A case study of 1720 Marseilles plague

by Gazi Mizanur Rahman | Published: 00:00, Jul 02,2020


A contemporary painting of Marseille during the great plague. — Wikimedia

THERE are resemblances between Plague and COVID-19. Both the diseases are highly contagious and life-threatening. Plague struck people with as much panic as novel coronavirus is doing now before the discovery of vaccine against Yersinia Pestis which is responsible for the epidemic. Since there was no remedy for it until the end of the 20th century, isolation and quarantine were the only methods to safeguard people from plague that time. Fortunately, scientists by now have discovered vaccines as well as curative medicines to treat plague, which is now almost extinct from the world.

We have no medicinal remedy for COVID-19 till date and so, the disease has been going on with its devastation since December 2019. Nations around the world are trying to fight against it with isolation and quarantine procedures just as people fought against plague in the past with similar sort of protective measures. But people are found prone to break the rules of restrictions imposed by the authorities concerned. As a result, they had to suffer much on many occasions. A devastating plague that occurred in 1720–21 at Marseilles in France washed away one hundred thousand people of the port city and its adjoining suburbs. If we look into the fact how this great bubonic plague of Marseilles got its footing to spread, we find a lot of points to ponder on the recent increase of COVID-19 cases in Bangladesh.

Versailles is a very important sea-port in France. It was the gateway to imported goods from the Middle East and West Asian countries on the bank of the Mediterranean to enter France. At that time, silk and cotton business was at its peak. The merchant ship Grand-Sainte-Antoine sailed for Marseilles from Sidon, a port in Lebanon, sometime in 1719. The ship visited Tripoli and Cyprus on the way and reached the destination in May 1720. It was a time when lengthy precaution measures against plague were in practice in view of European countries being affected one after another. The Marseilles port authority imposed an obsequious method of quarantine for ships supposed to arrive at the port. A sanitation board composed of experts were to check all people on board a ship to establish that there is none affected with plague. A ship had to wait in quarantine for a mandatory period of 18 days in the outer harbour before it would be supplied with the certificate of fitness. If any doubt arose in the meantime, the ship was to wait for 40 more days at a far-off place from the port. This process is almost similar to the COVID-19 quarantine and isolation procedure.

The Grand-Sainte-Antoine was having silk and cotton products meant for sale in a forthcoming fair in France. The rich merchants were impatient to take the delivery of the products without waiting for the quarantine period. They imposed pressure on the authority of the port to issue clearance certificate. The authority, without meticulous investigation, believing in fake documents testifying plague-free condition, issued certificates and the ship entered the port without the requisite quarantine. The result of this compromise with the mandatory formal investigation brought a disastrous effect on the life of the city dwellers. A few days after the arrival of the Grand-Sainte-Antoine, the port city of Marseilles started to get affected by plague. The authority had to construct walls around Marseilles and they had to enact stringent law to allow the police to charge people attempting to cross the wall with an offence punishable with death penalty. Still, infection and death continued for 18 months and one hundred thousand lives perished. Thus, the people of Marseilles had to suffer for some of their fellow city dwellers who violated the rules of restrictions.

Now let us look into some lead news in some daily newspapers published in Bangladesh recently. One daily reported, ‘After day-long drama about quarantining people retuning from Italy, the authorities last night allowed 142 of them to go home and asked them to be in self-isolation.’ Another newspaper reported on May 4, ‘No one will be allowed to return to their home districts during Eid holidays. Inter-district transport services will remain suspended during the period.’ This report had a reference to the announcement of the cabinet division. It was supplemented on May 18 in another daily newspaper that reported under the headline of the police taking a hard stand to stop people’s movement before Eid, telling at least 53 checkposts would be set up on three highways and at entry and exit points of Dhaka city to prevent the outgoing and incoming of people. But to our surprise, we had to read news like the following in one daily newspaper on May 23 under the headline of ‘Thousands leave city amid relaxed travel curbs’. It said that thousands of people continued to leave Dhaka the previous day as the government apparently relaxed travel restrictions before Eid. It becomes clear from the statements that people could not be stopped from behaving in a way they were supposed not to in the greater interest of public safety and security. The result is, perhaps, an increase in novel coronavirus infection cases in the country now.

If we have anything to learn from the analogy, it is imperative for all of us that we follow the restrictive instructions of the government, city corporations, district administrations and other organisations authorized by the law to administer in public affairs. The same obsequiousness is expected of the authorities concerned that they should implement the directives whole-heartedly for the good of the citizens.

Gazi Mizanur Rahman, a former civil servant, is a writer.

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