John Mitchinson explores how pandemics can have odd and unexpected consequences and ponders what the new ‘normal’ will be post-COVID-19.

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D.H. Lawrence once observed that water was “hydrogen two parts, oxygen one, but there is a third thing that makes it water and nobody knows what that is”. After five weeks of trying to maintain personal and professional relationships via my computer screen, I’m beginning to feel the same thing about communication.

There are sounds and and there are pictures, but I have a nagging feeling that there is a third thing – gesture, pheromones, phatic nuance, spatio-temporal adjustment? – that allows true communication to happen between humans.

Much has been made of the advantages remote working will offer businesses in the post-lockdown world as offices become redundant and home-working becomes the norm, but I’m less sure. Our enforced exile has also reminded us of the value of physical interaction, reactivating a hard-wired need to share our physical space with others. We are a social species; indeed our brains have grown from the evolutionary pressure to manage ever more complex social relationships.

Of course, it may take time for this to feel normal again. The one thing we can say with some certainty is that pandemics can have odd and unexpected consequences.

For example, the Black Death of the 14th Century created a widespread fear of bathing in water. Despite the Middle Ages’ reputation as an era of uninterrupted filth, most medieval European cities and towns had public bathhouses. As well as hot water and steam, a good bathhouse offered food, wine and ‘other’ services. They became the perfect place for romantic assignations and some were little better than high-class brothels (rather like modern ‘massage parlours’). Even so, for almost 400 years, bathing and cleaning the whole body, either in public or private, was considered both normal and desirable.

The Black Death changed all this. Between 1347 and 1350, 25 million people – one-third of Europe’s population – were wiped out and no one could agree how and why the disease had spread. Then, in 1348, a group of medical scholars at the University of Paris published their learned opinion about the plague’s cause: noxious air entering the body through the nose and mouth or the pores of the skin. Water became something to be avoided at all costs, the bathhouses were closed, and for the next 300 years almost no one in Europe washed at all.

The new theory meant the more blocked-up the pores the better, and the same bodily emissions that bathing had once removed now offered protection against the seeping, noxious vapours of disease. To clean himself, the philosopher Francis Bacon used to lie wrapped for 24 hours in a waxed cloth impregnated with resin and spices to close the pores and harden his body against air-borne infections. Oils, powders and scents were used to cover the smell of body odour, and hair was brushed and powdered but washed only in extreme circumstances.

Clean linen magically absorbed all dirt and sweat from the body of the wearer, sucking it from the skin just as plants sucked nutrients from the ground. In Sir Thomas Elyot’s book The Castel of Helth (1534), he recommends the following morning routine: “rubbe the body with a course lynnen clothe, first softely and easilye, and after to increase more and more, to a harde and swyfte rubbynge, untyll the fleshe do swelle, and be somewhat ruddy”. Instead of bathing, Louis XIV (1638-1715), the Sun King, changed his shirt three times a day. A gentleman’s standing was judged by the amount of clean linen he owned. 

A Plague doctor’s beak-shaped mask. Photo: Wikipedia

It is easy for us to mock. As we are learning to our cost, the way a disease spreads can often confound the prevailing medical wisdom. We all ‘know’ that the Black Death was caused by the fleas that infested the black rat, but the speed of the infection’s progress now supports the theory that the Yersinia pestis bacteria was mostly spread by human lice and fleas. Even more troubling, the pneumonic form of the disease (caused by the same bacterium) can be spread by airborne coughs and sneeze from infected victims – so the 17th Century plague doctors, with their beak-shaped masks filled with herbs, weren’t as deluded as was once thought. Worse still, there is now compelling evidence that the plague bacteria have survived for millennia by sequestering themselves inside the amoeba that live in soil, waiting for the right moment to emerge in a mutated form and start the infection cycle again.

All of this should cultivate humility, patience and respect for science as it tries to find a viable vaccine for the Coronavirus. And, ironically, the one lesson that we have learned since we last found our species on the wrong end of a microbial pandemic is that the simplest advice of all – washing our hands with ordinary soap and water and wearing face masks if we do have to go out – is a pretty good place to start.

John Mitchinson is a writer and publisher and co-founder of Unbound, the world’s leading crowdfunding platform for books. He was one of the founders of BBC’s QI.


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