Though I was never a “Matrix” fan, this line always stayed with me. A contemporary version of “those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it”, it strikes a chord of being universally true. It certainly is for emerging diseases anyway, as evidenced by this 17th century painting:
"Plague of London", 1665 [Granger]
This is “Plague of London”, and I first saw it when I was 20 years old. It hangs in my office to this day. The heading, “Lord Have mercy on London”, reflects the dire panic people felt during the plague pandemic of the 1500s. I read the text as “We fly/Keep Out/I follow/We die”, spoken by the apparently uninfected in a city fleeing to a new place/the residents of a new place trying to keep their home disease-free/the plague itself/the infected from the original place, respectively. This painting hits me in the gut every time I see it, because regardless of how much we’ve learned the fear of the people fleeing and the ire of the people guarding their gates never seems to leave us. Fearing disease, on an animalistic level, seems to be a human trait.
Why talk about a 400-year old painting? The sentiment behind it has not changed, as we saw vividly during the 2014 Ebola epidemic. How many took the position of the villagers holding the spears when Dr. Kent Brantly, who was infected with Ebola while caring for patients in West Africa, returned to the US for treatment? How many advocated suspending all flights from Africa, and banning children with African immigrant parents from school? Many. Our memory may fade quickly, but the answer is many. Against all rationality, it is happening again with people who come from Zika-infected countries. All of this has happened before; all of this will happen again.
I’d like to think there is a group missing from the painting, though. The group is the healers, the advocates, the people who stand up for the sick. They are the people who allowed Dr. Brantly into the US to receive the care that undoubtedly saved his life. They are those who tried to tamp down the ire of people who would have left him to die. In the time of plague, they were the physicians and priests who cared for the sick with no understanding of containment or effective treatment, knowing that the odds were they too would become infected and die. I understand the pitchforks and spears, but I understand the missing group even more. The good news is that we do know an awful lot more about infectious diseases than we did when this painting was created. We know more about containment, and we know more about treatment. We know more about screening, and we know more about risk assessment. We do not need to be afraid to the same level we were then. As a society, I think we can all still relate to this painting. Hopefully someday, it will make no sense to us.