Before the plague.

[Saptarishi Bandopadhyay] Saturday/Sunday, April 25th-26th, 2020


Virtually no one is happy about the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak. Many are calling for and convening formal investigations. This is a wise and necessary venture. But exactly what is it to be investigated remains an open question. A public inquiry that limits itself to this government’s visible, in-the-moment, failures—why did the White House task force only discuss testing for a few minutes after each meeting—will shortchange the long term public interest.

Epidemics, like all disasters, are moments of reckoning with the pre-existing inequities of ‘normal’ life. Hazards, from storms to viruses, become disasters in societies that are susceptible to, and unprepared for, them. Social susceptibility and unpreparedness are, at least in part, products of social values and choices. Focusing on knee-jerk indictments will steer Americans away from the deeper—potentially self-incriminating—investigation that needs to happen. The shock and awe of the Trump Presidency coupled with the ongoing social tumult and accompanying information firestorm makes meaningful stocktaking difficult.

A three-century-old plague may do better.

The story of the Great Marseille plague of 1720 is the stuff of legend. In late-May 1720, the Grand Saint-Antoine, a Dutch flute flying a French flag sailed home from the Syrian town of Seyde to the port of Marseille (Bertrand, 1805). It bore bales of cotton, silk thread, wool, mohair, and other wares for sale at a trade fair in Languedoc in southern France. Officials at ports of call around the Mediterranean certified the vessel as being contagion free. But along its journey, the ship was menaced by an unseen and lethal malady. By the time it arrived in Marseille, some of its passengers and nine of the crew were dead from what a physician labelled “pestilential fever,” (Bertrand: 1805, 35-36). Not, la peste (plague). 

In accordance with quarantine protocols, the Grand Saint-Antoine was anchored offshore. But delay threatened the value of the goods on board and merchants within the administration loosened regulations to allow their merchandise into commerce. In the weeks and months that followed, even as thousands displayed tumors and succumbed to the disease, officials denied the existence of plague and misinformed citizens to maintain political power.

In its first four months in Marseille, some 39,000 people died within the city walls and another 6000 at its outskirts (Bamford, 1973). At its height, the plague killed as many as a thousand people died a day (Plague of Marseille, 1889: 828). (Eighteenth-century mortality statistics are controversial, and the figures offered are less proof and more indicators of the scale of suffering.) The plague of 1720 represented an existential crisis in eighteenth-century France. It holds important lessons for how not to manage an epidemic. But it is also a window into how, when, and why disasters occur where they do. To understand the outbreak in the United States in a way that allows us to imagine a different future, we must investigate the ‘normal’ social status quo before the arrival of Donald Trump or Covid-19.

The French plague was a testament to citizens’ loss of control over their own fate in the face of royal will and a corruption of civic morals. The Trump government’s failures too are markers of wider (pre-existing) political and institutional lapses in America. The plague is a precedent for how a society’s cultural, political, and institutional commitments can make disasters inevitable and compromise the state’s ability to protect its people.

It is a precedent we ignore at our peril.

1720 Marseille: City of pre-existing conditions

In the middle of the seventeenth-century, the modest fishing port of Marseille caught the attention of Louis XIV. The city had traded across the Mediterranean for over two millennia and became a key part of the King’s plan to advance French economic prosperity. But Marseillais valued political autonomy; they prioritized civic virtue over personal gain and the rule of commerce. Merchants and financiers were regarded cautiously as a lurking threat to the peoples’ virtue and moral fortitude. They could serve in local government, but the scale and legitimacy of commercial influence was limited. Royal encroachment between 1660-1720 substantially overhauled this status quo.

Under the crown’s influence, wealthy merchants, financiers, and political cronies rose to prominence as policymakers, administrators, and elite public servants. The public budget was tightened to keep public institutions in line. Royal grants were diverted from public welfare projects toward export manufacturing and foreign trade. In time, even poets and historians ceased humming their public-interest homilies. The upper classes championed commercial expansion as the epitome of civic virtue. The crown’s advisers advocated for centralized standards (mercantilism) but relinquished regulatory control to the wealthy.

