❝London, 1665. The capital smelled of death in its last large outbreak of the Plague, the worst since the Black Death of the 14th century. The diarist Samuel Pepys mourned, “Every day sadder and sadder news of its increase. In the City died this week 7,496; and of all of them, 6,102 of the Plague. But it is feared that the true number of the dead this week is near 10,000 — partly from the poor that cannot be taken notice of through the greatness of the number.”
❝As the deaths mounted and the streets filled with waste, Londoners noticed that dogs and cats were everywhere in the city. And so the order went out from the Lord Mayor.
Kill the dogs and cats.
❝The Chamberlain of the City paid the huntsmen, who slaughtered more than 4,000 animals. But the dogs and cats were chasing the rats that were feeding on the waste — and the rats were carrying the fleas that transmitted the Plague. Now spared from their predators, the rats spread the affliction even more fiercely. The medical advice from London’s College of Physicians — to press a hen hard on the swellings until the hen died — did not slow the disease. In the end, the Plague of 1665 is thought to have killed almost 20 percent of London’s population…A great fire then consumed a third of the city.
❝Many humans and animals died in this crisis of ignorance. Now that we understand the Plague bacterium, we know what procedures and medicines will keep the disease from becoming epidemic. Ignorance, we might say, no longer plagues us.
Today, pestilence threatens us not because of our ignorance but because of the success of our systems. Our transportation networks are now so fast and far-flung that they transmit diseases worldwide before cures can catch up. The next epidemics will play on our strengths, not our weaknesses — fighting them will mean canceling flights, not killing fleas. This Horseman of the Apocalypse has dismounted and now travels coach.
The introduction to an intelligent essay.
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Leif Wenar holds the chair of philosophy and law at King’s College London. He is the author of “Blood Oil: Tyrants, Violence, and the Rules that Run the World,” from which this essay was adapted.