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Why did the Plague spare Poland?
The Black Death skipped certain parts of Europe - and that could be a lesson for today's coronavirus epidemic
- Calm down, we're not comparing COVID-19 to the Plague.
- Well, not literally. But this map raises an interesting question: Why were some parts of Europe spared of the Black Death?
- And can that tell us something about where the coronavirus will or won't spread?
The doctor will see you now
Engraving of 'Doctor Schnabel' ('Dr. Beak'), a plague doctor in 17th-century Rome, wearing the typical mask with which caregivers sought to keep the 'bad air' at bay that they held responsible for the spread of the disease.
Image: Paulus Fürst, ca. 1656 - public domain
The Black Death was a ruthless killer – and, if you were lucky, a swift one. Its more fortunate victims "ate lunch with their friends, and dinner with their ancestors in paradise," wrote Giovanni Boccaccio, who lived through the initial wave of the Plague as it struck Italy in the 1340s.
What does that have to do with the coronavirus? Not a whole lot, fortunately. Except that the brief of this little corner of the internet is to look for strange maps, and one map led to another.
The Plague was brought from China to Europe in the 1330s by rodents hitching rides with traders. The infection with the Yersinia pestis bacterium was typically transmitted to humans by fleabites. The Plague's three manifestations were bubonic (causing painful swellings), septicemic (infecting the bloodstream) and pneumonic (choking off breathing, and transmittable via coughing). Left untreated – as was necessarily the case in the Middle Ages – bubonic plague had a mortality rate of about 50%, for the other two, it's virtually 100%.
Bocaccio's Italy was hit hard by the epidemic. Cities like Venice and Pisa lost three-quarters of their population. The disease followed the traditional trading routes north, racing forward each spring as a new generation of fleas was ready to spread the infection.
The Plague afflicted most of Europe in a relatively brief period. It's estimated that it killed as many as 25 million – a third of Europe's population at the time – in just five short years.
Absent explanations and remedies, Europe's populations turned to God for hope, and victimized outsider groups as scapegoats. Some of Western Europe's worst anti-Jewish pogroms before WWII took place during outbreaks of the Plague.
In just a few years, the Plague had moved from its entry points on the Mediterranean as far north as Scandinavia.
Image: Andy85719 - CC BY-SA 3.0
This map shows the progress of the Plague, from its arrival in the Mediterranean:
- First afflicted (in 1347) were Asia Minor, and the islands of Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica, with just small bridgeheads on the European mainland: Marseilles and environs, Calabria (the tip of Italy's shoe), and the southern shore of what is now Turkish Thrace (i.e. European Turkey).
- By the next year (1348), the disease had achieved a firm foothold in Europe, reaching as far as the gates of Toledo and Paris.
- In early 1349, the Plague had overwhelmed London and Frankfurt, and was poised to pounce Vienna and Bucharest. Later that year, it reached as far as Ireland and Norway.
- Its relentless march north continued. In 1350, it hit Lübeck and Copenhagen, reaching high into Norway. In 1351 and thereafter, it swept further north, touching the entire continent.
But as this map indicates, the Plague spared certain areas (marked green on the map) on march of destruction:
- an area in Italy centered on Milan;
- small, contiguous parts of Spain and France, on either side of the Pyrenees;
- an area in the Low Countries around Bruges;
- a large area in Eastern Europe, stretching from Magdeburg to beyond Warsaw, taking in most of present-day Poland, plus some surrounding areas.
Why? First off, the map is slightly misleading. Green does not mean 'safe', just 'less deadly'. Milan, for example, only lost about 15% of its population. Horrific by today's standards, but a mere trifle compared to the almost wholesale extinction of Italy's other cities. In Poland and the other 'green' areas too, people did die of the Plague, albeit in much lower numbers than elsewhere.
Blues vs. Greys
Interconnected equals infected, and vice versa.
One main reason why Poland escaped relatively unscathed, was the decision by Poland's king, Casimir the Great, to close the country's borders – and set up internal quarantines.
This increased Poland's natural isolation, both from the outside world and between the settlements within the country – generally smaller and less connected than elsewhere in Europe. Prague to Krakow took eight days on horseback. People infected took between 24 to 72 hours to get sick. So the issue would 'resolve' itself well before the danger reached the Polish border.
Isolation plus quarantine certainly helped spare Poland from the worst of the epidemic. One more spurious explanation is that Poland had more cats than other parts of Europe, and thus less disease-carrying rats…
Milan's significantly lower mortality rate may also be down to the city's stricter quarantine measures: The houses of infected families were simply bricked up (with the infected left to die inside).
