The life-saving act of washing

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The life-saving act of washing


The year was 1346. The place was Caffa, a port city on the Cremian peninsula, the center of trade between the Eastern and Western worlds at that time. Jani Beg, the commander of the Mongol army who had surrounded the city for the past three years, left his farewell gift to the citizens there. He catapulted the bodies of his soldiers who had died suddenly from a mysterious disease over the fortress walls. The deadly germs infected the city this way.

This was the moment when the Black Death, which broke out in Asia and spread rapidly through the Silk Road, reached Europe for the first time. The Genoese traders who took refuge inside the city walls became carriers of the disease. The next year, in every port that they dropped by on their way home, countless people were infected. The disease spread into every corner of Europe and within a year it reached Britain, the Arabian Peninsula and the Nile River Delta.

The story comes from Arno Karlen’s book “Plague’s Progress: A Social History of Man and Disease.”

The Black Death swept across the globe except the New World, making it one of history’s deadliest pandemics. In each country, one-third to half of the population succumbed to the disease. The number of fatalities reached 42 million, 25 million of them Europeans. The cause of the spread of the disease were the germ-laden fleas that feasted on rats living close to humans in pursuit of food.

However, as there was no concept of pandemics back then, people found a reason elsewhere. Instead of eradicating rats, tens of thousands of people whipped themselves, believing the plague was punishment from the gods who were enraged at the sins committed by mankind. Witch hunts were common as well. A rumor spread that the Jews transmitted germs and some were burned alive.

The Jews fell victim to the rumor because for some reason, they were not infected. The Talmud explains that it was thanks to Jewish tradition, which emphasizes the importance of personal hygiene.

Washing one’s hands was regarded as a holy act of meeting with God and it was strictly abided by. Meanwhile, commoners in the Middle Ages didn’t pay much attention to washing. There was even a joke that if money was hidden under the soap, they would still never find it.

The new influenza outbreak that started in Mexico has spread to many countries but Koreans have thus far evaded infection. Perhaps this is because we, too, take our hygiene seriously. Nonetheless, we must not let down our guard. Germs and viruses reach far and fast with air travel these days, and nobody knows when a pandemic will break out. It is reassuring to know that today, as in the Middle Ages, we can help prevent another outbreak by washing our hands.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Shin Ye-ri []
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