I want to put you a text, from February 2020, the ideological landscape in which the coronavirus arrived for the first time. This is a review in The London Review of Books, an excellent, high-profile, center-left publication, covering a book on the plague and quarantine in 17th century Italy. The book, by University of London historian John Henderson, details attempts by the city of Florence – led by its public health council, the Sanità – to avoid the terrible fate of other Italian cities: to first by closing the city to commerce and then by imposing quarantines, lockdowns and what we now call social distancing.
The sympathies of the critics – Erin Maglaque, another historian of early modern Europe – do not exactly go to La Sanità. Like our federal government in 2020, the Florentine state has spent lavishly to make its restrictions sustainable, delivering wine, bread and meat to households (“On Tuesday they had a sausage seasoned with pepper, fennel and rosemary ‘) during compulsory confinement. But quarantine was also inevitably punitive and authoritarian, and Maglaque’s review details how public health restrictions reproduced and exacerbated inequalities and how already disadvantaged groups – the poor, the Jews, the prostitutes – were seen as negative. particularly dangerous “vectors of contagion” and controlled accordingly. .
Meanwhile, the friendliest characters in her tale are people who have found ways to steal some normal life regardless of public health restrictions – like two girls, Maria and Cammilla, who danced illegally with their friends. and had the parents of these friends arrested. At the end of the review, Maglaque notes that Florence has achieved a much lower death rate than other Italian cities – barely 12%, compared to 33% in Venice, 46% in Milan and 61% in Verona. But she hesitates to give the Sanità all the credit; maybe the disease was just “less virulent” among the Florentines. And in addition:
The percentages tell us something about life and death. But they don’t tell us much about survival. The Florentines understood the dangers, but still played with their lives: out of boredom, desire, habit, sorrow. To find out what it means to survive, we had better watch Maria and Cammilla, the teenage sisters who danced during the year of the plague.
It’s a nice review of a fascinating sounding book, but I admit that when I reached that end – and again, I was reading it in early 2020, when Covid was a concern but not yet a global crisis – I rolled my eyes a bit. . Sanità measures obviously work! Percentages to do tell us about survival, because thousands of Florentines Survived to dance and play and go to mass and frequent brothels for years and years after their difficult but temporary quarantine period! One could sympathize with the prostitutes who continued to work, the peasants slipping “past bored guards playing cards” or the girls who broke the rules and danced. But given that La Sanità was battling a disease that was killing more than half of the population in some cities, it sounded like madness to romanticize flawed rules.
And not just insanity, but a particular kind of left-wing madness – even worse, left-wing academic madness – while my more pro-Sanità reaction was impeccably right-wing. In a crisis, the government must act to save lives, even if ordinary freedoms must be suspended. Yes, there will be inequities distributed unevenly; yes, it is good to point it out. But if the temporary authoritarianism of the Sanità saved thousands of lives, then it deserved the gratitude of the Florentines, despite the costs.