It is not yet certain that COVID-19 will become the fifth endemic coronavirus in the world today. The far more deadly bubonic plague long remained endemic in Europe, turning pandemic again some 17 times before its last outbreak in 1664 — 67—about once a generation. Over time a kind of bush telegraph developed in cities to keep track of new outbreaks. Transmitting news of the plague became a regular topic of private and public correspondence. The questions sound familiar to us now: Has the plague come to Bologna? How long has it been there? How many are infected? How many have died? Has a quarantine been imposed? Public authorities, predictably, took drastic measures to isolate the sick. In Venice, physicians were forbidden to leave the city during plague—as today, there was no social distancing for medical personnel. Plague doctors were required to wear the premodern equivalent of the hazmat suit: a long linen gown, a hat covering the hair, eyeglasses, and a mask with a long beak containing antidotes and perfumes to mask the stench of death. Today, the plague doctor’s dress still exists as a popular costume during Carnival.
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