Things Have Always Been Terrible

A series in which I reflect on all the bad things that have happened to people, in order to gain perspective on stupid shit that goes wrong.

Middle East Black Death Epidemics

You know Aleppo, Syria, where things were recently terrible?

In October 1348, they had 500 deaths a day from the Black Death. THINGS HAVE ALWAYS

People in the streets of Aleppo were looking very poorly, with skin lesions and blood in their mouths, adn then they died.

Wild and domesticated animals were said to have also died by the hundreds. (Remember when cats or dogs might get covid? Jesus, thank you that wasn’t a thing. I would have chosen my cats.)

This guy Malik Ashraf, a Muslim leader, was attacking Baghdad. They said they had to quit because they were running out of supplies, but actually, the troops were falling ill with Black Death.

Here’s a fun story about Malik Ashraf: when his father died, he and his brother were trying to secure their claim to the throne. They found a slave who looked a lot like their dad, and had this slave “Dave” it until they could obtain power. Malik’s fake dad ultimately responded the way you might expect a slave who is asked to impersonate a king might: he stabbed Malik’s brother.

Black Plague spread through Mecca, leading to awkward conversations about if pilgrims, who were supposed to go to Mecca by Allah’s orders, had brought it.

Did these medieval people think God was punishing them? Even though they weren’t Christians? They sure did. Well it might be punishment for bad behavior, and it might be Allah was just pissed off.

I imagine that Islamic rituals of cleanliness were helpful during all times of illnesses, but in fact, Islamic law of the time required people to stay in areas where there was illness, and to dismiss theories of contagion. Oops.

They tried bloodletting, everyone’s favorite, since once the blood was out, the patient was always much quieter and did not complain. They tried cold water. And surgery.

Rural areas became ghost towns, as peasants who were theoretically required to tend the land left and never returned. In the cities, abandoned homes were looted. Everyone stopped paying taxes.

In Damascus, there were two months in which 1,000 people died every day.

Ultimately, a third of the Syrian population died.

Let me leave you with this encouraging story, which is set in the Ommiad Mosque. It was built in the 700s on the site of a Roman temple to Jupiter AND a Christian church dedicated to John the Baptist, and it’s still there. During the plague, they had mass burials in the mosque. But they also came together to pray. According to Ibn Baṭṭūṭa, who was there:

the rulers, notables, judges and all different (social) classes gathered in the (Umayyad) mosque until they became crowded and they stayed the whole night. Among them were people who were praying, remembering (God), and calling out (to Him).” After the Morning Prayer, they all left together on foot and in their hands were Qur’ans (al-maṣāḥif). Ibn Batṭūṭa observes that the rulers were barefoot and all of the inhabitants of the city came out, “men and women, children and the elderly.” Among them were the “Jews with their Torahs and the Christians with their Gospels.” Everyone was crying, imploring and seeking intercession with God’s Books and Prophets. Ibn Baṭṭūṭa notes that after the event, God decreased the number of deaths in the city compared to others such as Cairo.

Sometimes people aren’t shitty.

The Umayyad or Great Mosque of Damascus. The site was first a Roman temple to Jupiter, then a Christian church dedicated to John the Baptist, and since the 700s it has been an important Muslim place.

In Her Mind

“It’s important for a writer to know what’s going on in her mind,” Erica Jong told the New York Times reporter. The feature is “Sunday Routine,” and I was reading it in my pre-getting up cell phone reading, which is NPR stories, the NYT, WaPo, and perhaps CNN.

I mean, that’s fine for Jong to say.

It’s so easy to shame me.

I was emerging, a bit, from a new position at work, a new school year started, and then I had a new landlord, and the new landlord unexpectedly cut down and hauled away every piece of greenery surrounding my beautiful home.

I paced in the living room.

My sister came over.

She took me for the traditional Walk of Oh Shit. Though I felt like stabbing myself and bleeding to death on my bed, instead we walked south, one of my usual walks that might not any longer be my usual walk.

My landlord is a cartoon villain.

When I realized the chainsaw noises were coming from our yard, and that my front balcony was about to be a naked mole rat of a stage overlooking a parking lot rather than a cocooned treehouse of safety, I texted him, “Are you getting rid of all the trees? They are one of the main reasons I moved here.” He responded by sending me a letter that said, “Because of your feelings about the work I am doing on the building, you will have to move out.”

