Public Crisis in the Modern Sense

One thing that stood out to me while reading the frame story of Decameron the backdrop of societal disintegration as well as public apathy to the sick and the dead that came along with the plague. As people abandoned their families, neglected corpses lying on the streets and fled the city or locked themselves up, Boccaccio made it clear that self-preservation ruled over collectivism in that era. And it seems to me that to live through the plague and accept the indifference, selfishness and indulgence of man kind revealed in such disasters, was equally, if not more, torturous than enduring the physical pain and dying of the disease. Using the words from Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year: “A plague is always a moral as well as biological crisis for a community. It allows no individuals; it makes all people a community and emphasizes human relationships.” (Preface)

Indeed, it seems that all artistic works involving catastrophic events end up portraying the people’s retreat to animal instincts and struggles with upholding moral principles, in front of uncontrollable disasters. It was then interesting when I ran across How to Survive a Disaster, which argued that during catastrophes, “groups of people are more likely to help each other than hinder.” Using examples such as the sinking of the cruise ship Oceanos off South Africa in 1991, the  suicide bombings on London’s transport system on 7 July 2005 and the 2001 Ghana football stadium crush, the article showed that in each incident, collective solidarity and group cooperation prevailed over selfishness. Admittedly, these incidents differ from the plague in Decameron in ways such as they were not disease outbreaks and probably more appropriately classified as unfortunate emergencies. However, I cannot ignore the common themes of imminent, indiscriminate death, lack of hope and effective solutions, and the recourse to human instincts, shared by these settings. Additionally, while absent of deadly germs, fear and anxiety are arguably more contagious and lethal, possibly leading to riots and group destructions under these scenarios. Without an apparent leader or authoritative figure, I wonder what underlying forces helped rein in them? What kept people together in these scenarios and alienated them in others? And as modern medicine and public health advance, we are arguably less likely to be exposed to such unchecked, raging plagues depicted in Decameron. Managing public expectations and stabilizing public emotions become more important and remain a relevant question that governors and public administrators grapple with.

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