Consider the plague. I mean the actual, literal, bubonic plague, the disease caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. In this pestilential season the subject has been impossible to avoid, because so many people are calling coronavirus “plague” — even though, as pandemics go, they have almost nothing in common. Plague has an astonishingly high fatality rate — between 50% and 80% of its victims die — but is rarely transmitted directly from person to person, traveling instead through the bites of infected fleas. Covid19, by contrast, is much more contagious but significantly less fatal. And there are other distinctions. While the plague comes with painful, swollen tumors, running sores, and putrid secretions, coronavirus leaves no visible marks on the body. Most victims will survive it. Some might never even know they had it. There has also been plenty of talk about Ebola and AIDS and influenza and what all of them have to tell us about the present crisis. (I have no intention of interpreting the present crisis). But plague has retained a special hold on the imagination. To Thomas Dekker, the Elizabethan hack pamphleteer, it was simply “the sicknesse,” a disease with “a Preheminence above all others…none being able to match it for Violence, Strength, Incertainty, Suttlety, Catching, Universality, and Desolation.” The Black Death is still the most deadly pandemic in recorded history. At its height, between 1348 and 1351, the disease may have killed half the population of Eurasia. It has only two close rivals for sheer morbidity: the Spanish influenza of 1918-1919 and the smallpox pandemic brought to the Americas by Europeans after 1492. Both events caused untold human suffering, but neither left behind the same long history of written records. That was because the plague kept coming back. Its periodic recurrences swept through Europe with devastating regularity

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