How the Black Death Shaped Modern Public Health Emergency Preparedness: A Review of Expelling the Plague


One of the core functions of government is to keep those whose individual rights it was constituted to protect free from contagion from other humans (through both accidental non-deliberate transmission as well as deliberate transmission in acts of biological warfare or bioterrorism) . This function  manifested through infectious disease surveillance programs, quarantine and isolation laws, and various biodefense programs. These programs are largely managed through public health agencies that have existed for quite some time and their place of origin is not a all obvious as these organized activities really began several centuries ago in the time of the Black Death (1377) on the Dalmatian Coast in a now-defunct republic called Ragusa (Dubrovnik) -- now part of Croatia. 

The operations of this nascent public health office and its battle with the plague are the subject of the 2015 book Expelling the Plague: The Health Office and the Implementation of Quarantine in Dubrovnik, 1377– 1533 by Zlata Blažina Tomić and Vesna Blažina. In this scholarly book, the literal day-to-day operations of this agency are recounted in meticulous detail drawn from extensive records from the city-state that still exist. 

I think it was prescient of the Ragusans to realize, as the authors note, that "more threatening than the mortality itself was, and still is, the challenge of the epidemic disease to the ideological structures that sustain all societies. The sense of origin, identity, purpose, and future of a society are all badly shaken and seriously disrupted by epidemics." This recognition underlies the creation of the health office, its prominence, and the delegated powers it possessed. 

The authors emphasize how important scientific knowledge underlied the use of quarantine as it is preventive isolation and presupposes the ideas of contagion (before the articulation of the germ theory of disease, health carriers, and the limitations of physical examination. 

The book also details the sentences -- many of which were extremely severe -- for those who broke the laws. These sentences were matched to the severity of the consequences of the accused action (e.g. did it lead to the death of someone) and could range from fines to branding to execution. 

To me, the chief value of this academic work is the illustration of a pioneering proactive approach to infectious disease outbreak management that forms the basis of how many nations respond to these threats over 600 years later. While the penalties imposed are revolting to the modern reader (or should be), it is important to not drop historical context and fail to realize that the Ragusans were reacting to what would be, in modern terms, a global catastrophic biological risk