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Lessons from the plague

Toward the close of the year 2019 and the first months of 2020, there descended on the populace of Wuhan City in China an illness that at first baffled medical authorities. The illness and deaths spawned a thousand fake videos of people suddenly collapsing on the streets and being ignored by passersby. Also popular were videos of people enjoying “bat soup,” posted to “prove” that the folks only had themselves to blame because the virus was believed to have originated in wild bats.

But the disease, eventually given the name COVID-19, was all too real, and from the borders of Wuhan City and Hubei Province, the contagion rapidly spread to different parts of China. And then people started getting sick in nearby cities and countries: in Hong Kong, already battered by months-long protests, in Shanghai, then on to South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Iran, quickly jumping to the United States and Europe. So virulent was the disease in Italy, in fact, that the entire country has been put on “lockdown.”

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The Philippine government in the early weeks of the contagion said it was merely “investigating” possible cases, including a number of tourists from China who not only flew in (or sailed in cruise ships) surreptitiously to Manila, but also went on leisurely tours to Boracay, Iloilo, and other beach destinations. But now, some 35 cases of COVID-19 have been detected among locals as of Tuesday afternoon, after which health authorities declared that the country was facing a “community outbreak.”

—————-Where do we go from here? What can we expect in the coming weeks of the contagion? There have been several accounts written of the experiences of people and communities during previous outbreaks, and the tales they tell not only sound familiar, but hold lessons for us all.

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In one such account, a chronicler described the “violence of the disease…such that the sick communicated it to the healthy who came near them, just as a fire catches anything dry or oily near it.” The chronicler added: “To speak to or go near the sick brought infection and a common death to the living; and moreover, to touch the clothes or anything else the sick had touched or worn gave the disease to the person touching.”

Almost all survivors “adopted the same cruel policy, which was entirely to avoid the sick and everything belonging to them.” People still unaffected by disease “shut themselves up in houses where there were no sick… allowing no news or discussion of death and illness, and passing the time in music and suchlike pleasures.’’

But the fear and loathing were more widespread. “In this suffering and misery of our city,” writes the chronicler, “the authority of human and divine laws almost disappeared, for, like other men, the ministers and the executors of the laws were all dead or sick or shut up with their families, so that no duties were carried out. Every man was therefore able to do as he pleased.”

Fear drove so many away from all that had been safe and familiar. “Men and women, convinced of this and caring about nothing but themselves, abandoned their own city, their own houses, their dwellings, their relatives, their property, and went abroad or at least to the country… as if God’s wrath in punishing men’s wickedness with this plague would not follow them but strike only those who remained within the walls of the city, or as if they thought nobody in the city would remain alive and that its last hour had come.”

What will a contemporary chronicler have to say about Manila today, in the grip of the COVID-19 hysteria? Certainly, there will be accounts of the long lines in supermarkets where those with disposable income have been stocking up on staples. Also, queues in drugstores of patrons hoping against hope to find remaining stocks of masks, rubbing alcohol, and hand sanitizers. Then, too, the largely empty streets as well as usually busy malls, airports, terminals, churches, and schools emptied of students who have been advised to seek shelter “from God’s wrath.”

(Account is taken from Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio’s introduction to his book “The Decameron,” which centers on the effects of the “Black Death” that ravaged the city of Florence in the 1300s.)

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