Historian draws parallels in Finnish response to plague and coronavirus

Think social distancing is new? Finland was already practising an extreme version of it in the 1600s.

A German painting from the 1400s depicting plague victims, including tumour-like, pus-filled growths. Image: Staatliche Museen

Are there parallels between the spread of novel coronavirus and the bubonic plague in Finland? Like coronavirus, the plague advanced with bewildering speed in Finland (which at the time was a part of the Kingdom of Sweden).

Yle asked Finnish history professor Pekka Toropainen from Turku University what Finland has learned from past epidemics.

"It came by sea"

In 1636, officials in the city of Turku on Finland’s southwestern coast recorded that plague outbreaks could be traced to the town’s port. At the time Turku was the capital of Finland and remained so until 1812 (in conjunction with Finland becoming a Grand Duchy of Russia).

"Here in Turku we knew that the plague was spreading across the European continent, so to avoid infection, ships had to dock out in the archipelago for 40 days. This effectively meant blocking them from entering the city," Toropainen explained.

During the 1600s, the plague also found its way into the Finnish countryside. Officials were alerted to this fact when peasants would suddenly stop paying their taxes.

Cities in Finland wanted to keep rural outbreaks at a safe distance. Officials set up watch over main arteries in Uusimaa, Häme, Satakunta and Ostrobothnia to turn back travellers.

"If anyone wanted to gain entry into Turku they needed to carry documentation proving that they were not travelling from affected regions. If someone left Turku, they were not allowed to return. This is how they locked down the city."

Maritime traffic was under close watch, and authorities in Turku usually had a few days’ forewarning to prepare for ships arriving from Baltic ports with known outbreaks.

But despite the city's vigilance, the plague still managed to gain a foothold in Turku. This meant officials had to develop anti-plague measures.

The plague and the city

Ships known to carry infected people were not allowed to dock in Turku. Most often this led to everyone on board dying.

Most farmyards in the city were already self-contained, cordoned off by a fence and gate. People in these yards would nail windows and doors shut if someone in their household was infected. One door would be left unboarded and guarded by a person charged with overseeing the key. Quarantine lasted 40 days following the most recent death.

"The bubonic plague was a quick killer so if you were quarantined for 40 days, you could be sure that everyone in the yard had had the disease."

Sometimes people left Turku to avoid catching the plague.

"Inhabitants sometimes sailed to Vyborg or Helsinki, but the plague was of course already everywhere so this wasn’t a great idea."

Social distancing Renaissance-style

As the plague spread throughout Turku, it became forbidden for residents to walk on the streets. But this edict didn’t stop neighbours from inventing other ways of communicating.

"People started yelling over fences to get the latest news or to catch up with their neighbours. Officials weren't able to stop this behaviour. People wanted to know what was happening."

Plague doctors wore a mask with a bird-like beak to protect them from infection which they believed was airborne. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Just like today, some people flouted official recommendations to stay put. Quarantine-breakers faced expensive penalties if no one in their yard was found to be ill. However, city-appointed executioners had the right to kill men without a trial if they absconded from plague-infected households. Rule-breaking women were whipped and chased out of town.

"People avoided courtship at the time and remained wary even after the epidemic was over. They were so frightened by the plague and death in general."

Traditional burial practices abandoned

At the height of outbreaks, families were so terrified of catching the disease that they stopped burying their dead.

"So they piled the corpses outside on the street. Sometimes people who were still alive would be left in the heaps."

Prisoners were tasked with transporting the dead to their final resting place. Women were often in charge of this job, combing the streets for bodies in the afternoon.

In the 1600s, people in Finland did not know flea-ridden vermin transmitted the disease. They believed the plague spread through "noxious air", known as miasma. The plague was God's punishment for sinning, they thought.

"So when you kept your distance to keep away from "bad air", it’s possible you actually avoided getting sick."

People painted crosses on buildings to announce plague victims. This told everyone to avoid the area. Neighbourhood watchmen and women, who also held the keys to the infected yards, delivered food and medicine to sick families.

"At the time people burned wood tar both inside and outside [for medicinal purposes] and would place their clothes in smoke. Since fleas spread the disease, these activities actually helped kill them."

After a quarantine, people from infected houses had to be able to show they were fit to rejoin society. Men would carry white walking sticks and women would wear white headcloths to indicate they were disease-free.

Plague decimated Finnish population

When the mortality rate eventually dropped and no new cases were reported, officials knew the epidemic was over--for a while at least.

Some 240 people died in Turku's epidemic of 1657, infecting 78 family yards. At the time the city was home to just 5,000 people.

A few decades later, during the epidemic of 1710-11, the city’s population had grown to 8,000, but that outbreak wiped out some 2,000 residents, a quarter of all inhabitants.

The Black Death similarly devastated other major port cities of Helsinki and Vyborg.

Eventually the plague ran its course in the Nordics--never to return--at least not in epidemic form.

Coronavirus vs bubonic plague

So what similarities can be found in Finland's response to the plague and novel coronavirus today?

Toropainen said that then, as now, there was a lot of uncertainty. While scientists today say they believe they know what causes Covid-19, there’s no vaccine or treatment. Three hundred years ago people didn’t know what was going on, but then--like during the current pandemic--restrictions on daily life have become the new normal.

During the plague, quarantine lasted 40 days, today people are advised to self-isolate for two weeks. To avoid the plague, residents were scarcely allowed to leave their homes, whereas now the government is instructing over-70s to avoid crowds.

Amid the pestilence, residents were not allowed to travel abroad. The same is true today as coronavirus has halted most global travel.

Human nature hasn’t changed much, either. During the plague, some residents did not abide by restrictions on movement, arguing it encroached on their liberty.

"Some families buried plague victims secretly. They did this to keep the authorities from finding out that their household had been infected. These families wanted to be free to interact with other people."

One major difference is the absence of a death penalty or whippings for quarantine-breakers.

"Punishments are of course different today...Perhaps people would follow rules better if they were handed a 1,000-euro ticket."

Another major change, according to Toropainen, is how swift travel is in the current age of contagion.

"In the 1600s we would receive letters that gave us enough time to react if an infected ship was approaching the harbour. It took a few days for a ship to make its way across the Baltic. But today there is no time to react. We knew coronavirus was spreading in China, but the speed of air travel didn’t leave us much time to prepare."