Today marks 300 years since the start of what I argue represents a major moment in the history of disaster mgmt. As the story goes, the Great Plague of Provence (aka Plague of Marseille) began in France #OnThisDay in 1720 with the arrival of the vessel, the Grand Saint-Antoine in
the port of Marseille. The ship had journeyed for a year in the Mediterranean collecting cargoes of fine imported goods destined for an annual trade fair. In that time, there had been a series of deaths on board, many with the telltale signs of bubonic plague,
inc. the buboes, or painful, enlarged lymph nodes on the neck, groin, and underarms. Normally, this would mean an extended period of isolation in one of the quarantine islands off the coast of Marseille, but instead, the city’s primary municipal magistrate
who owned part of the ship and a large portion of its lucrative cargo, used his influence to arrange for the premature unloading of his shipment into the city’s warehouses—infected with the bacteria, Yersinia pestis—so that they could be sold soon thereafter at the trade fair.
Here’s a short version of the parallels that I discuss in the article:
The first reports of deaths in Marseille began almost immediately after the ship was given the pass to unload. Among the first deaths, in fact, were some of the porters who did the unloading days earlier.
Signs of plague according to numerous eyewitnesses were unmistakable. Those who conspired to shorten the ship’s quarantine quickly set to action—not to protect the populace from the disease...
...but to convince both neighboring authorities and those in Paris that this was not an outbreak of plague, but merely a malignant fever. They knew that if plague were declared, embargoes and quarantines would quickly follow, putting the economy of the port city at risk.
Local officials even hired doctors to diagnose the disease as only a fever--Something that is happening today! In those first crucial weeks after the start of the outbreak, Marseillais authorities prioritized economic interests over public health.
Appropriate measures didn’t come for a full two months, but by then it was far too late. The epidemic went on to spread from town to town, and over the next two years, took as many as 126,000 lives (about 20% of the population) in Provence, France.
Then as now, too, whether we look at bubonic plague or COVID-19, diseases are always viewed as coming from faraway lands. By the eighteenth century, the plague was sometimes even referred to as “la peste Levantina.”
In fact, recent genetic studies have revealed that plague outbreaks throughout the early modern period of Europe could have actually come from plague reservoirs within the continent rather than on trade ships from the Levant. Again, this should sound familiar.
Also, the idea that “disease doesn't discriminate,” or affects everyone equally, couldn't be further from the truth. During Plague of Provence no less than today, wealthy city residents in France & all over Europe swiftly departed for the countryside, leaving in their wake both
We find yet another parallel in the rampant misinformation that circulates in times of crisis. During the Plague of Provence, rumors and paranoia became a problem not only in France, but all over Europe and the colonies.
Many even complained of the dangers of lies during public health crises, as when one contemporary protested (see another great quote in the Stat News article!).
There are many other parallels, as well, from the difficulty of obtaining accurate numbers of infections and deaths
In short, history can’t tell us what comes next as this crisis unfolds, but it can be highly instructive. The lessons are there—what's worked in the past, what hasn’t; what measures we must employ, what to avoid—to ignore history is to risk potentially unnecessary suffering. FIN
Here are links to some of what I’ve published on the subject of the Great Plague of Provence:
The Spanish Plague That Never Was: Crisis and Exploitation in Cádiz During the Peste of Provence 
The Plague of Provence: Early Advances in the Centralization of Crisis Management @env_and_society
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