The tales of two epidemics

I’m still reading “The Perfect Swarm” by Len Fisher. Although the author decries the pitfall of “groupthink”, and he admits that he is not immune to it, his blanket condemnation of “racism” shows that he may be more prone to it than he thinks.
Nevertheless, his descriptions of how two populations dealt with epidemics are interesting studies in contrast between Europe and black Africa. Regarding the Black Death, Fisher writes (pg. 124, 125):

A signal example of the way in which diseases spread is provided by the story of how the Black Death made it to the English village of Eyam in 1665. The network shortcut in this case was a link between the village tailor, George Viccars, and his London supplier, who sent Viccars a bundle of flea-infested cloth. The fleas were vectors for the Black Death, and Viccars was dead within a week.
In the meantime, though, he had acted as a hub to spread the disease to many others in the village. The village itself could have acted as a hub to spread the disease to surrounding villages were it not for the leadership of the rector and the minister, who persuaded the villagers to quarantine the entire village, allowing no one in or out. Around 540 of the village population of 800 died, but the surrounding villages were unaffected.

Shortly thereafter (also on pg. 125, 126), Fisher tells us of an incident in Africa:

Removing the hubs of sexually transmitted diseases is a much more difficult affair, impinging as it does on the balance of human rights between the infector and his or her partners/victims, and also on the difficulty of identifying the hubs. Education is certainly part of the answer, although it can sometimes go awry, as a colleague of my wife found out when she gave a talk on venereal disease to some children in an African school. She showed a film to demonstrate the chain of events that take place when one person gives the disease to another. At the end of the film one of the children asked, “If I give it to someone else, does that mean that I won’t then have it myself?”
It turned out that every child in the room thought the same thing: that you got rid of a sexually transmitted disease by passing it on. A friend who is an aid worker in Africa tells me that this is also a common misconception in the adult population, and that people who suffer from AIDS or other sexually transmitted diseases often believe that they can get rid of the diseases by passing them on.

Reader of this blog are probably already aware of the ugly ramifications of that last paragraph. But I have not heard of any place on Earth, other than Africa, where such simplistic beliefs are common today. All primitive societies have blamed evil spirits, the gods or witchcraft for the spread of disease – but these primitive societies did not have the benefit of modern education, medicine and hygiene. Modern Africa has had these benefits for quite a few years now. At what point will the Western world collectively tell Africa that it is time for it to solve its own problems? Until it does so, perhaps it should be treated like the village of Eyam.

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10 Responses to The tales of two epidemics

  1. countenance says:

    1665 England > 2012 Africa.
    Dinesh D’Souza once implied that 1500 Africa > 1500 Europe.

  2. WMarkW says:

    Wow. Is there any polling data on what percent of people believe you can cure yourself of an STD by giving it to someone else?

  3. Jehu says:

    That is an incredibly common belief among children. After all, most of the things they have understanding of are zero sum. The plague example really just points up the extreme of the high trust society vs the low trust.
    Most of the people in that village could have increased their probability of personal survival by bugging out—perhaps to as much as 2/3 or 3/4. But doing so would have spread the plague to their neighbors in other villages and cities. So they accepted the greater than 50% deaths instead. Add diversity and there’s no way in hell the social cohesion and trust necessary to implement this squashing of ‘patient zero’ is going to happen.

  4. Yarilo says:

    You probably mentioned this in your blog before JAY, but an even scarier thought is that many adult Africans believe they can get rid of their STDs by passing it onto virgins. Of course, this means many of the newly infected people are children.

  5. Georgia Resident says:

    “Dinesh D’Souza once implied that 1500 Africa > 1500 Europe.”
    That’s probably because he’s a politically correct faux-conservative.

  6. EW says:

    About 5 yrs ago, me and my husband were invited by my English colleague. He took us to Eyam as it was quite close to the place they lived. It is a very small and very traditional village – you may “walk” it through with Google street view. There is also a quite interesting museum, where the stories of various families of the villagers during the plague and afterwards are depicted. Some of these were very moving, especially that of the young rector’s wife, who helped the sick and died herself almost at the end of the epidemy.
    In addition, results of a study concerning the frequency of the deletion in the CCR5 gene (CCR5 gene, delta 32 that is supposed to cause a resistance to bubonic plague) in the lineage of the Eyam survivors are also shown in this museum. It was found in 14% of the descendants which is very high in comparison to the occurrence in European populations not driven through such harsh selection.