I panicked again. I’ve only lived there a year. I’ve painted almost every wall, lovingly replaced plastic light plates with beautiful new bronze beaded ones, painted cabinets and laid pretty fabrics and papers inside of them, papered my dining room with a hundred old maps, hunted down perfect green and white curtains for my bedroom, a deep green rug for my living room, new pulls for the kitchen, painted the stairs, two ceilings, hung paintings, parasols, musical instruments, and a cuckoo clock.

My hope was in, I make my home anywhere. The cats go with me. (I’m a tyrant.)

My fear was that I’ll never feel baseline safe again. Every year, a move, a new job, a political crisis, a pandemic, a sick family member, a dead family member.

Over 40, it’s probably true.

My primary focus has become so narrowed, narrowed to, just don’t let anyone die. Don’t let anyone drown in despair, or lose a job, or their mind.

I kind of forget when I steered my life by, what do I want?

I feel deep, continuing grief at how I no longer trust. I don’t trust a church to keep its members safe. I don’t trust people to seek the truth and reject lies. I don’t trust people to reject Nazism. I don’t trust people to not laugh at the suffering of others.

I used to think this of right wing Christianity: I disagree with them about almost everything, but at least they are people of conviction, who take morality seriously. Which isn’t to say I’m better, or admirable.

It’s to say that I feel a great, burning fear.

Mostly work saves me. A lot of teaching is grounding and it can use my energy up very cleanly.

One day, though, I finally had to fight hard with one group. Well, with three students. They were not late to class, you see, they just weren’t in the room when I shut the door.

Oh, they were angry. I was angry, too. My teacher shell acts deeply calm, divorced from all emotion. The shell is diamond hard. You’re not coming in here until you’ve been silent for 10 seconds, I said. You will not talk to me that way in my classroom.

My boundary had been crossed, and in a sense I had lost it, but in another sense I was fully myself, and myself was like NO.

When class was over, my heart was beating too fast, and I could feel the adrenaline pushing and pushing.

Instead of going to the meeting I was supposed to attend, I stayed in my classroom.

I cleaned desks, wipe by wipe.

I had to choose myself. At work, maybe especially if your work is “women’s work,” like teaching, if you do not choose yourself, work will kill you. Emotionally, for sure, but maybe physically, too.

So much meaning from teaching, but also such great grief at receiving more responsibility and no more time and no more money or help.

I daily search the websites for apartments. I pack slowly. My art room first. It hurt, but it’s the only room I could pack up and close the door and live pretty much the same.

When I move, it hits where my parents’ breakup hit. Going from a home to no home happened when I was 10. I don’t like it.

This time I’ve tried to think more of my aunt, whose death anniversary approaches. She was a military daughter and a military wife. She moved and moved and moved. I don’t recall her speaking of it as particularly traumatic. Though maybe it was.

I can think of myself as nomad. I pack up camp and can make beautiful camp anywhere.

I can.

I don’t want to.

I’m angry that at a moment I was beginning to feel stable, I have to deal with another great change.

I bought two canvases and painted our building. I put all the trees and ivy and flowers and bushes in. No one can take them away from the paintings.

I’ll give one to my neighbor.

And that’s what’s going on, Erica Jong.

Everything Has Always Been Terrible

Ugandan-Tanganyikan Sleeping Sickness Epidemic of 1900-1909

The Congo River basin hadn’t been a bustling place. It got bustling in the late 1800s, when riverboats started zipping around. When you go from not bustling to bustling, you get new diseases.

They got trypanosomiasis, the prettiest little terrible disease you’ve ever met.

Can we blame colonialism? Lately I’m in the mood to, but in fairness, people moving around the world and meeting for the first time spreads sickness, even when they’re both respectful and don’t rape or pillage.

Here’s the good news first: Doctors Albert and Jack Cook figured out how to diagnose sleeping sickness, using a blood sample. Sir Doctor Albert Cook (is that how it works? he’s a knight) helped establish the first modern hospital in East Africa.

Here’s the best news (I think): Sir Doctor Albert Cook trained people from Africa to be medical professionals. He helped start a medical school. He and his wife, a nurse, wrote a book on midwifery in the local language, Ganda.

That sounded so great, I was loving Cook.

But. Missionary doctors weren’t there to help locals, they were there to help other missionaries. Cook got to practice medicine with locals, but that wasn’t his original mission. They legit wanted him to preach and only doctor when white people were in trouble.

