This arti­cle is part 3 of 7 in the series Other Bad Bugs We Have Known

Ring around the rosie,
Pocket full of posies,
Ashes. Ashes.
We all fall down.

Some peo­ple say this children’s rhyme refers to one of the very worst bad bugs we have known: the Bubonic Plague, Justinian’s Plague, the Black Death, or sim­ply the Plague. No mat­ter what you call it, it killed many mil­lions of people.

Those folks say the rhyme refers to the stages of the dis­ease. A red rash before the tumors, herbs and flow­ers for pro­tec­tion, and ash­es, ash­es from the sneez­ing sound you make before you fall down dead.

Other folks say this is non­sense. They point out that the first time the rhyme appeared in print was five hun­dred years after the Black Death and that a con­nec­tion to the plague was not made until the mid-20th century.

Nevertheless, dur­ing our cur­rent Covid pan­dem­ic, it is instruc­tive to remem­ber, and hope­ful­ly learn some­thing, from the his­to­ry of pre­vi­ous pandemics.

The Plague was active for over a thou­sand years. It comes from dif­fer­ent muta­tions of a bac­teri­um called Yersinia Pestis. It killed untold mil­lions of peo­ple in Europe, Africa, and Asia.

As you may or may not recall from your high school his­to­ry class, the Roman emper­or Constantine (who made Christianity legal) left Rome in the 300s AD and moved his admin­is­tra­tion to an old Greek city on the Black Sea, which he renamed after him­self.  (The city is now called Istanbul, the cap­i­tal of mod­ern Turkey.) This move divid­ed the empire into east­ern and west­ern sections.

In the fol­low­ing 200 years, the entire west­ern sec­tion of the Roman Empire, includ­ing the city of Rome, most of Europe, and North Africa fell to invad­ing Germanic tribes such as the Goths and Vandals. The then-cur­rent emper­or, Justinian, want­ed it all back. And, with the help of a bril­liant gen­er­al, he was mak­ing good progress.

Unfortunately for Justinian, the first pan­dem­ic wave of the Bubonic Plague (541−549 AD) put a stop to all that. It killed between 25 and 50 mil­lion peo­ple, about a quar­ter of the empire. The polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic sys­tems failed. The food sup­ply failed. The so-called Dark Ages of Europe began. This ver­sion of the Plague popped up in var­i­ous places for the next two hun­dred years.

Some his­to­ri­ans sug­gest that the quick rise of Islam was direct­ly tied to the results of the Plague. Their first invad­ing armies were healthy and Plague-free, where­as those they con­quered were severe­ly weak­ened. However, they didn’t con­quer the plague. They got it, too.

The next muta­tion was called the Black Death. It began in the 1300s. Outbreaks con­tin­ued into the ear­ly 1800s. Some his­to­ri­ans say it killed a third of the pop­u­la­tion of Europe. Some say a half. Some say six­ty per­cent. Any way you count, it was a lot. The Black Death was the most fatal pan­dem­ic in history.

Everyone want­ed to know why it was hap­pen­ing and what caused it. European astrologers (we for­get how impor­tant astrol­o­gy was back then) said it was due to a rare con­junc­tion of three plan­ets. Today, any­one can down­load an astron­o­my app (not astrol­o­gy) that cal­cu­lates orbits and can show when plan­ets will appear close togeth­er. Pretty to look at but it doesn’t cause a plague.

The Muslim world said the Black Death was mar­tyr­dom and mer­cy from God. If you were a Muslim who got the plague and died, you were a mar­tyr and went to Heaven. If you were not a Muslim, it was pun­ish­ment for not being a Muslim and when you died in hor­ri­ble pain, which you deserved, you went to the oth­er place.

The Christians gen­er­al­ly agreed, but the oth­er way around, of course.

Everyone back then (like us today) want­ed some­one oth­er than them­self to blame. Historically, Jews were always handy for this. So were for­eign­ers, immi­grants, “gyp­sies,” lep­ers, and any­one else with less power. 

All of the above view­points make as much sense as a lot of the non­sense we see and hear dai­ly com­ing from the radio and TV celebri­ties: fear, hate, dis­in­for­ma­tion, and polit­i­cal divi­sion. We’re all in this togeth­er. What could be more igno­rant and less help­ful than mak­ing a pan­dem­ic a polit­i­cal issue?

The plague is caused by a bac­teri­um that infects a flea. The flea hops onto a mam­mal, usu­al­ly a rat, and sucks its blood for nour­ish­ment. This infects the rat. When var­i­ous envi­ron­men­tal fac­tors cause lots of rats to die at the same time, the fleas get hun­gry and hop off onto wher­ev­er they can get their next meal. Like a near­by per­son. The flea sucks the person’s blood and infects the per­son with the bac­te­ria. The bac­te­ria say, “Hey, this is a nice place. Not as good as my old rat, but I think I’ll have a few hun­dred mil­lion babies any­way.” Unfortunately, this often kills the per­son so the flea hops off look­ing for a new restau­rant. Which is the clos­est per­son. And so it goes.

It’s not quite that sim­ple but that’s a gen­er­al outline.

Oh, and by the way, some of the bac­te­ria had mutat­ed so they could spread through coughs, sneezes, and touch. Not good. Not good at all.

The first wave of the Black Death was fol­lowed by a sec­ond, and then a third pan­dem­ic. Tens of mil­lions of peo­ple died. Percentage-wise, how­ev­er, each wave killed less each time. A par­tial “herd” immu­ni­ty was developing.

This is the rea­son­ing behind the Measles anti-vaxxers of today. If we just leave it alone, it will get less and less severe. This could be true. Or not. What if the measles virus mutates, as a virus tends to do, into some­thing worse? The anti-vaxxers don’t seem to mind risk­ing all the chil­dren who would die with their gam­ble. The vac­cine, if every­one took it before it has a chance to mutate, would stop it. Due to the anti-vaxxers, measles is on the rise.

The same is true with our cur­rent Covid pan­dem­ic. Use your com­mon sense. Help your­self. Help your fam­i­ly. Help your com­mu­ni­ty. Help the world. Get vac­ci­nat­ed. Let’s beat this pandemic.

  • David made scaled-down, tra­di­tion­al Appalachian musi­cal instru­ments for chil­dren. Thousands of ele­men­tary stu­dents from across the state enjoyed his hands-on Appalachian music and her­itage pro­gram. He also worked with folks from six coun­ties for the cre­ation of the Appalachian Heritage Monument—a world-class venue that would rebrand Eastern Kentucky in a pos­i­tive light. (Still work­ing on it.) David lives in Valeria, Wolfe County, Kentucky.

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