In one of my childhood memories, I’m on the escalator in a department store, reaching for the handrail. My grandmother gently pulls me over, “Don’t do this, it’s dirty,” and holds my hand tight as we descend.
It must have been the late 60s, I was about four or five years old. At the time, the “Hong Kong flu” had swept the planet: although it killed 1 million to 4 million human beings, today it is virtually forgotten. And gradually the hygiene lessons of the time were abandoned, which the Covid-19 pandemic once again popularized: keep your distance, wear a mask, wash your hands.
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My grandmother, whose mother had nearly died of the so-called “Spanish flu” of 1918, was still well aware of these safety precautions. Before antibiotics and large-scale vaccination, for centuries infectious diseases such as typhus, diphtheria and smallpox wrought terror in the hearts of Europeans.
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Spanish flu, biggest pandemic of the 20th century, killed 50 million people worldwide
Today, those who die from these infections are mostly children in less-developed countries, many of whom cannot afford the luxury of expensive vaccinations and good health systems. However, the Sars-Cov-2 virus has also shaken the general sense of security and has shown that no one is immune..
“Epidemics are the biggest global threat, alongside climate change,” says Oliver Gauert, curator of the “largest medical history exhibit in the world,” he says. “They just haven’t entered the public consciousness to the same degree. Covid is a warning to humanity.”
People wear masks in front of the National Stadium in Tokyo, Japan — Photo: Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters
Epidemics. Curse of the past, threat of the future was inaugurated on October 2, 2021 at the Roemer-Pelizaeus Museum in Hildesheim, in the German state of Lower Saxony. It was conceived in cooperation with numerous scientific institutions, including the University of Science and Applied Arts Hanover and the Helmholtz Center for Infectious Disease Research.
The entrance to the show was designed in the form of a huge book. Through 30 stations, visitors experience key moments of medicine, from the anatomical theater in Padua, inaugurated in 1595, where the first dissections of cadavers were performed, to the laboratory of the Nobel Medicine Paul Ehrlich (1854-1915), who developed a cure for syphilis.
The exhibit also reproduces a Covid-19 intensive care unit. With a mannequin connected to a ventilator, the installation is a merciless reminder that right now people are fighting for their lives in hospitals around the world.
Also included are works of art dealing with epidemics. In The Triumph of Death, by Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525-1569), the sky is bleak: blue-gray cloud hovers over a landscape of charred trees.
In the foreground is a pile of corpses, a skeleton slits the throat of a man in a white shirt, while another, on the back of a king, holds up an hourglass. Behind a gate, an army of other skeletons waits to bring the Black Death to the people.
This “Macabre Reaper” is deeply ingrained in Europe’s cultural memory as an emblem of epidemics. And Bruegel’s terrifying skeleton does not discriminate between poor or rich, male, female or child.
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Women wear masks as they walk the streets of Istanbul, Turkey — Photo: Murad Sezer/Reuters
Nor do medical historiographers know how many millions ended up dying as a result of epidemics. It is true, however, that the plague “has not only affected the poor, like typhus or typhoid fever, but also the elites of society”, reports Gauert. “So one can imagine that there was a total redistribution of property and power.”
Agriculture, crafts and guilds had to find new ways of working. Thus, the process of overcoming epidemics promoted cultural and political changes. This was the case with the plague: until its outbreak in the 14th century, illnesses were considered divine punishment.
“But the Black Death claimed so many victims, even in Church paintings, that the people refused to bear it passively”, continues the exhibition’s curator. “For the first time, a scientific institution, the University of Paris, was tasked with giving an expert opinion on the causes. It was the first time that such a disease was addressed in a systematic and scientific way.”
Plagues also stopped wars and determined victory or defeat. Like when, at the beginning of the 16th century, the Spanish conqueror Hernán Cortés and a small army of mercenaries brought down the mighty Aztec empire. During the battle of Tenochtitlán, an epidemic broke out among the native people of Mexico, killing half the population: the invaders had brought with them measles, smallpox or another pathogen, against which they were immune – but the Aztecs were not.
Interconnected climate, diseases and globalization
A 2019 University College London study suggests that the transmission of epidemics from the Old to the New World may have influenced the Earth’s climate. It is estimated that 90% of the native peoples of America have died as a result of imported pests, which is why so many square kilometers of previously cultivated land have been abandoned.
Trees and shrubs have regrown freely, absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The global climate cooled, causing the “Little Ice Age” around the mid-16th century. The event demonstrates how closely climate, disease and globalization are interconnected.
“Infectious diseases are advancing,” warns Oliver Gauert, citing four decisive factors. The first is the global transit of goods and people, enabling disease to spread worldwide in a matter of weeks.
Second is climate change, gradually enlarging tropical and subtropical zones. Within ten years, for example, dengue, a tropical-subtropical infectious disease transmitted by mosquitoes, is expected to reach Germany.
The third factor is human penetration into increasingly remote jungle regions, where dangerous viruses are latent, as evidenced by Ebola and AIDS. And, finally, the effectiveness of antibiotics in fighting bacterial infections declines, due to the increasing resistance of pathogens.
Advances in medicine are not for everyone
The exhibition curator emphasizes, however, that these threats are basically controllable today. Unlike previous generations, humanity is no longer defenseless against viruses and bacteria.
Furthermore, whereas in the past it took decades to develop a vaccine, the first one against the new coronavirus was already available after a year. Thus, “each pandemic advances science, medicine and health systems.”
These advances, however, are not happening at the same speed everywhere. Even during the current pandemic, there is a huge gap between rich and poor countries.
Still, everyone can contribute to the fight against viruses and bacteria. As a child, I was annoyed when I ran to the table hungry and my grandmother scolded me: “Don’t forget to take your hands!” Today, in the midst of the pandemic, I follow her hygiene precepts more conscientiously than ever.