And. Cook and other white doctors were reluctant to train locals because then people wouldn’t have to come to them for treatment and a side of Jesus talk. They might prefer to just get treatment. (Mind you, Catholics get Jesus talk, too, because they aren’t Christians, except that they are in fact the original Christians, but now I’m way off track….)

Yes, when a patient who had not been helped by a Muslim doctor was helped by Cook, and Cook took full advantage to sell Christianity to said patient, as if one should choose religions by who has the best hospital.

Well, maybe that is a good reason.


I want you to know that Cook “was unable to resist the temptation to climb onto the rim of an extinct volcano” in what is now Kenya, on January 19, 1897.

Then in February, he began medical work in Mengo, in what is now Uganda. He had chloroform for surgeries. I can’t imagine how happy that made people. Can you imagine a world without anaesthesia of any kind? I don’t want to.

In August of 1897, there was political violence, and Cook removed 150 bullets from patients.

Sir Doctor Albert Cook, who momentarily restored my faith in the possibility in well-meaning do-gooders, and then disappointed me as people are wont to do.

Another bit of good news: there were some British and German people who figured out the tse-tse fly was the fucker who was spreading sleeping sickness. They also tried to kill those lil fuckers.

Tse-tse fly, who may be noble at heart, but we hate him.

German scientists Robert Koch found a treatment, atoxyl, but while atoxyl helped some patients.

The British had about 25,000 people evacuate to escape the spread of trypanosomiasis, which helped.

The bad news: everything else.

It’s colonialism.

But more specifically: many people received no treatment at all. Also, atoxyl blinded 20 people.

About 100,000 people died.

Let’s wrap it up with very good news: in 2020, there were only 800 reported cases of African sleeping sickness.

Things Have Always Been Terrible

A series in which I make you feel less lonely, realizing how much shit humans have lived through.

Rio de Janeiro Smallpox Epidemics of 1904 and 1908

A couple years back, I was thinking to myself, no other people on earth are so obsessed with “freedom” that they would demand the freedom to die of covid-19.

Joke’s on me, Americans aren’t so special.

Smallpox had been in Rio since 1568. It was no new thing. There had been smallpox vaccines available since 1810. Smallpox vaccine began to be produced in Rio in 1846.


In the summer of 1904, people in Rio began to die of smallpox by the hundreds.

Enter Oswaldo Cruz. Cruz was the director of public health under President Francisco Rodriguez Alves. They had led the fight against bubonic plague, yellow fever, and smallpox.

Oswaldo Cruz, director of public health, and guy I’d let buy me a drink.

They had smallpox vaccine in Rio, and they very much wanted people to be vaccinated.

However, some Brazilians rebelled at the thought of required vaccines. Word on the street was that the vaccine would kill you, not smallpox. It’s so depressingly familiar, lols.

The Vaccine Revolt of 1904. There was some racist imagery at right, so I removed it with this bizarre smear.

Now in the anti-vaxxers defense, police and medical professionals were going to break into people’s homes and forcibly vaccinate them. So it’s a lot more aggressive than “you can’t go to this concert without your vaccination card.”

Also it was 1904, not 2020. Vaccines were becoming accepted, but hadn’t been around that long.

Also people were likely less familiar with the medical establishment in general, particularly people in grinding poverty.

Indeed the people of Brazil who were poor had been kicked around and lied to for a long time, so they didn’t trust The Man. Which was a reasonable response that sadly led them down a dangerous path.

Vaccination efforts were not in vain: around 50,000 people got vaccinated against smallpox that summer.

On the other hand, about 3,500 people died of smallpox.

When Cruz got a law passed that made the smallpox vaccine mandatory, some people, including members of the Brazilian military, responded by taking to the streets and raising hell, breaking and burning and taking various things. Factory workers and trade unionists unfortunately worked against vaccination requirements, squandering their unity on the wrong cause.

When things calmed down, hundreds of the people who had acted against the vaccine requirement were sent to prison on “Isle of the Snakes,” which sounds pretty bad.

By 1908, a lot of people had decided maybe getting the vaccine was a good idea. This could have been because they saw family and friends die of the disease. There were 13,000 people who died in the smallpox outbreak in Rio.

And here’s the twist: President Alves died in the flu epidemic of 1919.

Rodrigues Alves 3.jpg
Francisco Rodriguez Alves, president of Brazil who tried to get people vaccinated, and brought you this grim smile to show you how serious he is about having fun.