Coronavirus: Pandemics in the Past

This is an article I wrote on the history of pandemics in Scotland.

Scotland and its Pandemics

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As the coronavirus pandemic sweeps across the world, we are controlled by government restrictions as to what we may do. All schools and non-essential shops and businesses are closed, all places of entertainment and leisure are shut, while leaving our home is restricted to once a day for fresh air and exercise, and vulnerable people are to stay isolated for anything up to 12 weeks and perhaps beyond. All social gatherings are banned. Those who do not obey are fined.

Nurses and doctors wear protective equipment and patients are isolated. Curbs are put on panic buying and foreign travel is heavily restricted. 

And yet, this is not a modern way of coping with an epidemic. A 16th century Scot would be only too familiar with such clamp downs on personal freedoms. These type of restrictions in the face of a pandemic are centuries old.

One of the first recorded reports of a pandemic was by a monk by the name of Bower, from the monastery at Inchcolm. Plague had entered Scotland in 1349 from trade with Asia via Mediterranean countries and killed two-thirds of the population, including 24 canons in St Andrews who were infected from attending the dying.  In 1361, it struck again, killing one-third of the population.

1498-99 saw the plague revisit Edinburgh and the Lothians and restrictions were put in place. All taverns and schools were closed and there was a 10pm curfew. All residents had to take a turn guarding the town gates to prevent the entry of food and goods from infected areas. Any English cloth brought in had to be burnt. Punishments for disobeying those rules were banishment or death. 

In Haddington in East Lothian, dogs and pigs had to be kept in a yard rather than roaming the streets. Children found out and about were put in stocks and whipped, a teacher running a school would be banished while all shops and stalls were closed.

The need to cleanse contaminated places was recognised. Cleaners were employed at the rate of 12p a day to wash and smoke out infected houses.

In Edinburgh in 1500, more restrictions were introduced. The main market in the Lawnmarket was closed and anyone bringing in goods without permission was punished; women were branded on the cheek and men had a hand cut off.

All members of a household with a plague victim had to avoid contact with anyone for 12 days.

1505 saw further regulations. Illness must be reported within 12 hours and each close had to have two people in charge of identifying those who were ill and organising the cleansing of their abode.

plague-doctor

Plague Doctor

Plague continued to be a problem until 1514 with even stricter rules coming into force. Clearing of rubbish was instigated and all beggars and indigents were driven out of the city.

But by 1530, the plague had returned and continued to do so until the early 17th century. Punishments were still harsh, branding being a popular choice though a man who attended church, knowing his wife had the plague, was hanged.

The importance of cleansing the homes and goods of those infected was recognised and in Edinburgh in 1574, John Forrest was appointed to be in charge on pain of execution if his efforts at containing the plague were not successful. Apparently he succeeded,  as in 1585 he was again in charge of cleansing houses and homes deemed to be infected.

Those with plague were taken out to the Burgh Muir as were their contacts, where they were kept separately. Others were kept shut in their homes with food and drink being supplied until they either died or recovered. The townspeople were not to congregate around the close mouths and the muck and ordure was to be removed from the streets.

The Great Plague of 1665 in England did not reach Scotland though sporadic outbreaks occurred over the next two hundred years.

The last instance of bubonic plague happened in August 1900 in Glasgow in the Gorbals. Situated down by the River Clyde where ships from abroad were docking and foreign sailors coming ashore, it was no wonder that the plague was brought there from the many other overseas ports infected with it. At first it was thought to be typhoid which was much more common then, especially in the overcrowded and unsanitary houses in the Gorbals area. But a doctor recognised the symptoms of plague and measures were immediately introduced.

Rats were suspected of being the carriers and an army of rat-catchers was sent out to try to eradicate the creatures. Glasgow at that time, was well used to outbreaks of infectious diseases and its hospital system, although pre-dating the National Health Service by almost 50 years, was prepared and ready to deal with the outbreak. Its quick response meant that, in all, the plague was confined to a few streets in the area with 35 people infected and 16 dying. 

1n 1898, it had been shown that it was the fleas on rats which were responsible for spreading the disease, but the Glasgow public health authorities suspected that human contact was transmitting it. With the overcrowded conditions in the Gorbals at that time, the rate of spread suggested just that. The Medical Officer for Health immediately set up an investigation and identified Mrs B, a fish hawker as being the first person to fall ill along with her grand-daughter. They then identified anyone who had attended her wake and quarantined them. In support, the Catholic Church banned wakes of those who had succumbed to the plague. The plague was then successfully contained and quickly eliminated.

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Spread of the plague, Glasgow 1900

Recent research in 2019 by the University of Oslo found that indeed, the authorities were correct in suspecting human contact to be the means of transmission and that the killing of rats did very little to control the plague. Had the authorities not responded so quickly in identifying and quarantining those infected as well as their contacts, the plague could have spread beyond those few streets.

We have become complacent over the years with the advent of antibiotics and other medicines but now we are faced with a pandemic that is out of control and which does not respond to the medicines we have. We have reduced our medical facilities to a bare minimum, now inadequate and unable to cope with such a spread of disease. So we are having to fall back on to the old ways, used for centuries and effective if strictly applied and endorsed with severe punishments. 

We have a long way to go before Covid 19 is eradicated – for the time being. Let’s hope the lessons from history will be learnt.

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