Nowadays, possibly, there are few children who have heard of Bicho-Papão that, if the collective imagination is still inhabiting, should provoke laughter and generate new applications. But, for sure, the new generations will have nightmares and real fears of the covid-19, a mutant figure with DNA that shatters the lungs and leaves the blood of the contaminated black. For now, it has its own light and does not fear any darkness.
In the 14th and 15th centuries, it was said that black was the color of the Bubonic Plague that killed millions of people in Europe during the Low Middle Ages. Visible, it caused infectious swellings in the lymphatic system, mainly in the regions of the armpits, groin and neck. Just read one of the short stories in the Decameron (1348-1353), by Giovanni Boccaccio, who described the plague in Florence, distinct from what had already been recorded in the East. Coincidence or not, during the peak of that disease, the contamination occurred through sneezing or coughing, being transmitted by air. With one difference: on the face of the pestilent buboes in the shape of an egg grew, which then took over the body, turned into deadly tumors.
Scientific ignorance about the Bubonic Plague or Black Plague favored the witch hunt whose supernatural powers put the miraculous actions of the Catholic Church in disrepute. Hundreds of bonfires were lit throughout Europe to purify society from heresies, sects and pagan rites, interpreted as dangerous to the order imposed by the Church and ensured by empires. It is evident – throughout history, from antiquity to the present day – that someone must answer for the “evils that afflict the nation”, an expression applied by the Iberian Inquisition and Nazi Germany that accused the Jews of the tragedy that affected their peoples.
We have always been afraid of disease, because we chose to live in the realm of health, whose borders are fragile, surrounded by wide-open traps. Hence the emergency need for us to receive accurate information about the trajectories, diagnoses and consequences of covid-19, which, like historical epidemics, generates fear and favors the circulation of prejudices against vulnerable ethnic groups in need of state protection. The absence of preventive measures to preserve the health of the population makes room for religious preaching that invokes the Bible to announce that one of the horsemen of the Apocalypse – Pandemia – is already lurking to participate in the Last Judgment. Currently, the process of installing fear is even faster and more impactful, favored by the universalization of media communication that feeds our imagination, changing our daily lives and affecting our mental health. Hence epidemic situations favor the circulation of symbolic characters, such as Death Reaper, a dark figure whose origins go through the biblical Apocalypse, the Kronos, a deity from Greek mythology and Ankou, a skeletal creature that the Celts considered the “guide of souls. “.
Over the centuries, the catastrophic atmosphere generated by the proliferation of diseases has impacted European art and literature, which, to a greater or lesser extent, registered the destructive potential of Senhora Morte. In this context of the struggle between Life and Death, I return here to the iconic figure of “Il Dottore” who, with his long-beaked mask filled with aromatic herbs, appeared in Europe during the outbreaks of the black plague and, in the 15th to 18th centuries , inspired characters from Renaissance theater in Italy and France and, even today, dresses the revelers of the Venice carnival. I also remember the triptych of Hieronymus Bosch that, around 1492, he exposed the fear of the final judgment; the fantastic painting by Viktor Vasnetsov who, in 1887, put on stage the four horsemen of the Apocalypse: Pest, War, Hunger and Death, later reinterpreted by Cândido Portinari in his works Os Retirantes (1944), Criança Morta (1944) and in his War and Peace panels (1952 and 1956).
That same year, 1956, Senhora Morte was the protagonist in the Swedish film The Seventh Seal, by Ingmar Bergman, based on her tale O Retable de la Plague. At the sound of Carl Orff’s symphony, Carmina Burana, Senhora Morte, who never loses, plays chess. Set in the dark medieval world, the film exposes the traumas and fears of our world shaken by the Second World War, the Holocaust, the atomic bomb and, from now on, the covid-19.
Considering that the scenarios of major epidemics and pandemics have marked the history of mankind for centuries, it is possible to trace the cartography of pests, starting with the Black Death, whose bacterium Yersinia pestis came from Central Asia. Brazil, like so many other Third World countries, was not unscathed by pests and fears in its multiple versions. It is enough to go back to the year of 1856 when the Province of Grão-Pará, idealized as “the paradise on earth”, gained hellish airs. The hygienist doctors said that, in the previous year, Senhora Morte had landed in Belém with a group of Portuguese who were traveling on board the Defensor galley, the focus of the spread of the disease. A year later, more than a thousand deaths were recorded in Belém, spreading terror and suspicion. The newspapers criticized the lack of a public health policy, the use of unhealthy water by the poor, in addition to warning about the danger of bodies buried in the backyards, in ditches or abandoned along riverside paths, serving as food for the poor. animals indifferent to divine vengeance. The healers, prayers, herbalists and healers offered their protective remedies to cure any disease; clerics stressed that the disease persisted as a punishment, requiring many processions and vigils to placate the supreme punishment.
After all this, thousands of deaths were counted during many other diseases recycled from time to time: Spanish flu, tuberculosis, typhus, cholera, Chagas disease, malaria, AIDS, chikungunya, dengue, affecting (as they still affect) the most poor. In the middle of the 21st century, despite the advances in science, the world freaked out again in the face of a new “bug” called covid-19, detected in December 2019, in Wuhan, China. The real threat has turned into a nightmare that, in turn, fuels collective fears, exposing fears in the face of the unknown. Under the impact generated by Senhora Morte, the world freaked out, the animal went viral!
We are facing a new watershed, a symbol of the rupture that will mark the boundaries between before and during, as the extent of the after is still unknown. Certainly, we will not be the same after covid-19, an “animal-exterminator” of lives. The bat, for the time being, emerges as the main “scapegoat”, covering the global collapse of health systems unable to help the living and bury the dead. This new plague calls into question the capacity of the State, which is currently unprepared to combat this strange, mutant, round being, invisible to the naked eye. In the same way as the social isolation proposed by health professionals guarantees life, state negligence can multiply deaths. We leave open the debate on the role of the State in the lives of citizens based on the principles of human dignity, social balance and respect for scientific knowledge.
* MARIA LUIZA TUCCI CARNEIRO IS HISTORIAN AND SENIOR TEACHER OF THE HISTORY DEPARTMENT, FFLCH-USP
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