Coronavirus, plague, epidemics: the government of health emergencies

On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that COVID-19 is a pandemic: we are facing an emergency that requires severe measures, involving countries, institutions, individual citizens.

This is not the first time that man has been confronted with a serious danger represented by the spread of a disease against which there are no effective remedies to stop it. It happened, for example, during the medieval black plague and during the two seventeenth-century epidemic waves that involved our peninsula: the "Manzonian" one in 1630 and the one in 1656, which affected the territories of Naples, Rome and Genoa.

All this, today as in the past, puts the government authorities to the test, forcing them to take drastic measures to protect the population. And, when the etiology of a disease is not clear and how to defeat it is not known, fighting it often means preventing it in order to avoid as much as possible what, not by chance, historical sources define as "contagion".

Prevention in the past was implemented through various measures: sick and convalescent people were hospitalized in lazarettos; entire centres were isolated by means of medical cordons; quarantines - which generally consisted of forty days of total isolation - were rigidly imposed in order to avoid the contract between the healthy and the sick; police measures were very strict, from the arrest to the order to shoot transgressors who did not observe isolation. This was because it was precisely the transgressors who represented the real danger of the plague, the true "anointers", and contributed decisively to its spread.

History repeats itself today. Not because the plague is the same as the coronavirus, but because once again governing an epidemic emergency of this magnitude is an extremely difficult and complex task. It is not easy to block regular economic activities and prevent people from going to the usual places of leisure and prayer by various measures, convincing them to stay at home and work as much as possible. And even today exceptional, urgent and rigorous measures cannot admit exceptions because, if not strictly applied, they facilitate the spread of contagion.

The history of epidemics of the modern age can, therefore, also be read through the difficult role of the institutions, the choices and the "policies" adopted by them, at central and local level. And it is interesting to observe how many similarities with the epidemics of the past present the current health emergency caused by the coronavirus. Not so much for the studies on the origin and evolution of the disease, but for the methods available to the authorities to govern and combat it: in the absence of adequate medical remedies to annihilate the disease, prevention often remains the first path to follow. The other aspects that may arise from such emergencies can also be addressed through sound socio-economic measures to be taken.

Today, through scientific research, more and more efficient ways and means are sought to accompany the prevention of these epidemics. And perhaps even history, so neglected today, still remains an important source of knowledge. By explaining how the pandemics of the past were dealt with, it can still offer us a useful lesson to complement the teachings provided by the so-called "hard" sciences and its laboratories. A lesson capable of helping the competent bodies to better govern and cope with emergencies and the population involved to acquire a greater awareness of the moments of crisis they are called to live.


Idamaria Fusco (CNR-ISMed), storica di età moderna, autrice dei volumi:

Peste, demografia e fiscalità nel Regno di Napoli del XVII secolo (Franco Angeli, Milano, 2007)

La grande epidemia. Potere e corpi sociali di fronte all’emergenza nella Napoli spagnola (Guida editori, Napoli 2017)

To learn more read the interview with Idamaria Fusco on the il Mattino of Naples