These past few days I’ve been laid low with a nasty upper respiratory infection. I started feeling it over the weekend, went to the gym to try to beat it out, but I couldn’t even knock out a deadlift warmup, before giving up. It wrecked me for three straight days, leaving me congested and coughing still.
Laying in my fever induced sweat puddle I contemplated disease throughout history. Out of all the deaths, I can imagine, dying from acute disease terrifies me the most. Why? Disease, for the most part, is indiscriminate and uncaring. Dying in battle is honorable. Dying from old age in one’s bed is acceptable. Dying due to an airborne virus or a waterborne bacteria is random and meaningless. I can’t imagine anything worse than a young warrior dying before the battle due to typhus or smallpox.
Historically disease has been one of, if not, the biggest enemies of soldiers and warriors. Entire armies have been routed by infectious diseases such as plague, typhus, bubonic plague, smallpox, and malaria. Smallpox decimated the native inhabitants of the new world, Malaria decimated colonial armies in the jungles of Africa and South America. Even today, a large part of my profession, military medicine, is focused on preventative medicine. We spend a significant amount of time ensuring our Sailors and Marines are fully vaccinated and taking the proper preventative medication such as daily antibiotics to prevent Malaria. Even something as simple as a diarrhea-causing viral gastroenteritis like the norovirus can significantly compromise the combat effectiveness of a unit.
To me, nothing is more terrifying than pandemics like the Black Death, the famous outbreak of bubonic plague that devastated Europe in the 14th century. Brought to Europe from Asia by Genoese merchants the bubonic plague caused the deaths of something like 50% of the population of the continent in 7 years. Mediterranean cities were affected, even more, Florance losing 70% of its 200,000 inhabitants. Imagine your city losing 70% of its population in days due to sudden disease. The idea is incomprehensible to me, yet terrifying because it is not outside the realm of future possibility.
In fiction, disease makes a fascinating antagonist or dramatic backdrop. Yet, I feel it’s slightly underutilized in modern fantasy. You would think that with the current popularity of “grimdark” plagues and pestilences would play a larger role. My guess is that we like our heroes to face enemies that are surmountable. Getting coughed on and dying in a puddle of sweat, feces, and puss from ruptured bule, while terrifying, lacks the satisfactory dramatic punch one looks for in their nightly reading.
Anyways, get your flu vaccine, wash your hands, and take plenty of vitamins.