Powerful merchants and financiers came to exemplify hard work, rationality, and society’s moral conscience. They were portrayed as an honorable and patriotic class that braved physical injury from pirates, disease, and financial ruin to advance the country’s national interest. Theologians turned apologists for commercial greed. Secular and patriotic pamphleteers, a major source of society’s knowledge and beliefs, insisted that commerce would bring universal welfare. Some went so far as to publish childrearing manuals that peddled the dream of social mobility to bourgeois parents; they taught men and women to raise the ‘perfect merchant,’ children who would succeed despite their pedigree and low social rank. But even as the cultural and political rhetoric ratcheted up people’s expectations of a meritocratic society, leaders engineered a legal and administrative system to crush these expectations.

Through commercial transactions and intermarriage, merchants, bankers, public officials and members of the elite professional class created a new social hierarchy that amassed power, capital, and ecological resources for itself. They codified these hierarchies, making social status, wealth, and political authority legally hereditary (French Council of Trade, 1737). Simultaneously, a constellation of regulations—on everything from crime, taxation, labor, housing, access to forests (for resources and shelter) and even public vagrancy—created an urban trap for everyone else. By the time the Grand Saint Antoine arrived on Marseille’s shore, the walled city had transformed into a crucible within which the disease would find its victims.

Royal administrators were well aware that contagion was the permanent danger in international trade. To match this threat, they broke Marseille down to its bones and rebuilt it as a port invulnerable to disease. The reconstruction project prioritized a new lazaret system near the city’s western edge; its presence justified the royal decision to give Marseille a monopoly over cross-Mediterranean commerce (Panzac, 1986). The lazaret was complemented by an elaborate system of off-shore inspections and bills of health that determined the length of quarantine required of incoming ships (Howard, 1791).

However, the crown entrusted the city’s Bureau of Health—that administered its lazaret and quarantine mechanisms—to fourteen of the most prominent merchants then trading with the Ottoman coast. The underlying logic was simple: merchants who had the most to lose from a plague would be the most motivated to protect the port (Takeda, 2011). Never mind that merchants across Europe were notorious for denying the presence of contagion for fear that their goods would be destroyed, and their profits eaten by competitors (Flinn, 1979).

Marseille’s fate was sealed long before the plague bacteria, Yersinia pestis, arrived ashore.

In eighteenth-century France, plague management was synonymous with the state’s authority to rule. And yet, the crown left the integrity of public authority in the care of people who had the most to gain from weakening it. An oligopoly of merchant administrators betrayed the public trust and dumped plague ridden goods onto an unsuspecting city; a city already rife with economic inequality, social immobility, and political disenfranchisement, at the mercy of the same oligopoly. For months afterward, as the death toll mounted, officials denied the presence of plague. Royal physicians explained away people’s symptoms as being the result of poor hygiene and malnutrition (McManners, 1981); worse, they offered classist interpretations of the disease, denouncing the mounting casualties as owed to psychosomatic hysteria among the low-born and poor (Jones, 1996).

Far from being an accident or negligence, the arrival and spread of plague was coded into the cultural, legal, and administrative fabric of society. People’s dreams of a brighter future were rooted in their acceptance of a dangerous new world. In its first two years, the plague killed some 100,000 people including 50,000 in Marseille, close to half the city’s population. Yet, viewed systemically, its occurrence seems quite unexceptional.

Covid-19 in the United States

The 1720 plague may be read as a cautionary tale about the dangers of liberalized international trade. That conversation is at least two centuries old and will no doubt intensify in the months and years ahead. America-First nationalism could get worse within the United States, but at the international level, nations will likely recommit to multilateralism and struggle harder to control the content of environmental, trade, and health treaties.

In this moment, it is important to remember that what we are witnessing is a string of national crises. This is unsurprising. Disasters have long been a test of the state’s managerial capacity. Epidemics make ruling particularly difficult because the villain is intangible, invisible, and capable of being everywhere at once. It leaves no rubble for political leaders to pontificate from.

Crises that test governments’ managerial capacities also test the sanctity of people’s rule over the state. The plague was a testament to citizens’ loss of control over their own fate in the face of royal will and a corruption of civic morals. The current epidemic is a test of Americans trust in their government. It is also a test of people’s trust in their political process, public institutions, expertise, and in each other. Marseillais lived in a time of monarchic despotism. They had no vote, no meaningful ability to make their concerns heard or adjudicated. Contemporary Americans are, in theory, not so deprived.

