'With Covid-19, we have to look back and learn lessons. History repeats itself'

Janis Beernaerts.
Janis Beernaerts. / SUR
  • The consequences of coronavirus can be predicted in some way, says Dr Janis Beernaerts, a retired doctor and pandemic expert

The current pandemic is considered by many as something out of the ordinary and unprecedented. However, many centuries ago the world was confronted with something similar. The retired Costa del Sol doctor Janis Beernaerts, who lives in Mijas, has always been interested in pandemics. He believes that history has a tendency to repeat itself. As a result there is much in common between Covid-19 and the Plague of the 14th century.

Janis, what do you mean by 'history repeats itself'?

History is cyclical. As memory fades, events from the past can become events of the present. That is why some people are panicking nowadays and see the current pandemic as something horrible that has never happened on our planet. But we have to look back and to learn lessons. I would like to draw a parallel to the Plague - better known as the Black Death because it killed over thirty per cent of Europe's population in the fourteenth century. By the way, both Covid-19 and the Plague are infectious diseases and also zoonotic diseases because they were spread from certain animals to humans.

Any other similarity?

They both originated in China. It is quite curious, that in October 2010, international medical geneticists led by Mark Achtman came to the conclusion that all great waves of the plague had their bacterium "evolved in or near China". The Black Death probably also originated very close to China. From there the disease may have travelled along the Silk Road with Mongol armies and traders. It is known that around the year 1343, the Plague reached Crimea and from there was "transported" to Europe with Genoese traders.

As in case with the current Covid-19, the Black Death in Europe also hit the Italians first...

It looks like it. The first European cases of the Plague and Covid-19 were reported in Italy. In 1347 the disease reached the southern island of Sicily with twelve Genoese galleys. Then it spread to Genoa, Venice and later Rome and Florence as they were the centres of trade routes. By the middle of 1348, the Black Death had struck Marseille, Paris, Bordeaux, Lyon and even London.

What about Spain?

The Plague raged in Spain in the early weeks of July 1348; almost at the same time as it was spreading in Italy and France. It is believed that it entered through the ports of Barcelona and Valencia. Lots of Spaniards were dying. In Spain, the population fell drastically from six million to 2.5 million. There is no information about Malaga which, as we know, at that time was a part of the Moorish kingdom of Granada. However, it was reported that the epidemic returned to Barcelona five times, in a period of 28 years. At the same time, for example, the majority of the Basque Country avoided the Plague as it was very agricultural and quite isolated.

Was isolation also undertaken in the 14th century?

The practice of quarantine actually began during the Plague. This is also a similarity. First of all, it was necessary to protect coastal cities from the epidemic. It started in Venice where ships arriving from infected ports were required to sit at anchor for 40 days before landing. Actually, in the beginning the sailors were held on their ships for 30 days and it was called a 'trentino'. I want to emphasise that, because of lack of information, there was much more panic than now. Healthy people tried to do anything to avoid the sick. Moreover, doctors refused to see patients and priests refused to administer last rites. Shopkeepers closed their stores. Many people fled from the cities to the countryside.

Did self-isolation help a lot?

Yes. The infected and their families were confined to their houses for several weeks. Some efforts were made to provide them with food. More drastic measures were introduced. For example, sometimes those who were sick were banished from towns along with their relatives for at least three months. Their homes were burned to the ground. Only in some towns the infected were allowed to enter to do shopping with some restrictions. In general, vigorous attempts were made to improve hygiene, since many doctors were employed. I actually want people to learn the effectiveness of quarantine from the past.

Janis, knowing the history, could you forecast the consequences of the current coronavirus?

The main consequence that resulted from the Plague was population decline. Moreover, in most parts of Europe land values declined by almost 40%. I have heard that properties are not expected to largely hold their value. As for the wages, they soared in response to a labour shortage. Landowners faced a great loss and were also pushed to substitute monetary rents for labour services in an effort to keep tenants. At the same time, the price of food dropped. In general, some historians claim, that the Plague weakened feudalism. So I would also expect a kind of similar changes in our society in the near future. I cannot say for sure if the prices will increase a lot but some mental and value changes definitely must happen. It is a good lesson for us that we should remain aware that not everything depends on us and in some moments, like pandemic, we all - regardless of gender, social status, income or wealth, ethnicity, sexual orientation - are totally equal.