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Pandemics from Homer to Stephen King: what we can learn from literary history

Authority's failure to respond

  • Mary Shelley's apocalypse novel The Last Man (1826), depicts the life of Lionel Verney, who becomes the last man after a devastating global plague. The book criticizes the institutional responses to the plague, showing the revolutionary utopianism and the in-fighting that breaks out among surviving groups before they also die.
  • The short story, The Masque of the Red Death (1842), also shows the failures o authority figures to respond to a disaster appropriately.

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Pandemics from Homer to Stephen King: what we can learn from literary history

Pandemics from Homer to Stephen King: what we can learn from literary history

http://theconversation.com/pandemics-from-homer-to-stephen-king-what-we-can-learn-from-literary-history-133572

theconversation.com

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Key Ideas

Insight from literature

Over the history of Western literature about pandemics, much has been said in the way of catharsis, ways of dealing with intense emotion, and political commentary on how people respond to public health crises.

It is worth to peruse these texts to understand our reactions to the spread of this virus.

Stories help us to think

Homer's Iliad opens with a plague visited upon the Greek camp at Troy. The Decameron (1353) by Giovanni Boccaccio is set during the Black Death.

The stories offer the listeners ways to consider how similar crises have been managed previously, and how to reorganize their daily lives, which have been suspended due to the epidemic.

Authority's failure to respond

  • Mary Shelley's apocalypse novel The Last Man (1826), depicts the life of Lionel Verney, who becomes the last man after a devastating global plague. The book criticizes the institutional responses to the plague, showing the revolutionary utopianism and the in-fighting that breaks out among surviving groups before they also die.
  • The short story, The Masque of the Red Death (1842), also shows the failures o authority figures to respond to a disaster appropriately.

Modern and contemporary literature

  • Albert Camus' The Plague (1942) and Stephen King's The Stand (1978) depict the social implications of plague-like pandemics, particularly regarding isolation and failures of the state to contain the disease and moderate the growing panic.
  • The 2016 novel Fever by Deon Meyer describes the results of a bioengineered virus where survivors besiege one another for resources.

Fiction by indigenous peoples

Some speculative novels written by indigenous peoples and writers of color are treating colonialism and the diseases that spread by the colonizers as the source of an ongoing apocalypse.

For many people in formerly colonized places, the apocalypse has already come - literally and metaphorically - and have destroyed their populations.

SIMILAR ARTICLES & IDEAS:

Spreading of diseases

Transmissible diseases existed during humankind’s hunter-gatherer days, but the shift to agrarian life 10,000 years ago created communities that made epidemics more possible.
We started build...

430 B.C.: Plague of Athens

The earliest recorded pandemic happened during the Peloponnesian War. It passed through Libya, Ethiopia, and Egypt,  and it reached Athens as the Spartans laid siege. Two-thirds of the population died.
The disease, suspected to have been typhoid fever, weakened the Athenians significantly and played a big role in their defeat by the Spartans.

165 A.D.: The Antonine Plague

It may have been an early appearance of smallpox that began with the Huns.
The Huns then infected the Germans, who passed it to the Romans and then returning troops spread it throughout the Roman empire.  This plague continued until about 180 A.D., claiming Emperor Marcus Aurelius as one of its victims.

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A History Of Pandemics
  • A Pandemic is defined as the proliferation of a disease over the whole country or the entire world.
  • Diseases and illnesses have troubled humanity since the earliest days, but ...
Quarantined
  • The original use of the word Quarantine was the act of anchoring a ship arrived in Venice, Italy, for 40 days before landing.
  • Infectiousness of any disease is measured by the reproduction number (R0, or R naught). For example, Smallpox has an R0 of 6 whereas Measles has an R0 of 16. 
  • Vaccination, if available, and herd immunity can curb the spread of disease.
  • Big cities, with exploding population and traffic, can lead to the rapid spread of any infectious disease.
Conspiracy Theories
Conspiracy Theories

In the earlier times, conspiracy theories were a convenient way to cover up the inadequacies of the government, and putting a set of helpless people as a scapegoat, cloaking the misdeeds or mismana...