The integrity of this relationship, between public trust and political institutions and processes, was partially contested by the 2009 ‘Tea Party’ revolt within the Republican Party. The Tea Party agenda represented a substantive refusal of traditional party politics and the Obama-era technocracy binge to follow—their uprising was redeemed by Donald Trump’s victory seven years later. Citizens’ distrust in America’s itchy pairing of democratic ideals, expert rule, and wealth-guarding, environment-degrading deregulation was even more comprehensively challenged by the Occupy movement in 2011.

Occupy advocates successfully projected the specter of a 1% onto the public consciousness. They occupied Wall Street and centers of higher education and policymaking that will produce tomorrow’s upper class on behalf of a 99% cheated by the American Dream. Despite his sincere commitment to healthcare reform, Barack Obama was not their candidate. Obama could have been the “Black Lives Matter” movement’s candidate. But his efforts to end police violence against black men left many underwhelmed. The slide from Obama’s pre-election rhetoric to the reality of a Trump presidency ensured that many of Occupy’s and Black Lives Matters’ tenets endured in the manifestos of Democratic Party candidates for President; they appeared somewhat diluted in Bernie Sanders’ pledges and enfeebled in Elizabeth Warren’s positions.

Warren’s pro-capitalism, anti-theft stance, much like Obama and Biden’s positions, functioned well within the political jamboree that Occupy and Black Lives Matter expressly rejected. The two movements had significant differences: Occupy was led by white, relatively well-educated middle-class Americans; its “we are the 99%” rhetoric unrealistically painted the poor, homeless, and much of middle class as one revolutionary unit. Black Lives Matter, on the other hand, was a response by poorer and disenfranchised black communities intimately familiar with state-sponsored lethal force; its members primarily struggled on their own behalf. Nevertheless, both movements shared the insight that the structure of American politics and the content of public aspirations for the future were laced with racial inequality, a brutal class structure, economic and ecological disenfranchisement, and unconcealed violence towards minority citizens and foreigners alike.

But the notion that financiers, technocrats, and corporate leaders make the best public servants is not a Trump-time invention. It was a badge of the Clinton White House that sparkled brighter through the Bush Jr. and Obama years before developing into blatant corruption, nepotism, and venality during the Trump presidency.

Many voters who vehemently opposed Sanders and saw Warren as unelectable, view Joe Biden as a kind of cultural healer. But Biden’s political rhetoric and proposals for reform, like Elizabeth Warren’s, place him well within the folds of the traditional Democratic party narrative—especially on the crucial issue of a single payer system of healthcare for all. (In 2018, some 27.9 million non-elderly Americans lacked health insurance while a 3-day hospital stay cost $30,000 on average. As is the norm, the ongoing health crisis is being funded by emergency stimulus packages.) But in the weeks before Sanders suspended his campaign, liberal mavens had already begun to narrate Joe Biden’s de facto coronation as a symbol that Democrats were united behind “a racially inclusive form of social democracy,” but “not democratic socialism.” For its part, Biden’s campaign leans heavily on his electability over Donald Trump, rather than a promise of substantive change.

Marseille shows how social immobility, rule of commerce, and a government of the wealthy plays out in a society that aggressively courts environmental risk to guarantee power and prosperity for the few at the expense of the many. It also offers the wisdom that an oligopoly—like the leaders in a rigid two party system—can craft public perceptions of what is at all politically possible. Finally, this historic tragedy teaches us that political rhetoric and the buzz of popular-media can so deaden the public imagination that millions commit to political choices they will later, when disaster strikes, deny even to themselves.

The Trump administration’s inability to spot the crisis and the ensuing denial is part negligence, and part, a concerted refusal to see. But the lack of Covid-19 detection tests months after the authorities became aware of the virus’ spread, as well as people’s inability to pay for testing, hospitalization, and treatment, may be accurate reflections of the character of the union. Of particular concern, here, was the Federal government’s refusal to ask governors to slow their economies and send people indoors. President Trump did little to articulate his reasons beyond, saying that it was about protecting the economy and for individual states to decide. But a more sophisticated basis for this refusal precedes the Trump administration. It is exemplified in the prescriptions of Harvard Law Professor and Barack Obama’s technocratic-in-chief, Cass Sunstein. (Until recently, Mr. Sunstein maintained a national lockdown was overcautious and likely to hurt American society and economy.)

