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  • Gregory Perreault

Lessons the Great Plague of Vienna has for the Coronavirus


The Great Plague of Vienna ravaged this city in 1679. To this day, the exact form of this plague is a mystery because there were so many plagues at the time. Most likely it was a subset (mutation?) of the many other plagues raging across Europe. Historical accounts seem to suggest the bubonic plague, but smallpox and other plagues were also prevalent at the time. The history from 1300 to the 1700s is littered with accounts of low life expectancy, high infant mortality, and plague-after-plague. The plague of 1679 was especially taxing, with estimations of the death count ranging to 75,000 people, which, if it needs noting, was a not insignificant population in the city.


The plague hit the city in the gut. Emperor Leopold I fled the city to avoid the sickness and promised the Viennese that if plague passed he would erect a monument to God. And here the monument stands, the plague passed.


Plagues have lessons to teach us.


Leopold's actions, I must admit, speak to me more of political acumen than faith (he is presented piously in the column, but that pious prayer was undertaken from the relative safety of Prague while his people suffered here).


Nevertheless, as much as the plague presents an absolutely unquantifiable loss--we can numerate the people, but that doesn't reflect the loss of mothers, fathers, children--it is also noteworthy that here it stands nearly four centuries later, the sickness passed and our world moved on. In the wake of that plague, Vienna modernized: creating sewers, modern roads, and introducing santization, clean water, and quarantine protocols that have guided the city in the centuries since. This does not rationalize the disease, but its important to look to the lessons these events have to teach us.


In terms of raw impact, the coronavirus will have a longer lasting impact. In the years that follow, monuments will certainly be built. Our leaders will have a reckoning for what they did well and what they did not. But we will be here to look at those monuments, and--I suspect--that as with the Great Plague of Vienna there will be lessons here to stay long after the coronavirus has faded?


Personal take? I mean, I'm not a public health expert, but since you've insisted.


-I suspect mask wearing will be more common for years. It never occurred to me how much I was sick during most years until 2020; masks, uncomfortable social distancing, and I...wasn't sick once. Many societies (Japan) have had a more accepting culture of masks and I would not be surprised to see masks more commonly in 2023 than in 2019.

-I suspect there will be an increased expectation of remote work. I know, I know. I find videoconferencing more physically exhausting than in person. But I think there's a good chance that many process that seemed essential to be done in person, have been found to work (more cheaply, safely, efficiently?) through video calls.

-Not as much a suspicion as a hope--I hope that we will have learned to take our information more seriously: to consider that news shared through funny memes might....not be the best avenue to make health decisions. And that maybe the people verify and check information for a living might be granted a bit more consideration when we're making our decisions.

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