We Love A Good Story

The organic and unpredictable nature of conspiracy theories had led many researchers to investigate the cause of the phenomenon.

  • Successful conspiracy theories always tend to invent a great villain, have a backdrop or a backstory, and a morality lesson that can be easily understood by most.
  • Great stories are by nature more magnetic and appealing than the truth.
  • Human beings think and understand in stories. For thousands of years, fairy tales, legends, anecdotes and mysteries have helped our brains make sense of the world.
Collective Hysteria

Every society has its own, unique anxieties and obsessions, and the conspiracy theories that gain good mileage are the ones that tap into these primal fears.

Example: Many people fear vaccination of the children due to fears that the mass drive to vaccinate such a large population has some ulterior motive, like a mass medical experiment. The dodgy past record of the health care system, and the fact that the vaccination is free of charge, of course, adds fuel to the fire.

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The influenza pandemic of 1918

It is often referred to incorrectly as the “Spanish flu.” Between 50 and 100 million people are thought to have died, representing as much as 5% of the world’s population. Half a billion people...

The origins of the "Spanish" flu

The so-called Spanish flu did not originate in Spain. The geographic origin of the flu is debated to this day, though hypotheses have suggested East Asia, Europe, and even Kansas.
The influenza pandemic from 1918 got this name most likely because of the WWI context: The major countries involved in the war were keen to avoid encouraging their enemies, so reports of the extent of the flu were suppressed in Germany, Austria, France, the United Kingdom and the U.S. By contrast, neutral Spain had no need to keep the flu under wraps. That created the false impression that Spain was bearing the brunt of the disease.

The end of mankind

The 1918 flu spread rapidly, killing 25 million people in just the first six months. This led some to fear the end of mankind and that the whole thing was caused by a form of super-virus.
Recent studies show that the high death rate can be attributed to crowding in military camps and urban environments, as well as poor nutrition and sanitation, which suffered during wartime.

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Have a Succession Plan

Alexander the Great built one of the largest empires in history in just a few short years, and it fell apart just as quickly. As soon as Alexander died, his generals carved up his empire into pi...

Know When To Take Big Risks

Prince William Of Orange led the Dutch rebellion against Spain, then the most powerful empire in the world. To stop the advance of the more powerful Spanish army he pulled down several dikes and flooded a large portion of the Dutch countryside, contributing largely to the defeat of the Spanish.

Recognize when you can't beat your competitors and find a way to differentiate yourself.

Maintain Your Flexibility

During the Cuban missile crisis, many of JFK's advisors advised a full military invasion of Cuba. JFK held off on these plans, opting instead for a naval blockade and negotiations with Soviet leaders, all while planning for a possible invasion if these tactics failed.

Don't commit yourself to a strategic path without first evaluating all of the options available to you.

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Ancient Mesopotamia
Ancient Mesopotamia

The ancient Mesopotamia civilization was the origin-place for many inventions including scriptures, wheels, and .. soap.

The first evidence of a soap-like substance was in 2800 BC, i...

Egyptians And Babylonians

In 1500 BC, the ancient Egyptians devised ways to make soap-like components using alkaline salts and oil. This was further enhanced by the Neo-Babylonians, by adding ashes, cypress extracts, and sesame oil.

The Romans

The Latin word for soap ‘Sapo’ is mentioned in an ancient encyclopedia (penned in circa 77 AD) by a Roman Naturalist Pliny the Elder. The author talked about how the product was used more by the Gaulish and Germanic men rather than Romans (which preferred to scrap their skins clean by using essential oils and white sand).

A Greek physician Galen writes about soap and its use in the Roman empire in 2nd century AD.

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The scientific revolution

Human history is often framed as a series of episodes, representing sudden bursts of knowledge. The Agricultural Revolution, the Renaissance, and the Industrial Revolution are a few examples where ...

