Yes, it’s 2020, and bad things are happening. But the diagnoses of a few cases of plague in Mongolia and Inner Mongolia do not portend a rerun of the Black Death. Like the so-called murder hornets, this scare is another dud.
As we’ve mentioned before, a few cases of plague make the news every year. Plague is a disease caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, and the disease it causes is known as bubonic plague if it infects your lymph nodes, and pneumonic plague if it infects your lungs.
Even though the plague pandemic of the 1300s is one of the best known, the disease has never really gone away. It infects rodents more often than people, and there are known “reservoirs” of plague, as they’re called, in the marmots of Mongolia and the prairie dogs of the southwestern United States. Between one and 17 people are diagnosed with plague every year in the US. According to the World Health Organisation, there were 3,248 cases and 584 plague deaths globally between 2010 and 2015.
Plague is still serious and can be fatal, but it is treatable with antibiotics. (If you think you have plague, please, seek medical care.)
“The word ‘plague’ often conjures up ‘medieval’ so that many people assume plague has disappeared,” Winston Black, a historian of medicine, wrote to me in an email. “Journalists depend on this… ignorance to bring out story after story in which minor, localised outbreaks of plague are presented as the potential return of the Black Death. That misleading portrayal is even more common now during COVID, as plague can be added to the litany of terrors (e.g. murder hornets in Canada) that are used to drive clicks (or ‘sell papers,’ if that’s ever done anymore).”
There’s no reason to believe plague is any more of a threat this year than it was last year, or the year before that. Black says he’s more concerned about COVID than plague, but notes if you’re ready to look beyond the newsiest pandemic, other diseases like tuberculosis and malaria claim millions of lives globally each year.
Still, there’s perhaps a reason we’re extra interested in plague right now. “The stories told by European and Middle Eastern authors (Christian, Jews and Muslims) about plague were repeated and expanded for centuries, and provide us with the language and range of emotions and reactions that are deemed “acceptable” or “normal” in the face of a pandemic,” Black says.
We are already living through one pandemic that is a global, (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon. That’s enough on its own, isn’t it?