The Great Plague of Marseille and Misinformation: Then and Now | Opinion

As was the case with the COVID-19 pandemic, misinformation made an 18th century health disaster even worse

Medical staff tend to a COVID-19 patient. Courtesy of University Hospitals

Medical staff tend to a COVID-19 patient (Photo courtesy of University Hospitals/Ohio Capital-Journal).

By Jean-Marc Durand

As we contemplate the approaching third anniversary of the outbreak of COVID-19, we have an opportune moment to think about how our experiences will become part of history. One way to do this is to revisit how other pandemics have been remembered. One helpful example is the Great Plague of Marseille, which occurred from 1720 to 1723.

As the last outbreak of bubonic plague in Europe, the Great Plague was exacerbated by the lies of a government, and highlights just how far misinformation can harm a populace, even in a time before mass transit, instant communication, and hyper globalization.

 The story of this 18th-century pandemic began on May 25, 1720, when a ship named the Grand Saint-Antoine arrived in the port of Marseille, France. Before arriving, the Grand Saint-Antoine had spent a year circumnavigating the Mediterranean and loading cargo, including silks and cotton.

Stops included Cyprus, which was beset with plague, typically spread through infected fleas and the rodents that carry them.

During its voyage, several sailors died, suffering telltale signs of bubonic plague, including painful, enlarged lymph nodes on the neck, groin, and underarms known as buboes. Significantly, in part because deaths due to illness were routine, these went unreported by the sailors when they made landfall. When the inspectors were bribed by a greedy city official to allow part of the infected cargo to come ashore without inspection, plague began to spread.

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As the number of infections and deaths in the city climbed, residents of Marseilles, who knew to fear plague, panicked. City officials, however, prioritized the economy of this significant commercial port over the lives of the citizens.

Instead of attempting to contain the infection, officials launched an elaborate campaign of misinformation in an effort to contain public fear.

Among other tactics, they paid doctors to diagnose the disease as a malignant fever rather than plague. As the death toll mounted and mass graves overflowed, Marseille’s citizens sought to flee the city, occasioning a hastily imposed city quarantine. Despite city officials’ belated public health measures, plague spread to the countryside, leading to a total death toll of some 100,000 people, including over half of the city’s 90,000 residents.

The Great Plague of Marseille is remembered for many things, including its long-term devastation of Marseille’s population. As the last outbreak in the four centuries of plague in Europe, it recalled the human suffering experienced in the Black Death in the mid-14th century.

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Today the Great Plague stands out above all for the misinformation campaign undertaken by city officials. Even with the medical knowledge and practices available to city officials in the 1720s, they chose a path of obscuration and dishonesty, one that would ultimately cost more human lives.

When we think about the multiple ways in which the history of Covid-19 will be written, we need to pay special attention to the governments that undertook misinformation campaigns. In countries from Brazil to China, Russia, Serbia, Tanzania, the United States, Venezuela, and beyond, public officials deliberately misled the population for short-term political or economic gain, at the cost of untold harm and loss of life.

With knowledge in hand of a similar incident from the past, one can more easily spot the telltale signs of unscrupulousness on the part of a government. Understanding what came before can be vital to identify these dangers as history tends to repeat itself.

As the French say, plus ça changeplus c’est la même chose.

Jean-Marc Durand is a senior majoring in English and minoring in History at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.

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Capital-Star Guest Contributor
Capital-Star Guest Contributor

The Pennsylvania Capital-Star welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation on how politics and public policy affects the day-to-day lives of people across the commonwealth.