Pseudo-Science 

Much of the knowledge about the natural world during the middle ages dates back to the teachings of the Greeks and Romans. Many did not question these ideas, despite the many flaws.

  • Aristotle taught everything beneath the moon was comprised of four elements: earth, air, water, and fire.
  • Greek astronomer Claudius Ptolemy thought that heavenly bodies such as the sun, moon, planets and various stars all revolved around the earth in perfect circles.
  • The ancient Greeks and Romans held to the idea that illnesses were the result of an imbalance of four basic substances and was related to the theory of the four elements.
Rebirth and Reformation
  • During the Renaissance, there was a renewed interest in the arts and literature. It led to a shift toward more independent thinking.
  • In 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Roman Catholic Church. Luther promoted his thoughts by printing and distributing them, encouraging churchgoers to read the Bible for themselves. This led to the Protestant Reformation.
  • In the process, the criticism and reform led to placing the burden of proof ahead in understanding the natural world, paving the way for the scientific revolution.

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Baby advice industry

The baby-advice industry targets people at their most vulnerable - at the start of the weightiest responsibility of their lives - and suggests that they have some information that will ensure the f...

The two camps of parenting advice
  • Baby Trainers urge parents to get their newborn on to a strict schedule to integrate him into the rhythms of the household. 
  • Natural Parents emulate the earthy practices of indigenous tribes in the developing world.
Although these two camps are hostile toward each other, we should realize that baby advice is not mainly about raising children. Instead, it is a vehicle to suggest that it might be possible to bring the terrifying unpredictability of the world under control. A brand new baby makes it possible to believe in that fantasy.
    Nobody really knows 
    • For a start, nobody can remember what it was like to be a baby.
    • Most parenting gurus only have direct experience of parenting two or three babies, which isn't much better as a sample size. They can't assume that whatever worked for them will work for everyone.
    • When you have read all the parenting books, your baby will possibly follow an entirely different manual of instructions.

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    Panic Buying
    Panic Buying

    The world is seeing panic buying in supermarkets, with items like toilet paper, milk, soda, hand sanitizers, etc. flying off the shelves, especially in places with confirmed cases of the virus.

    ...
    Downsides of Panic Buying
    • Panic buying makes people feel in charge of the situation, while seemingly mundane measures like hand-washing, which are actually impactful, seem ordinary.
    • The problem comes when people overbuy in their over-panicked state of mind (irrational stockpiling), making the shortages worse than they really are.
    • Speculators also take advantage of panic buying and raise prices of essential items like face masks, forcing companies to take appropriate measures.
    Loss Aversion

    ..is a principle which makes people do things so that they don't feel regretful later. 

    People are panic-buying for the same reason too, with social media and news media amplifying the sense of scarcity.

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    Epidemic vs. pandemic

    An epidemic is a broad term used to describe any problem that is actively spreading and has grown out of control.

    The pandemic rel...

    Disease Event Classification

    Epidemiology is the branch of medicine that handles the following:

    • Incidence: the occurrence of a disease over a specified period.
    • Prevalence: how many people are affected within a population.
    • Control of diseases: an appropriate public health response.

    Two measurable factors mostly define the level of disease occurrence:

    • The pattern and speed by which a disease moves.
    • The size of the susceptible population.
    The terms an epidemiologist use
    • Sporadic refers to a disease that occurs infrequently or irregularly.
    • Cluster refers to a disease that occurs in larger numbers even though the actual number or cause may be uncertain.
    • Endemic refers to the constant presence and/or general prevalence of a disease in a geographic population.
    • Hyperendemic refers to persistent, high levels of disease well above what is seen in other populations.
    • Epidemic refers to a sudden increase in the number of cases of a disease above what is normally expected.
    • Outbreak is the same as an epidemic but is often used to describe a more limited geographic event.
    • Pandemic refers to an epidemic that has spread over several countries or continents, usually affecting a large number of people.

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