Book review: Black Death at the Golden Gate: The Race to Save America from the Bubonic Plague, by David K. Randall.
Imagine a story about an epidemic that reached San Francisco, after devastating parts of China. A few cases are detected, there’s uncertainty about how long it’s been spreading undetected, and a small number of worried public health officials try to mobilize the city to stop an imminent explosion of disease. Nobody knows how fast it’s spreading, and experts only have weak guesses about the mechanism of transmission. News media and politicians react by trying to suppress those nasty rumors which threaten the city’s economy.
Sounds too familiar?
The story is about a bubonic plague outbreak that started in 1900. It happens shortly after the dawn of the Great Sanitary Awakening, when the germ theory of disease is fairly controversial. A few experts in the new-fangled field of bacteriology have advanced the radical new claim that rats have some sort of connection to the spread of the plague, and one has proposed that the connection involves fleas transmitting the infection through bites. But the evidence isn’t yet strong enough to widely displace the standard hypothesis that the disease is caused by filth.
There was a vaccine for the bubonic plague, which maybe helped a bit. It was only 50% effective, the benefits lasted about 6 months, and the side effects sound like cruel and unusual punishment. It was controversial and often resisted, much like the compulsory smallpox vaccinations of the time.
Yet the plague didn’t seem to know that it was supposed to grow at exponential rates. That left an eerie sense of mystery about how the plague could linger for years, with people continuing to disagree about whether it existed.
I’m unsure whether to classify the book as history or as historical fiction.
If I had been led to expect that this was a work of fiction, I would only have noticed a few hints that it’s based on actual events. The most obvious hint is that the person who initially looks like the story’s hero gives up and drops out of sight about 40% of the way in, and is replaced by a totally new character. Yet in spite of the fiction-like style, Wikipedia confirms many key claims, and doesn’t appear to contradict any of it.
The story is simultaneously depressing and encouraging, because it demonstrates that a society which is manifestly less competent than the San Francisco (or New York, or Tulsa) of today can grow into an arguably great society in a generation or so. Maybe even Brazil can recover from being a disaster area.
Randall convinced me that Donald Trump is much less of an outlier than I had previously thought (I’m talking mostly about Trump’s personality, and his management style, or lack thereof). However, I wonder if some of Randall’s portrayal of Governor Gage is slanted so as to emphasize the similarities between Trump and the thoroughly discredited Gage.
One large difference from today is that there was almost no controversy about racism. There was a near-consensus in support of racism. The experts who didn’t hesitate to impose race-based quarantines seem more sensible and less racist than their main opponents, who believed that the white race is sufficiently superior that they needn’t worry about contracting the disease. Note that the quarantines weren’t always as polite as a Wuhan-style lockdown.
The book argues that the lone non-racist (or at least not blatantly racist) person with any power saved many lives by treating the Chinese with respect. There’s likely some truth to that, but the situation was messy enough to leave a fair amount of doubt – mostly, it took threats of quarantines in order to accomplish much.
Randall neglects to mention a downside of the campaign for improved sanitation. Many wood buildings were replaced with more rat-resistant brick buildings, just in time to wreak havoc in the 1906 earthquake (bricks fall more often, and farther from buildings, than wood, and falling bricks kill).
The earthquake triggered conditions under which the plague thrived in areas outside of Chinatown, while Chinatown retained some of the benefits of the sanitation-oriented reconstruction. I presume it’s just a coincidence that officials became substantially more eager to combat the plague when it hit wealthy neighborhoods, just as it’s a coincidence interest in COVID-19 declined when it faded from wealthier areas.
Conspiracy theorists will be glad to point out the example of a massive conspiracy of influential people that succeeded in mostly covering up the epidemic for something like a year. However, it appears to have been much less organized or centrally directed than conspiracy theorists want to imagine.
Could such a conspiracy succeed this month? It would be much harder. The press in 1900 was mostly a cartel that was in the pocket of other businesses. Today, the internet has succeeded in making the news media much more democratic, so that there’s much fiercer competition between various ideological biases about which ideas to suppress. But it does sound like there was a pretty widespread consensus among Californians that any reports of the plague should be denied. So even if today’s press had existed in 1900, it seems somewhat plausible that most readers would still have been unaware of the plague.
I can sort of imagine that we’re currently experiencing situations where both the left and the right unite enough to mostly hide something important.
Could there currently be under-reporting of COVID-19 deaths in hopes of reopening the country? In 1900, doctors had plenty of discretion about how they listed causes of death, and were reportedly scared to list plague as a cause, due to pressure from people who feared quarantines.
Could the same thing be happening now? I don’t see any evidence that it has happened yet, but there are signs that plenty of people would like it to happen. Before reading Black Death, I would have felt confident that there were still enough people who cared about their personal risk of getting the virus to prevent such a conspiracy. It still seems far-fetched, but I’m now wondering how hard it would be to detect by looking at excess death numbers.
How does this book influence my forecast for the current pandemic?
I’ve updated slightly in the direction of society’s response being controlled by elites. I’ve updated more strongly in the direction of responses depending on pressure from other states / countries.
There’s a moderate chance that overflowing hospitals in July will cause influential people in the sunbelt to react strongly, so that hospitals will be safe for them to visit. That’s a difference from 1900, since back then influential people wouldn’t stoop to being treated in a hospital.
There will be a medium amount of pressure for more restrictions when the elites notice that tourists from China, Mongolia, Senegal, etc., can vacation in the EU, Thailand, and New Zealand, but US tourists are unwelcome. I’m unclear whether that pressure will be sufficient to have much effect.
Quarantines of US goods will also have some effect, but the shortage of evidence implicating transmission via surfaces will keep those quarantines fairly sporadic, so they probably won’t be very effective.
Travel restrictions between US states might put pressure on the worst states, but I’m unclear whether those will be enforced.
All of these factors will cause a moderate increase in elites scaring voters into supporting more restrictions of some sort, plus better testing and tracing, sometime during the next few months.
I’m unclear on whether further nursing home tragedies will cause much outrage, even though I expect some more avoidable deaths there.
Trump will likely lose the election and be considered somewhat disgraced, but it will likely be less of a landslide than pundits will predict, and more quickly forgotten.
The world will continue to under-prepare for pandemics, in spite of the general tendency to fight the last war. Invisible mindless enemies seem not to generate much of a warlike response.
The pandemic won’t prevent the world from prospering. As to how many it will kill, that will be influenced more than I previously expected by luck.
There will also be a good deal of luck involved in whether public health officials get rewarded when they do things right.
Don’t forget that the bubonic plague hasn’t been fully eradicated in the US. Have a nice day.