Humanity is going through a pandemic. Does it sound familiar?
Are you a citizen of the city-state of Athens? If you look outside, does it look like it is 430BC? Then listen carefully.
First, check your temperature. Put your palm on your forehead or ask your mum to do so. Are you hot? Do you have a fever? You cannot say? Is it because you do not know or because you have lost your voice?
Do not panic: as long as you are not bleeding from your mouth and your eyes do not swell and turn red, you might be fine. Check your toilet, no, not the seat, the excrements. Is it runny? Do not worry, it might be just a coincidence. When was the last time you sneezed? Or coughed? Not long ago? How is your sleep? Bad? Well, my friend, you might have a plague.
Do not panic, do not cry. Everything will be alright. Just try to lay down and stay still.
Can we help you? No, we cannot. Are you rich? Then maybe your body will be cremated in a private ceremony and then buried. If you are indeed rich, extraordinarily rich. If not, then do not fret, somebody might pick up your decaying corpse and throw it on one of the fires littering the streets. If not, then straight into a mass grave you go. You will be buried with thousands of other poor souls.
Now, as I said, do not move. We will come back soon, very soon, to clean up. After you? No, my friend, to clean you up.
Are you a proud merchant living in the splendid city of Constantinople around 541 AD? Are you looking outside of your window, onto the magnificent docks, and seeing trade ships, with their bright white sails, arrive into the port, ready to unload their goods and their fleas? Yes, I said fleas. I have some bad news for you.
If you value your life, and the lives of your loved ones, you should probably sell your business, get every penny you can, and flee, no pun intended, this soon to be god forsaken city. Why, you ask? Well, soon, if you stay, you will feel weak, break out in a fever, your fingernails will turn black and you will have to say goodbye to your fingers.
Where can you go? To the safety of ancient Egypt? To sunny Italy? Somewhere nice in the Mediterranean Sea. Oh, no, my friend, grab something warm and head through the heretic lands of Eastern Europe, through dark forests, murky marshes, frozen rivers, and try to find some hospitality among bearded men with wooden ploughs and crude axes. Maybe then you will survive. But then who knows, maybe those bearded men are as dangerous as the plague that will scorch the earth behind you.
Are you a Mongolian general besieging the barbarian owned port city of Kaffa? Are you happy to finally crush this stronghold of heresy and strangeness?
But something is going wrong, isn’t it? Your comrades, soldiers of your mighty army are falling sick, covered in swollen lumps, their once strong limbs blackened and corrupted. But you will press on, won’t you? You order to pile the dead bodies into catapults and shoot them into the wretched city. You need to share this curse; if it kills your men, so it will kill the enemy. You will win this battle, you have to, there is no failure in Mongol ranks. You will have this city, its mighty ports and its unfathomable riches.
But you are sick yourself, lying in a bed next to an already still warrior. Is it a punishment, you ask yourself? Is it a price you must pay to achieve your goal? But you already know the answer, you know that you are just a speck in a storm to come. Hundreds of millions will perish. To the east and to the west, to the south and to the north. Everyone will die, people of every race, every colour, every age.
Do you live in the grand city of Bombay? Enjoying its growing commerce and industrialization? Are you a miller, a carpenter or another practitioner of an honest profession?
Do you live in overcrowded suburbs, stuck in a chawl, together with your family of ten?
Can you hear those rats crawling inside of your walls? If you do then you better check your temperature. Feeling unwell? Have a fever? It might be malaria or typhus, so you better check your groin and armpits. Seeing any swelling? If you do, you need to head straight to your local hospital. If you can get through the crowds, of course. You might have a case of good old bubonic plague and you might not see the end of tomorrow.
What can you do to avoid such an unpleasant end? Get a better, cleaner, more spacious apartment. Move out of the city, away from people and those pesky vermin with their itchy fleas. Or if you cannot, do not worry. A friendly government official with a gun on his shoulder will come to you and help you to one of the numerous, slightly uncomfortable, but much healthier, segregation camps.
Is this a confusing year of 2020? Are you stuck at home because of tight restrictions on every public place in your city? Have you lost your job because your workplace has had to shut down?
Are you looking into the future with uncertainty and fright? Are you binge-watching Netflix, gobbling up UberEats and trying to stay away from the news? Are you watching a concert on Twitch and exercising to the tune of some well-regarded celebrity? Then you are probably stuck in a coronavirus pandemic.
But let us look on a bright side. If you are young and healthy, if you can stay away from any physical contact with unwanted people and crowds, you should be fine. Make sure you do not have a fever, dry cough and overall feel quite energized. But look out for such symptoms as sore throat, loss of smell, severe headache, pain in muscles and joints and shortness of breath.
If you do — and believe me, I fervently hope you do not — then please head straight to a hospital. While you are doing so, please do not forget to cover your mouth. And if you have been naughty, if you have hung out on a beach with your friends or attended that wild party, you can look forward to coughing up blood, the inability to breath and that always painful kidney failure.
Is it the future already? Is there a new pandemic on the streets? People are dying in droves, are they not?
Was the deadly virus beaten with proper hygiene, extra care and self-discipline? Did the world stand together and manage to minimize casualties and economic devastation? And it only took a couple of months? That is the future I can stand behind, my friend. No more panics, no more useless arguing and hoarding.
Just people looking after people.
What’s with the bird-beak illustration? It’s a plague dress: “The clothing worn by plague doctors was intended to protect them from airborne diseases.” An ankle-length overcoat worn together with a bird-like beak mast, it was used in France and Italy in the 17th century. The mask was often filled with sweet or strong smelling substances (commonly lavender).