In recent years, Mr. Sunstein’s brand of behavioral economics driven governance has found many takers in Europe. A similar technocratic approach to epidemic management has informed the successes in Singapore and South Korea, and a now aborted high-risk strategy in the United Kingdom. However, it is worth recalling that elite social reformers, at the close of the eighteenth-century, had also sought to regulate social behavior using probability-mathematics. As historians of science have shown, more often than not, these rational choices imposed the moral and social predilections of privileged men across the length and breadth of civic life (Daston, 1987). When the choices of elites veered from modelled predictions, it was the calculus that was tweaked. Or, in Sunstein’s own words: “when [experts and lay people] disagree, experts are generally right, and ordinary people are generally wrong” (Sunstein, 2002). Mr. Sunstein’s claims to empiricism, rationality, and apolitical innovation notwithstanding, his analyses often begin by oversimplifying social problems, and tend to culminate in libertarian, and neoliberal prescriptions. His attitude towards the public, in turn, speaks loudly as to why many Americans may have distrusted Obama-era policymaking.

Lockdowns, however, are by means apolitical. They have enormous distributive consequences. ‘Social distancing’ and ‘work from home,’ for instance, are luxuries of the middle and wealthier classes. Working class people continue to travel to work, while the urban poor and homeless remain on the sidewalks. These are people that live in a second and third world within the first—a reality that was last showcased in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In the United States, federal and state governments’ failure to call an emergency by its name is similarly no accident. Proof of millions of citizens continuing life as usual may not be a misunderstanding of real American values; it may be a defining characteristic of social life and people’s expectations in the world’s wealthiest democracy.

As in Marseille, public culture takes its cues from the top. Since 2015, Donald Trump and his many surrogates have cultivated an ethos of divisiveness and a hatred of minorities and foreigners. President Trump’s years-long invocation of “fake news,” marginalized an already fretting public’s trust in journalism and experts. It mainstreamed the Alt-Right, bringing its advocates into the White House briefing room. His recent handwritten revision of “Corona Virus” into the “Chinese Virus,” is reminiscent of official and popular French beliefs that climate predisposed Levantine citizens to moral depravity and biological corruption (plague). In the eighteenth-century, this rhetoric supported French bigotry towards Ottoman merchants. In 2020, President Trump has defended his use of “Chinese” as a purely geographic label unlikely to stir racial hatred of Asian Americans. But even if we accept his explanation, should Asian-Americans trust their government or the political process that has time and again made outlaws of them?

When private sector strategies and corporate interests become the basis for public policymaking, when people can no longer distinguish the merchant from the prince, in eighteenth-century parlance, the public interest is usually the first casualty. The recent discovery of ventilator underproduction, for instance, is in fact a 13 year old discovery; the explanation of why shortages were never recuperated is a sordid tale of how social needs lose out when a public procurement system places its trust in the market’s hands. (Jared Kushner’s current “all-of-private-sector” approach to the outbreak is more ‘normal’ than radical.) America is far from alone in its failure to live up to idealized democratic ideals. But its political, economic, and cultural exceptionalism make it a vivid portrait of how freedom exporting, prosperity thumping elites cheat their own.

The plague in Marseille was ultimately brought under control by a brutal military regime that killed anyone suspected of physical or moral corruption—convicts and prostitutes were eradicated, the same as the poor, mentally disabled, and non-human. A new, fifteen-mile long, wall (the mur de la peste) around the city functioned as a tourniquet, dooming the thousands within, to fortify France against its own. In the aftermath, the cultural beliefs and governance structure that brought calamity to Marseillais’ doors, remained the norm. The public imagination had been effectively quelled. Economic prosperity, trade, and rule of commerce were once more glorified, and life picked up where it left it off. As French theorist, Maurice Blanchot, would write over two centuries later, “The disaster ruins everything, all the while leaving everything intact” (Blanchot, 1995).

This is no recipe for surviving the twenty-first century. Scientists and historians alike have revealed the human hand behind our planetary predicament (Butler & Montzka, 2019). Global Warming research predicts that forest fires and small island submergence, biodiversity loss and the current pandemic are interrelated and previews of the terrifying world that awaits. By necessity and tradition, disasters end in public inquiries. But such inquiries are by definition officious. They are designed to reset to ‘normal.’ To judge normal life relative to this administration’s failures is akin to imagining one might escape a nuclear holocaust by driving around the mushroom cloud’s stem.

