On May 25, 1720, a ship named the Grand Saint-Antoine arrived in the port of Marseille, France, laden with cotton, fine silks, and other goods. The invisible cargo also carried, the bacteria known as Yersinia pestis, launched the Great Plague of Provence, the last major outbreak of bubonic plague in Europe.
Over a two-year period, the bubonic plague spread throughout southeastern France, killing up to half of the residents of Marseille and as much as 20% of the population of Provence.
As historian Tyler Stovall has observed, anniversaries are dates on steroids that “offer their own insights into different types of historical processes.” As the world faces the Covid-19 pandemic — a public health crisis that serves up more questions than answers as it continues to unfold — it is worth revisiting the Great Plague of Provence and the lessons it can offer.
Before arriving back in Marseille, the Grand Saint-Antoine had spent a year circumnavigating the Mediterranean, collecting goods destined for a trade fair that took place each year in what is now the commune of Beaucaire. During its voyage, several sailors had died, many with the telltale signs of bubonic plague, including buboes: painful, enlarged lymph nodes on the neck, groin, and underarms.
Ships suspected of infection would normally have been quarantined for an extended period at one of the quarantine islands off the coast of Marseille. But that was not to be the case for the Grand Saint-Antoine.
The city’s primary municipal magistrate, Jean-Baptiste Estelle, owned part of the ship as well as a large portion of its lucrative cargo. He used his influence to arrange for the premature unloading of the cargo into the city’s warehouses so the goods could be sold soon thereafter at the trade fair.
The number of infections and deaths began to climb within days, and the threat to the economy of this major commercial port became all too real. Instead of undertaking emergency measures to try to contain the infection, officials launched an elaborate campaign of misinformation, going as far as hiring doctors to diagnose the disease as only a malignant fever instead of the plague.
It wasn’t until two months after the first cases of bubonic plague appeared in Marseille that appropriate measures were undertaken. These included trade embargoes, quarantines, the prompt burial of corpses, the distribution of food and aid, and disinfection campaigns using fire, smoke, vinegar, or herbs. And the Grand Saint-Antoine was burned and sunk off the coast of Marseille.
But by then it was 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 in Provence.
This might sound familiar like it’s happening today. Kenya’s slow response in acknowledging the Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in more deaths than may have otherwise resulted if the threat of the infection had been taken seriously from the very beginning.
Equally in America, Donald Trump downplayed the pandemic and chose not to shut the country fearing economic collapse and the same has now led to the second wave that is more serious than the first.
Instead of taking the pandemic serious, politicians elsewhere spent those crucial early weeks downplaying the risks and going on with campaigns as if the same was a myth. Magufuli the Tanzania President, was even more comical while mixing freely with residents convincing them that the same could be healed by just drinking Kahawa chungu a popular coffee taken by Swahili speaking people at coast. The appropriate measures came too late and what began as an outbreak, has now turned into a massive public health crisis that is now far more difficult to track and contain.
There are other parallels between the Great Plague of Provence and the Covid-19 pandemic and if strict urgent measures are not put in place immediately, we can easily loose half the population and the envisaged general election that has made many to go into frenzy will most likely be postponed.
Arch Dr Isaac Kinungi
Diaspora National Assembly for 254