  7. JI says:

    And the Black Death was much more difficult to control/contain than is AIDS. I mean, fleas cannot be reasoned with whereas African natives can.

  8. Kiwiguy says:

    Rindermann discusses this type of thinking in assessing the validity of psychometric test results in Africa:
    “Researchers such as Baker (1974) and Hart (2007) have tried to
    develop indicators of intelligence in everyday life and cultural artifacts.
    Examples of such indicators include invention and use of
    script, of the wheel for transport, pottery, the domestication of animals,
    the development of law, use of abstract numbers, appreciation
    of knowledge and school, of ethical systems, no torture and
    self-mutilation, hygiene, and the quality of architecture. Using
    these systematic comparisons across many cultures both authors
    estimated the cognitive development level in Africa as not being
    very high.
    Some may perceive such studies as biased. Every single indicator
    stands not only for cognitive ability but also for other phenomena
    depending on various conditions. If persons remain skeptical it
    is recommendable to develop better justified criteria and then look
    at the empirical material. For instance, it would be possible to assess
    the quality of art, such as the ability to draw and model realistic
    and dynamic pictures and figures; or to develop criteria for
    understanding nature and life (e.g. medical knowledge and effective
    treatment, astronomy). Benchmarks could be works of ancient
    Greece or Nineveh, e.g. King Ashurbanipal hunting lions. Even in
    prehistoric times there may be found valuable works (e.g. Paleolithic
    cave painting; astronomic knowledge as Nebra sky disk and
    Stonehenge; the Maya calendar; inventions as yoke, compass,
    wheelbarrow, gunpowder and rice-farming). Of course, also African
    exceptional achievement will be found (e.g. Nigerian Nok culture,
    Ethiopian Lalibela, Great Zimbabwe). As in tests, single items
    are less reliable than aggregated measures and the result finds its
    meaning in a systematic and thorough comparison including the
    recognition of historical time and neighbor influence.
    A major critique of the outlined indicators is that they cover
    only past history. All peoples were in prehistory less developed
    than today. Contemporary information is necessary. Evidence could
    be provided by indicators of present-day rationality and belief systems.
    According to Piaget (1953) magic thinking is indicative of
    preoperational thinking (usually in Western samples ending at age
    6, at least at age 11, corresponding to an adults IQ of 50–70;
    Rindermann, 2011). Many researchers, anthropologists and journalists
    (e.g. Caldwell, 2002; Dagona, 1994; Kabou, 1991; Signer,
    2004) have documented sorcery, Voodoo, and fetishism in today’s
    African populations. Similar historical reports on belief in witchcraft
    can be found in Europe until 250 years ago (and relics of magic
    thinking remain until today as a kind of not seriously taken
    accompaniment in daily life, e.g. astrology and homeopathy) indicating
    that cognitive modernization is a ongoing historical process.
    Another example is the widespread belief that AIDS is caused by
    supernatural powers (Caldwell, 2002; Oesterdiekhoff & Rindermann,
    2007). Such preoperational thinking in Piaget’s terms unfortunately
    includes members of the political elite, influencing
    politics and culture.1,2”

  9. Black Death says:

    The belief that you cite, common in Africa today, was also frequent in Europe 150 years ago. From Michael Crichton’s excellent historical novel, “The Great Train Robbery”:
    Henry Fowler develops syphilis and, being unwilling to seek medical attention out of embarrassment, decides to seek a remedy by sleeping with a virgin (similar to superstitions about HIV) and asks Pierce for assistance. After charging Fowler the exorbitant price of one hundred guineas for a night of pleasure with a twelve-year-old (twelve being the legal age of consent), Pierce and Agar take advantage of the opportunity to make a copy of Fowler’s key (which he always carries with him around his neck but takes off and leaves on the bedside table during the assignation).

    Thanks for the kind reference.

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