Like Poland, the French-Spanish area, corresponding to the then-kingdom of Navarre, may have benefited from its relative isolation. Why the area around Bruges – then a thriving port with connections to the Mediterranean – might have been spared, is more of a mystery.
So, what's the lesson, if any? Isolation definitely helps against infectious diseases. But that's about the only advantage of being isolated. Take this map of the spread of COVID-19 as of 11 am on 5 March. If you had to divide the world into 'fun' and 'no fun' halves, they would correspond quite well with the blue and grey zones on this map, respectively.
For example, one sure-fire way to limit your exposure to the outside world is to have a bloody civil war – see Yemen, Libya and Syria. Another is to be a destination as out of the way and unconnected as Paraguay, the Central African Republic or Mongolia.
If it's the price of living in an interconnected world, then perhaps there are worse things than having to fight off a slightly deadlier iteration of the flu. Praise globalization and pass the hand sanitizer – with your elbows, please!
Strange Maps #1014
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sallie Krawcheck and Bob Kulhan will be talking money, jobs, and how the pandemic will disproportionally affect women's finances.
Got $55 million lying around? If so, you might be able to score a spot aboard the International Space Station starting 2024.
- NASA awarded a contract to startup Axiom Space to attach a "habitable commercial module" to the International Space Station.
- The project will also include a research and manufacturing module.
- The move is a major step in NASA's years-long push to privatize.
Image: Axiom Space<p>But first, space-tourist-hopefuls would have to pass through physical and medical exams, and 15 weeks of expert training. After that, the trip sounds pretty comfy:</p><p>"There will be wifi," Suffredini <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/09/style/axiom-space-travel.html" target="_blank">told the New York Times</a> last year. "Everybody will be online. They can make phone calls, sleep, look out the window. [...] The few folks that have gone to orbit as tourists, it wasn't really a luxurious experience, it was kind of like camping. [...] Pretty soon we're going to be flying a butler with every crew."</p>
A render of the ISS tourist experience.
Image: Axiom Space<p>In a blog post, NASA wrote:</p><p>"Developing commercial destinations in low-Earth orbit is one of <a href="https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-opens-international-space-station-to-new-commercial-opportunities-private" target="_blank">five elements</a> of NASA's plan to open the International Space Station to new commercial and marketing opportunities. The other elements of the five-point plan include efforts to make station and crew resources available for commercial use through a new commercial use and pricing policy; enable private astronaut missions to the station; seek out and pursue opportunities to stimulate long-term, sustainable demand for these services; and quantify NASA's long-term demand for activities in low-Earth orbit."</p>
NASA's push to privatize the ISS<p>When a Russian rocket launched the first module of the ISS into space in 1998, NASA expected the space station to operate for about 15 years. But the agency has extended the life of the ISS twice, with funding currently set to expire in 2024. NASA spends between $3 and $4 billion per year operating and shuttling astronauts to and from the station. That's a decent chunk of the agency's $22.6 annual budget. What's more, the "major structural elements" of the ISS are certified only through 2028.</p><p>Meanwhile, NASA has been eyeing other projects, namely: putting humans back on the moon in 2024 and establishing a lunar presence. So, to save and redirect money, the agency has been starting to hand over the aging space station to the private sector, which could use it for commercial research and space tourism.</p><p>But some have questioned the move to privatize the ISS, including NASA's own inspector general, Paul K. Martin.</p><p>"An obvious alternative to privatization is to extend current ISS operations," Martin wrote in a <a href="https://oig.nasa.gov/docs/CT-18-001.pdf" target="_blank">2018 report</a>. "An extension to 2028 or beyond would enable NASA to continue critical on-orbit research into human health risks and to demonstrate the technologies that will be required for future missions to the Moon or Mars."</p>
Image: Axiom Space<p>Martin noted that "research into 2 other human health risks and 17 additional technology gaps is not scheduled to be completed until sometime in 2024," meaning that any slip-ups in the process would mean such research might go uncompleted. He also wrote that it's "questionable" whether the private sector could turn a profit on the ISS without "significant" government funding. The Institute for Defense Analyses, a federally funded research and development center, <a href="https://docs.house.gov/meetings/SY/SY00/20180517/108302/HHRG-115-SY00-Wstate-LalB-20180517.pdf" target="_blank">also found</a> that it "is unlikely that a commercially owned and operated space station will be economically viable by 2025."</p><p>The implication is that, if the ISS is handed over to the private sector, taxpayers could end up indirectly supporting space tourism for the ultra-rich. Whether that's worth any of the research benefits that might come from the ISS post-2024 is anybody's guess.</p><p>As the ISS enters its final years, China <a href="http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2019-10/17/c_138479514.htm" target="_blank">plans</a> to complete construction of a manned space station in 2022.</p>
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