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We all are experiencing what we could not believe we would ever live.
The youngest among us doctors remember that, after the middle of the last century, with the triumph of antibiotic drugs, we hoped the western world would no longer have to fear infectious diseases. And nowadays, instead? Once again, we are being afraid of it, after the fear of AIDS and other serious events in recent decades. An old history appears another time in front of us.
In many years of teaching in medical schools, I explained to students that the sudden arrival of the black plague in the mid-fourteenth century had surprised doctors and found them powerless to cure the new terrible scourge. Then, I told that, to compensate for the defects of a medicine that ignored the nature of evil, the defence against contagion was ensured only by government magistrates, with the “cordon sanitaire” on the borders and strict rules of isolation of the areas where the disease was prevalent. And then I told how, in search of the perpetrators of the contagion, the society of the time committed the crime of the processes against the “plague-spreaders”.
It also seemed useful to me to recall the cholera of the nineteenth century, when people protested by reproaching the authorities for certain restrictive measures that caused damage to the country’s economy. Over the years of my university teaching, those were centuries-old stories that our strong modern medicine only looked at with antiquarian curiosity, trusting in its unquestionable skills of diagnosis, treatment and prevention.
Nevertheless, every time, concluding the lessons on plague and cholera, I used to suggest a doubt to the students. If the bubonic plague returned (disease that inexplicably eclipsed from Europe in the seventeenth century) and whether cholera episodically reappeared, I told, today we would not be terrified because we know how to cure ourselves.
But I also used to ask them: if instead a serious pandemic flu, like the Spanish one of 1918, arrived, what could we do against it?
It was certainly a serious message, but I was confident that it was only theoretically valid. I did not imagine that would have occurred what then really happened.
While medical science researches and discusses and while doctors and hospitals treat the sick as best they can, defence from the disease is guaranteed only by the punctual intervention of politics that organizes everywhere the modern “cordon sanitaire”, in the same way as at the time of the plague.