[OPINION] Black death in the dark: The bubonic plague surprise
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has identified South Africa as a priority area to be prepared for the plague as the deadly disease spreads through Madagascar.
What? The plague? We’ve been so busy concentrating on the three letter version (HIV) that we have in fact managed to forget that the actual bubonic plague is not just the stuff of medieval times and scary stories from the Bible. When I saw the headline, I laughed out of fear.
Madagascar has been experiencing a large outbreak of plague – the “black death” - since August 2017. It’s October. Where has this news been for two months? The disease has already claimed 124 lives in Madagascar‚ according to reports‚ within about 1,200 suspected‚ probable and confirmed cases recorded so far. And now the “black death” is on its way to South Africa.
In his book The Plague, Albert Camus, he writes:
There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.
No truer words have been spoken. His novel, published in 1947, tells the story of a plague that sweeps the French Algerian city of Oran. Camus uses the characters in the book, ranging from doctors to vacationers to fugitives, to help to show the effects the plague has on a populace.
According to a research report by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Oran was demolished by the plague in 1556 and 1678, and later, suffered smaller outbreaks [in 1921 (185 cases), 1931 (76 cases), and 1944 (95 cases)].
The plague is, of course, also responsible for killing a third to half the population of Europe in the years surrounding 1,350 AD. And then, of course, there is mention of it in the book of Samuel in the Old Testament. In Samuel 1, 5 and 6 there is a description of the Black Death: “they had emerods in their secret parts”- referring to swollen lymph nodes and buboes in the groin area. The Philistines were punished with the plague when they angered the God of the Israelites by their capturing of the Ark of the Covenant. Historically/or biblically rather, the spread of the plague is associated with rats, but it is, however, the fleas on rats that spread the disease (among others).
Here’s the WHO’s entry on the disease: “Plague is an infectious disease found in some small mammals and their fleas. People can contract plague if they are bitten by infected fleas‚ and develop the bubonic form of plague. Sometimes bubonic plague progresses to pneumonic plague‚ when the bacteria reaches the lungs”.
South Africa has been warned (and instructed) to advise travellers to Madagascar to avoid densely populated areas and to wear surgical masks while in transit. Screening measures should also be put into place at airports, land-ports and seaports to detect ill passengers. To my knowledge, none of this has taken place yet. Is the plague going to remain the thing of legend, just like the Cape Town water crisis? (I have yet to see a warning issued to tourists about this as well).
In the same book Camus writes:
The one way of making people hang together is to give ‘em a spell of the plague.
So I guess, at least there’s that. Togetherness. Let’s all hold hands and sing Kumbaya. It seems to be what the government is doing as well.
Haji Mohamed Dawjee is a commentator on gender equality, sexuality, culture, race relations and feminism as well as ethics in the South African media environment. Follow her on Twitter.