By Valson Thampu
01st April 2020
As the killer virus tightens its grip on humankind worldwide, the question presses itself upon us: What shall we do? How shall we respond to this peril? Respond, we have to. Even refusing to respond is also a response, the response of denial. On occasions like this, it could help to recall how such calamities were faced in the past. The Plague—or the Black Death—that ravaged the world in the 14th century offers an instructive case study. Giovani Boccaccio’s Decameron serves our purpose best. It was written a century after the Plague ended its death dance in Europe. Boccaccio outlines four different responses that the Plague —‘the late pestiferous mortality’—evoked from the people of Florence in 1348.
When faced with terrors of the magnitude of the corona pandemic, we face a compelling need to ‘interpret’, or to understand, them; for what is not understood cannot be managed. The people of Florence were divided in how they interpreted the ‘wandering disease’. One group saw it as resulting from the ‘operations of heavenly bodies’, a sort of bolt from the blue. The rest read its significance morally. It portended the wrath of God at human iniquity. The Plague was, thus, a scourge meant for their correction. Boccaccio does not bother to adjudicate between these views. He goes on to record what, to him, was more important: the fact that neither civic authorities nor priests were of any help to the afflicted.
Boccaccio notes that grand systems of support, to which we attach our pride and hope, prove brittle and irrelevant in the face of calamities. What caused the mainstays of support to collapse was the hyper-contagiousness of the infection. Not only did talking or coming into contact with the sick give the infection to the healthy, “. . . the mere touching of the clothes or of whatsoever other thing that had been touched or used by the sick appeared of itself to communicate the malady to the toucher”. To illustrate the point he cites an instance. “The rags of a poor man, who had died of the plague, being cast out into the public way, two hogs came up to them and having….took them in their mouths and tossed them about their jaws…. they both fell down dead upon the rags. ...”
How did the people of Florence respond to a calamity as dreadful as this? Boccaccio lists four response strategies: Some sought safety in living moderately, abstaining from excesses of every kind. They shut themselves in homes that remained uninfected. Tried to divert their attention from the grimness of the situation with ‘music and such other diversions as they had’. Significantly, they quarantined themselves not only from the infected but also from ‘any news from without of the death of sick folks’. As we would say, ‘they quarantined themselves from the media!’
In the second type of response, Florentines took the opposite path. They believed that ‘carousing, making merry and going about singing and frolicking’ was the best remedy. They ‘satisfied the appetite in every possible way’ and ‘scoffed at whatsoever was proposed as the remedy’. They sought to drown their fears in drunken debauchery, mostly, at the expense of others, who became suddenly generous as they were ‘to live no longer’. (Awareness of impending mortality delivers us from acquisitiveness. Irrespective of religion, we begin to believe in the doctrine of maya). Like those of the previous type, Florentines of this kind also ‘shunned the sick to the best of their power’.
The third type adopted a middle path between austerity and debauchery. They used ‘things in sufficiency’. They did not quarantine themselves, but went about, ‘flowers and herbs in hand’, inhaling their fragrance ‘to fortify the brain with such odours’. This made sense, given that the air was thick with the stench of the epidemic and the miasma of death. Nearly half the population of Florence—and a third of Europe—perished. Boccaccio does not raise this question, but today we can’t help asking: what is the connection between pollution and pandemic? Florentines who adopted the fourth strategy resorted to ‘fleeing from the pestilence’ as if they could outstrip its reach! Like the rest, they too thought only of themselves; except that they manifested it in a more dramatic fashion. They abandoned their kinsfolk, dear ones, and possessions. Retreated to the countryside as if there they could hide themselves from the wrath of God. What guided them was the assumption, prevalent even today, that cities are marked out for destruction because of their degradation and depravity—a notion rooted in the Bible, in particular, in the tragic fate of Sodom and Gomorrah.
With a touch of wry humour, Boccaccio notes that no strategy helped. The Plague spared none. He emphasises the outbreak of loneliness in the wake of the epidemic. People perished alone, abandoned. Boccaccio connects this large-scale human wretchedness to the culture that prevailed in the city prior to the outbreak. They died abandoned, he writes, “. . . having themselves, while they were when whole, set the example to those who abode in health.” That is to say, Florentines, while hale and hearty, lived only for themselves; so in peril they died by themselves, each individual abandoned to his plight. His words ring ominously relevant, “…No neighbour took thought unto other; no kinsfolk visited one another. Brother forsook brother; uncle, nephew; wife, husband; and, even, parents, their children.”
It is pertinent to note here that Pope Clement VI fled Avignon, which was the seat of the medieval Church, in order to save himself. In contrast, his physician, Gui de Chauliac—like thousands of our heroic men and women in the medical fraternity battling the epidemic today—stayed back and served the city in affliction until he perished. It is in testing times that we know who is genuine and who is fake. Tragedies, not enclosures of priest-craft, nurture the sublimity of the spirit that expresses itself as heroism in duty. The dark nights of our existence can be illumined only by the splendour of the spirit.
Valson Thampu Former principal of St Stephen’s College, New Delhi
Original Headline: How shall we respond to the pandemic?
Source: The New Indian Express