Article Thumbnail

Five Lies You’ve Been Told About Pandemics

Is this the worst one ever? Will masks help you live through it? Let’s find out the truth.

The world is full of lies, and it’s hard to get through life without taking a few on board. Luckily, we’re here to sort the fact from the fiction, and find the plankton of truth in the ocean of bullshit. This week: Pandemics! Oh shit! Shit! Shit shit! But just how many of these damned things are going round? And haven’t kids been singing about them for years? Let’s quarantine ourselves with some answers. 

Lie #1: Oh Shit, There’s A Pandemic!

No — there are two. There’s the big new coronavirus, dominating headlines and inspiring the dankest of memes. But there’s also HIV/AIDS, a pandemic that’s been going for almost 40 years now. Forty million or so people have it globally, one million of whom are in the U.S., and about three-quarters of a million people die of it every year, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa. 

While, in the Western world, things have really improved over the last decade or so, with antiretrovirals making living with the condition a lot easier, that’s not the case everywhere. Although new infections and deaths from the condition are both decreasing, it’s still a pandemic — it’s spread across the world, affects a large number of people and is infectious. 

Unhelpfully, last month the WHO announced that there was no official description of a pandemic, and they don’t use that word anymore, saying only that their old six-point system no longer applies. But until HIV/AIDS isn’t a pandemic, it’s a pandemic.

Lie #2: “Ring Around the Roses” Is About The Black Death

It’s probably not. That explanation only got attributed to it in the mid-20th century, while versions of the rhyme date from at least a century before that. The common thing you hear is that “Ring-a-ring o’ roses / A pocket full of posies / Atishoo! Atishoo! (or Ashes! Ashes!) / We all fall down!” refers to round red rashes, bundles of flowers intended to keep the plague off, sneezing and dying (or, in the ashes variant, plague victims being cremated). It’s not true, though — the symptoms don’t really line up with bubonic plague, early versions of the words are different and it’s all pretty much just nonsense. Children don’t know about the Black Death. Children don’t know about anything. They eat snot and wet themselves.

Lie #3: The Best Way To Beat A Pandemic? Masks!

That’s definitely not true if the masks you’re talking about are those worn by plague doctors in the 17th century. Those things, as well as being fucking terrifying (and later inspiring former Slipknot percussionist Chris Fehn), didn’t do what they were meant to do. The long noses were filled with herbs devised to protect the wearers from the plague — at the time, medical thinking was that disease was transmitted by bad smells, and blocking those would successfully keep you safe. They even thought weight gain was transmitted this way, with one scientist writing: “From inhaling the odour of beef the butcher’s wife obtains her obesity.” Oh dear. 

This thinking, known as “miasma theory,” stuck around a lot longer than it should have, leading to a lot of continuing deaths until the mid-19th century — people figured things like the plague and cholera were passed by stinkiness, rather than diseased blood or filthy water. It took ridiculous cholera epidemics and London being enveloped by the Great Stink in 1858, the Thames filling with human shit and corpses, for anyone to listen to the yahoos talking about things like “bacteria” and “germs.” 

Lie #4: This Pandemic Is the Worst!

Ah dude, it sucks ass! It’s boring and frightening at the same time, which is a horrible combination. But in the pandemic league tables, coronavirus has a way to go before taking the top spot, which it’ll hopefully have no chance at. The Black Death killed up to 75 million people in Europe in the 14th century, when the total population of the world was only around 400 million. There were two other plague pandemics, and they sucked too!

Then, in the years following World War I, the H1N1 influenza virus (also known as Spanish flu, due to censorship affecting its reporting from anywhere else) affected 500 million people (global population at the time: less than two billion) and killed up to 100 million of them. H1N1 later resurfaced as swine flu and has stuck around, with new cases showing up in India this February. 

Lie #5: You Shouldn’t Speak Ill of the Dead

You know what’s worse than speaking ill of the dead? Speaking dead of the ill. You can’t libel the dead, but saying someone is dead when they’re merely unwell sucks. In Hawaii, people with leprosy used to be officially declared dead and transported to a colony on Moloka’i where, as they were dead, nobody was allowed to visit them. This eventually led to what became known as the Leper War. In Uttar Pradesh, India, pushing for someone to be declared dead in order to take over their land is common enough that a group, the Uttar Pradesh Association of Dead People, had to be set up.

It happens by accident as well. In the U.S., Social Security mistakenly lists 6,000 or so people as dead every year, destroying their credit scores in the process and creating months of admin for them to get fully accepted as alive again. Nothing is more likely to make one wish they were dead than filling out hundreds of forms to say they aren’t.