There is a lot to say about epidemics, because epidemics are as old as Man himself.
While what we’ve been experiencing since last month is, without a doubt, unprecedented for our generation and the one of our parents, epidemics and pandemics are not new to Humankind. In Italy, throughout history, they have affected our lives so much that some of our most beautiful — and well known — literature made of them bona fide narrative characters; that’s exactly what happened in Boccaccio’s Decameron, where the 1348’s European plague epidemic was pretext for a group of wealthy Florentines to self isolate in the countryside, and spend their time telling to one another the very stories that formed the backbone of the work. Some of you may be also familiar with Alessandro Manzoni’s Promessi Sposi (the Betrothed), a love story set on a backdrop of pestilence and death in the very cities and valleys, those of Lombardia, where Covid-19 has claimed the most victims — reason for which many an Italian chose the novel as their quarantine reading.
But the history of epidemics in the Belpaese dates further back in time and goes all the way to the glorious centuries of the Roman Empire. Galen, doctor and writer whose medical knowledge influenced the scientific world for over 13th centuries, left us accounts of what is known as the Antonine Plague, a pandemic that hit Rome and the whole Empire between 165 and 180 AD. While the actual nature of the pandemic has never been fully ascertained — some historians says it was smallpox, others measles — we know it was spread by soldiers returning from the Roman-Parthian campaigns. Another Roman historian Cassius Dio, recounted how the illness arrived to kill 2000 people a day in Rome and, ultimately, a quarter of all the infected. According to his words, the pandemic continued on and off for the good part of 30 years, decimating the Roman army. It is estimated it may have caused between 5 and 30 million victims.
A few centuries later, the — by then Eastern — Roman Empire was the epicenter of a deadly pandemic again. It was the year 541 AD and Rome no longer was the caput mundi, replaced by Costantinople. From there, plague spread its deadly, black tentacles across the Mediterranean, following the commercial routes that connected all the major ports of the basin. This wasn’t a contained epidemic, if it’s true that outbreaks took place regularly for two centuries, causing an estimated dead count ranging between 20 and 100 million. From a socio-cultural point of view, the Justinian plague had similar effects to those of its way more famous 14th century’s cousin, the Black Death. Modern research also shows that it was, indeed the same bacterium, Yersinia Pestis, to cause both epidemics.
… The Black Death, yes. Most of us, when thinking about epidemics, think about that one, the most deadly and terrifying example of what a fast and easily spreading infection can do to a continent. In those years there was no cure, no vaccine, no treatment and knowledge about how infectious diseases could spread was little, which resulted in the literal decimation of Europe’s population: 25 million dead in 7 years, one third of the continent’s inhabitants. However the Black Death, which had reached Sicily and Genoa in 1347, following — once again — trade routes across the Mediterranean, was to teach the world something incredibly important: isolation and containment could stop the spreading of infections effectively. The timely rules and restrictions imposed, for instance, by the Visconti family in Milan, which limited immensely the circulation of goods and people in their territories, saved the Signoria from widespread contagion and losses. Plague returned to the shores of Europe with a certain regularity for centuries, including the epidemic mentioned by Manzoni in The Betrothed, which took place in 1630-31 causing 1.5 million victims in Italy alone.
The first pandemic to hit the world, and Italy, in the 20th century was, of course, the infamous Spanish Flu, the mother of all modern pandemics. Considered the most lethal and frightening of them all, Spanish flu likely spread through soldiers during the First World War and modern research underlines the possibility its incredibly high mortality — it killed between 50 and 100 million people in two years around the world, and 600.000 in Italy, over a population of 36 million — was not only due to the specific virulence of the H1N1 flu strain, but also to other detrimental factors, largely tied to the consequences of four years of war, including malnutrition and unprepared hospitals. Whichever the reason behind the lethality of the Spanish Flu, the disease reduced life expectancy of a whopping 12 years among the people of Italy and the world.
After the end of the Second World War, Italy was hit by both global pandemics and localized epidemics in specific parts of the country. In 1957, the A H2N2 virus caused yet another flu pandemic, named Asian Flu, which ended only in 1960, after a vaccine was found. In Italy, l’Asiatica infected about 57% of the population at that time and caused 30.000 deaths. Asian Flu returned, modified, in December 1969 and, while it was almost fully defeated by Christmas, it still managed to infect around 13 million Italians and killing about 5.000.
Then, in 1973, Italy was hit by a sudden cholera epidemic, which involved the regions of Campania, Apulia and Sardinia and lasted from the 20th of August to the 12th of October of that year. The disease, which probably was transmitted to man through the consumption of infected raw seafood, caused 278 cases and 24 victims. Fears and anxiety spread more than the disease itself among population, with the Cotugno hospital in Naples (still today one of the best infectious diseases’ hospitals in the country) admitting almost 1000 people in 10 days for tests. However, the epidemic was, in fact, handled quite well: shortly after the disease began spreading, over 1 million Neapolitans were vaccinated against it in a week. A great effort of the local healthcare system, supported by the help of Americans in Italy: the special syringes used, which made inoculation much quicker, were provided by the United States Sixth Fleet which, yesterday just like today, has its headquarters in Naples.