than the U.S. They have comfortably high living standards. However, we need to cross Iceland off the list due to the fact that it operates an international airline hub. People from more than 50 different countries might show up on a typical evening. That leaves… New Zealand.

Fun fact: We get the word “quarantine” from the Venetian government’s requirement that ships coming into Dubrovnik wait at a nearby island for 40 days before coming into contact with the townspeople.

At least we’ll never have to worry about plague per se, again, right? Actually… the bacterium has evolved antibiotic resistance in Madagascar (CDC) and the fleas that carry it have evolved insecticide resistance.

5 thoughts on “Lessons from the Black Death regarding coronavirus

  1. The CDC maintains some very informative pages on the 1918 Spanish Flu virus, which was actually sequenced and reconstructed in U.S. laboratories during the early ’00s. They used virus particles harvested from victims as far away as Alaska, and a couple of victims from American military bases.

    Spanish Flu was extremely virulent and deadly. It killed 72 out of 80 members of a remote Alaskan town populated by mostly Inuit natives in five days. Living in a far-flung remote area of the world didn’t save them. World War I killed something like 20 million people and then Spanish Flu killed another 50 million.


    Check out the picture of Johan Hultin from 1951 sucking some of the virus into a pipette with his mouth! There’s one brave guy.

    “Note: using one’s mouth to draw virus into a pipette is not considered a safe laboratory practice today. Laboratory safety practices have improved significantly in modern times.”

  2. The mane threat of coronavirus is the economic impact of being quarantined. You don’t want to be quarantined if you’re not a homeowner benefiting from the government’s .5% emergency mortgage rate cut.

    The plague caused marriages between classes by killing off the rich, something that could cause pandemonium today. Would modern, upwardly mobile millenials actually consider men of lower finances & higher fitness if their boyfriends got knocked off by their executive shindigs in China? They’re not exactly progressive feudals.

    • So, how do you get to New Zealand? By plane, I assume. The virus will be flying too, perhaps even first class.

      > If we don’t want to die from coronavirus, what can we do?
      No testing is the best choice, and that’s exactly what we are doing as of today. No testing means no coronavirus casualties, although some may die of other causes.
      For consolation, read the NY Times op-eds before going to bed every night: they will explain how the risk is very low because there are so few known cases.

  3. Being a GA pilot for 10 years = catching the corona virus once, in terms of mortality, statistically speaking.

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