However slowly and painfully the United States and the rest of the world will, theoretically, ‘survive’ this pandemic. But when all is said and done, the cost in human lives, economic shortfall, morale and peace of mind, may be too great to recall life in January 2020 with much confidence. (By contrast, two months of lockdowns have already significantly lowered air pollution.) This disillusionment should be embraced. For it may spur a brutally honest social stock taking and make until-now ‘radical’ measures seem obvious and unimpeachable. Blind optimism during the crisis and voluntary amnesia in its wake are shortcuts to indifference and cynicism—a deferred death sentence for pandemic survivors and newborns alike.

In September 1720, after the plague had killed thousands and spread as far as Provence, the Grand Saint-Antoine was finally set on fire off the coast of Marseille. Investigating the White House’s deceit and incompetence, or even electing a new president, would be a start. But the Covid-19 outbreak is a sign that normal life may be the more insidious threat facing the United States. Americans must ask themselves how quickly and how much of the status quo they are willing to scuttle to survive what is coming.

Saptarishi Bandopadhyay | Toronto | April 25th– 26th, 2020

* Saptarishi Bandopadhyay is an assistant professor at Osgoode Hall Law School, Toronto. He studies disaster governance and is completing a book on the relationship between disaster management and state formation in the eighteenth century.


  • Bamford, P.W. (1973) Fighting Ships and Prisons: The Mediterranean Galleys of France in the Age of Louis XIV. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, p. 247.
  • Bertrand, J-B. (1805) A Historical Relation of the Plague at Marseilles in the Year 1720, trans. Anne Plumptre. London: R. Taylor and Co., p. 34.
  • Blanchot, M. (1995) The Writing of the Disaster (L’Écriture du Désastre). Ann Smock (trans.), Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1.
  • Butler, J. & S.A Montzka, (2019) The NOAA Annual Greenhouse Gas Index. Boulder Co.: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Earth System Research Laboratory
  • Daston, L. J. (1987) ‘Rational Individuals Versus Laws of Society: From Probability to Statistics,’ in eds. L. Krüger, L. J. Daston, and M. Heidelberger (eds.), The Probabilistic Revolution, vol. 1, Ideas in History, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 297-298.
  • Flinn, M. W. (1979) ‘Plague in Europe and the Mediterranean Countries.’ Journal of Economic History 8:1, p. 142.
  • French Council of Trade. (1737) ‘Memoire des Députés des Villes du Ponant sur le Commerce du Levant, ses denrées; & pourquoy Marseille seule a le privilége d’y commercer, & Mémoire du Deputé de Marseille, servant de Réponse à celuy cy – dessus, pour establir les Causes du Privilége qu’elle a de commercer seule en Levant,’ in The Report of the Deputies of the Council of Trade, in France, to the Royal Council, Concerning the Commerce of That Nation to Their American Islands, Guinea, the Levant, Spain, England, Holland, and the North; the Raising the Nominal Value of the Coin, and the Effect That Has upon Commerce; the Prejudice the Public Suffers by Monopolies; the Erecting of Exclusive Companies; and Other Chief Points of Trade. London, UK: Knapton, p. 62.
  • Howard, J. (1791) An Account of the Principal Lazarettos in Europe, with Various Papers Relative to the Plague, Together with Further Observations on Some Foreign Prisons and Hospitals, and Additional Remarks on the Present Date of Those on Great Britain and Ireland. London, UK: Johnson, Dilly & Cadell, p. 4.
  • Jones, C. (1996) ‘Plague and Its Metaphors in Early Modern France.’ Representations 53, 97-127.
  • McManners J. (1981) Death and the Enlightenment: Changing Attitudes to Death among Christians and Unbelievers in Eighteenth-Century France. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 17-19.
  • Panzac, D. (1986) Quarantaines et Lazarets, L’Europe et la Peste d’Orient. Aix-en-Provence, France: Édisud, p. 34.
  • Sunstein, C. R. (2002) Risk and Reason: Safety, Law and the Environment. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, p. 55.
  • Takeda, J. T. (2011) Between Crown and Commerce: Marseille and the Early Modern Mediterranean. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, pp. 122-123.

Published by pzumbansen

law professor.

%d bloggers like this: