ates help formulate perspective. The passage of time once conferred elders with presumptive wisdom because youth saw the labor of endurance as a gift. Age was survival. Those who’d seen the terrible but stayed alive could encourage the fresh-faced throttled for the first time by similar scourges.
The word “unprecedented” came up rarely. To land on the moon was unprecedented. Most human vicissitudes were not.
So-called recorded history is a recent invention. Most history contains no record, only traces and fleeting glimpses through art. Past pestilence is lost to non-recorded time, so the finding of “new” ones misleadingly presumes the retroactive existence of enlightened tools. The microscope came into widespread use 200 years ago. Bacteria meant little before 1850.
“There is nothing new under the sun,” spoke Ecclesiastes in the Bible. “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again.”
The resignation comforted deists, philosophers and common citizens alike, since all sought found the vastness of the unknown too daunting to fathom without spiritual aid. Plagues came and went. Many went unrecorded. Others flourished in place the enlightened world cared to little to probe. Some simply fell between those cracks.
Here then is an excerpt from a memo from a man named Ngoi Mushola. Minus today’s date:
“Inquiry into alarming cases in the community of Yandongi, Bumba Zone.
“I received an urgent call from Yambuku from the medical assistant Masangaya Alola Nzanzu of Yambuku Hospital because of alarming cases in the community… I went to determine the reality of the situation.
“The affliction is characterized by high temperature around 39ºC; frequent vomiting of black, digested blood, but of red blood in few cases; diarrhea emissions initially sprinkled with blood, with only red blood near death; epistaxis [nose bleed] now and then; retrosternal and abdominal pain and a state of stupor; prostration with heaviness in the joints; rapid evolution toward death after a period of about three days, from a state of general health…”
The report covered 26 cases. Ngoi’s noted that 14 villagers had died, 10 were gravely ill, and four had fled the hospital in a maddened state, witnessing the early decay of their bodies. Treatment had included anti-malarial drugs, blood coagulants, cardiac stimulants and antibiotics. All had failed.
He left the town with three recommendations:
“1. Hospitalize the cases; 2. Boil potable water; 3. Use public cemeteries.”
Ngoi was the medical director for the Bumba Zone in Zaire. He was in the Yandongi contaminated zone for three day, after which he compiled and sent his report to authorities in the capital of Kinshasa.
He did not send it via email.
The disease he attempted to describe was then-nameless Ebola, which within months was given the name of a nearby Zairian river. The outbreak Ngoi observed first hand killed hundreds, perhaps thousands, and led to a whole section of Zaire being quarantined. Neighboring southern Sudan was severed from the north when the disease also appeared there. No one knows how.
“There is already panic,” Ngoi wrote, begging for help.
He filed this report not in 2014, or 2004, or 1994, or even 1984, but on September 17, 1976.
What has been is again, only the scale and the now-audible clamor of the enlightened (and the afraid) are different.