Lessons of history

In Italy, where coronavirus has hit the hardest among European nations, the country is all but shut down. Italy is used to such quarantines. In fact, the very word has its origin in Venice. During a plague in the 14th century the port city forced all ships to wait forty days – quaranta giorni – before passengers and crews could disembark.

Another Italian city followed with even broader precautions during the Middle Ages. The February 20 issue of the London Review of Books includes a review of a book by John Henderson called Florence Under Siege: Surviving the Plague in an Early Modern City. Published last July by Yale University Press, the book focuses on an epidemic that began in 1629 when Florence was burying the dead by the hundreds in pits outside the city walls. In response, meetings and team sports were forbidden, churches and schools were closed, taverns and inns shuttered.

The officials of the Sanita, the city’s health board, punished those who didn’t obey the shutdown, but they also took other action. They provided remedies – such as they were – and delivered firewood and food directly to the doors of households. There was bread and wine daily, meat three days a week, rice and cheese on three other days, and a salad on Friday. The city bore all costs.

When the plague finally ended in the summer of 1631, Florentines emerged en masse to participate in a Corpus Christi procession of thanks to God. About 12 percent of the population had died. But the death rate was far lower than in other Italian cities. In Venice it was 33 percent, Milan 46 percent, and Verona 61 percent. Asks the reviewer: “Was the disease less virulent in Florence or did the Sanita’s measures work?”

To my mind, the answer is obvious. The more sweeping the response, the better the outcome. These days, we seem to be leaving action mostly to the private sector as sports events and concerts are cancelled or curtailed and university classes ended in favour of online learning. As the pandemic worsens, governments of every level will have to intervene more powerfully in all activities, including care and feeding. The alternative, more deaths, is too severe to consider.

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