Health & Fitness

Lessons from Marseille’s bubonic plague in 1720

worker sprays disinfectant
A Kenya Railways worker sprays disinfectant in a train carriage at the central Railways Station in Nairobi on March 18, 2020. PHOTO | AFP 

The French city of Marseille and Mombasa share similarities. They play host to international trade, shippers and tonnes of cargo. As port cities, both have bristling commerce, numerous tourists and seafarers from all over, creating a mélange of cultures.

In healthcare, such trade and cultural confluences create unique “health culture lifestyles.” Across the globe, Rotterdam, Philadelphia, Mombasa and other port cities have this similarity.

In what makes for an interesting read, Marseille’s 1720 bubonic plague history offers Mombasa residents lessons on adherence to public health regulations; most importantly, movement restrictions during Covid-19.

Marseille’s plague occasioned great panic, disrupting trade and affecting livelihoods. By its control three years later, only half the city population remained. No doubt, Mombasa leaders are anxious about the rising Covid- 19 cases. As an unprecedented illness, no laid down protocols or preparatory plans were available, our reactions are crafted and adjusted on the go.

Marseille’s contagion story offers lessons that hopefully could help avert further losses and a speedier normalcy resumption. As read, the origin was from a ship whose crew were rightly identified as having the plague, given mortalities on-board. On arrival at the port, it was barred from docking, dislodging cargo or any of its crew disembarking.


Though the threat was known and prompt measures initiated, businessmen pressured the authorities for the ship’s cargo release and it was offloaded on to the harbour.

Unbeknown, the cargo harboured mice, the contagion spreading vermin. Soon, plague cases began appearing around the harbour. With panic spreading in the harbour neighbourhoods as these rose, residents moved further inland, taking the disease to these new neighbourhoods.

In a while the city was overrun with infections, and measures to contain it were fruitless.

Mombasa’s initial cases too seem to cluster around shipping industry, given the cases at KPA, just like Marseille’s port cases, but have now spiralled to the community.

The first lesson is that in pandemic control, treat everyone as infected and limit movements. Strict measures put in place to avoid spread to other French cites, included erection of barrier-walls, policing of exits and severe fines and punishment for those flouting rules were perhaps responsible for curtailing spread to other towns,

While ancient edict rules allowed this to happen, such may not be possible now. Our directives seem not to have gone down well, particularly among Eastleigh and Mombasa residents. The pushback the Government got in attempting to curtail movements could glean historical lessons from this Marseille story. It would be well to include health and community leaders in the policy teams, just like Marseille did.

Secondly, post Covid-19, each county must maintain a risk identification and response team, complete with mock simulations annually.

Citizens resisting public health measures better learn from the Marseille case. Covid-19 war is with us for a long time, sowing social hegemony is not the answer to this crisis.