Illustration for article titled Rich People Have Always Been Assholes During Plagues
Image: Wellcome Collection

When the first waves of plague swept medieval Europe, the disease killed both the rich and the poor indiscriminately. In July 1348, King Edward III of England’s 12-year-old daughter died on her way to Spain to marry King Pedro of Castile. And though he was still mourning, the king threw a giant tournament at Westminster in the fall, despite instructions from clergy and doctors that moderation and abstinence were the key to survival. Nearly 672 years later, rich people still want their travel and amusement even amid coronavirus fears, and in typical fashion, they’re doing everything they can to make sure sickness remains the province of the poor.

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During the plague, the first round of which lasted from 1347-1351 and wiped out somewhere between 30 to 50 percent of Europe’s population, those who could afford it adopted a plague-time slogan of sorts: “cito, longe, tarde,” which translates to, “flee soon, go far, come back late.” As servants were left behind to clean the houses of the absent aristocracy, risking infection and dying at rates even higher than that of the general population, the wealthy made their wills, specifying guardians for children and dowries, and got the hell out of town. Even rich people’s plague deaths were attended by doctors and religious officiants, while reports abound of those left in cities screaming while being enclosed alive in body bags bound for the plague pits. Almshouses were quite often attended only by clergy, who blessed the dying, while physicians fled with the wealthy.

By the 16th century, Charles de Lorme had invented the bird-beak plague mask. The beak was stuffed with herbs and wormwood to filter out the bad smells thought at the time to spread bubonic plague. To his wealthy patrons, including Henri IV, Louis XIII, and Louis XIV, he prescribed “red broth” made partially of antimony, a metal used to induce vomiting, which was believed by the Romans to be conducive to good health. de Lorme obviously thought so too, as he said of the broth: “qui plus en boira, plus il vivra” or, “the more he drinks, the more he lives.”

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And now, as coronavirus causes global panic—though, to be very clear, it is nowhere remotely as dangerous as the plague—the New York Times reports that rich people are once again scrambling for expensive remedies of questionable efficacy while fleeing the infected. The 21st century version of retreating to one’s Italian villa seems to be barricading oneself in a Hamptons mansion. The new court physician is the concierge doctor, and the new plague mask is the high-end, sold-out Urban Air Mask 2.0, miasma-blocking herbs replaced by “cutting-edge filter technology with timeless Scandinavian design,” the company’s website reads.  Gwenyth Paltrow recently posted a selfie wearing the $65 modern-day plague mask en route to Paris, though doctors say they’re likely ineffective, as the masks are intended to prevent sick people from spreading coronavirus, not protect well people from catching it.

But that message hasn’t yet seemed to reach the modern-day aristocracy. Los Angeles concierge physicians say they’ve been bombarded with calls from actors, agents, directors, and other rich people asking for help getting specialty N95 masks, assuming that because they cost more, they must be better:

“It’s interesting because people say, ‘I need the N95 mask. It costs more. It sounds like it’s heavy-duty. We’re Hollywood people, we can afford it,’” one doctor told The Hollywood Reporter before explaining that the masks are hard to use and ineffective. But the higher price tag and exclusivity continue to appeal.

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During plague outbreaks, cities hired armed guards to stand outside houses, ensuring whole families, whether they were sick or not, remained trapped inside to die. Medieval doctors believed the bodies of contagious people to be full of poison, and the apostemes on the bodies of the victims, engorged with pus, were thought to be the body’s way of expelling these poisons. Physicians advised that the best way to avoid infection was to leave the sick for dead and flee, as they often did themselves. In his fourteenth-century guide to escaping pestilence dedicated to the Giangale-Visconti, a member of the ruling family of Milan, contagion theory pioneer Pietro Curialti da Tossignano wrote: “it is safer to move to a region where there has never been an epidemic...since the ‘reliquiae’ will remain and, acting like a ferment, will infect those who come into the locality.”

In her exploration of the ways wealth influenced who fled and who died in the plague years, “Shutt Up: Bubonic Plague and Quarantine in Early Modern England,” Kira L.S. Newman writes, “Quarantine and its effects were not classless, and its implementation was not always in the name of public health,” an assessment that already seems equally true in the age of coronavirus. While the wealthy traveling in the age of coronavirus have not yet bought guards to make sure no poor people can cough near them, they are in the midst of leaving the sick behind to travel in sterile comfort to places where infection has not yet spread. The Guardian reports that executives have charted “evacuation flights” from China and Southeast Asia. One family chartered a private plane from Hong Kong to Bali to avoid coronavirus, according to PrivateFly chief executive Adam Tiwidell. Unlike commercial flights, where the Times says every stray cough from three rows back sounds like a ghostly greeting from Typhoid Mary,” rich people’s private planes are made safer with money:

“Each aircraft is equipped with a protective healthcare and sanitary equipment kit for passengers and crew, should it be required,” Twidell told the Guardian. “The health of crew members is being monitored very closely, including temperature checks before every flight.”

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And like Edward III who refused to let a bit of plague spoil a good time, the wealthy are forgoing their vacations to Italy, where over 3,000 cases of coronavirus and more than a hundred death have been reported. But yacht rentals for the Meditteranean and the Bahamas are booming. “It totally makes sense,” Jennifer Saia, president of a yacht charter company in Rhode Island told the New York Times. “You’re keeping your family contained in a very small, should-be-clean environment. And going from your car to your F.B.O.” — meaning fixed base operator, or private jet terminal — “to your private jet right onto the tarmac. And from there, right onto your yacht, and not having to deal with the public.”

To the rich, perhaps it does make complete sense that the first concern in the face of coronavirus fears would be that their vacation or scheduled jousting tournament proceed uninterrupted by other people’s deaths. And if history is any indication, it probably won’t be too long before they begin hiring others to remain behind and risk exposure while protecting their stuff. In the plague years of 1593 and 1603, parish records from London show that the majority of adults who died of bubonic plague were servants. In Ben Jonson’s 1610 play The Alchemist, a wealthy gentleman leaving his London home behind to wait out the plague in the country instructs the servant left behind to mind the house to “breathe less and farther off.”

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Historically speaking, it’s not surprising that rich people are already fleeing potentially contaminated breath in cities on yachts and private jets, falsely believing expensive face masks will veil them from exposure while the regular people are left behind fighting in a Walgreen’s aisle for the last bottle of hand sanitizer. It’s simply interesting to note how quickly we revert to our feudal roles the moment aristocracy gets scared.

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