After being linked a book describing the response to the Manchurian plague in Moukden, I read a few chapters and found that there are parallels between the Manchurian plague and COVID. Some paragraphs could easily have been written in the modern day. I took the book from the Internet Archive; the Google Books link didn’t work for me.


There are some important differences between the Manchurian plague and COVID. For one, it was extremely deadly, killed quickly after infection (by another source, 2 - 5 days), and affected all bar the elderly and infants.

Its specially marked feature was its unvarying fatality : 43,942 cases are recorded, and 43,942 deaths. There was no authenticated case of recovery.

The strong and vigorous seemed as susceptible as the weak, and the infection often passed over the aged and the very young.

Each morning we consulted together on the telephone, and on Tuesday he mentioned casually that he was not feeling up to the mark. I went straight to the station and found that he was feverish. […] The disease ran its rapid course, and he died in little more than twenty-four hours.

A man in a small hamlet came home ill from Moukden and died, his family attending on him and performing the usual rites. A few days later the entire household of seven died within twenty-four hours, except one infant who was found wailing beside the dead mother.

For two, it was more evident whether or not one had it in the later stages (and I think it was only infectious in the later stages, though obviously it’s difficult to tell):

In the evening the unmistakable Plague sign appeared, the bloody spit.

They were helped by the fact that pneumonic plague is usually easy to recognize, once it has declared itself.


Moving on to the actions taken, many are reflected in the actions taken for COVID. It seems to me most of the success from dealing with this plague came from widespread support from the populace, who went above and beyond to protect themselves because the plague was so extremely deadly, and secondly from the weather, which prevented people from travelling who may otherwise have done so.

First, they locked down the railways where they could. This seems similar to the travel bans. Not all travel was banned, but there was much less of it back then, so presumably it was easier.

Second, they moved infected people (and those in they were with) into quarantine centres (protected by the military). These appeared quite good quality, and people were paid back for their time:

A warm kang was provided, and plenty of good food, and there was no need to work. The members of each household were encouraged to keep by themselves, and when they returned home after their ten days’ holiday, they found that their houses had been well guarded, and that they received full compensation for anything burned by the police.

This seems similar to the requests to shelter in place, and schemes like UK’s furlough or Germany’s Kurzarbeit. I don’t know why we’ve moved away from centralised quarantine locations (even the Chinese secured people in their homes instead of sending them elsewhere) – perhaps the logistics are simply too hard with the much larger modern day populations.

Third, they burned the possessions of the dead and compensated the families. This isn’t something we do any more, though I don’t know why. Perhaps we can clean more thoroughly? Perhaps it never had that much of an effect?

Fourth, they vaccinated the doctors and gave them protective equipment. I think we did that too, before moving on to vaccinate everybody else. It’s difficult to tell what exactly the vaccine involved:

He had been inoculated against Plague, was closely masked, and, as we thought, well protected from infection

It might have been Yersin’s serum, designed for the bubonic plague.

Fifth, they sent people around to each house to inspect people for plague and take them to the quarantine centres. This was made significantly easier as the effects of plague were clearer and could be detected even by untrained people, while COVID requires a test (though I think South Korea had mandatory frequent testing). They did the same thing for businesses, which was not done anywhere I’m aware of:

When a shop was forcibly dosed and disinfected, and twenty-nine persons removed from it to an isolation station because of the death of a thirtieth, the merchants were highly incensed. The co-operation of the general public could thus hardly be expected.

One day a foreigner saw a sudden stir and excitement in a restaurant on a main street; a man had fallen down ill, and quickly became unconscious. The police were called, and within two hours all was complete, the premises empty, disinfected, and closed, with a cordon of soldiers round them. When the day’s work was over each member of the Plague staff visited a disinfecting station, where he had a bath and left his outer garments to be disinfected.

Sixth, they used propaganda: they sent placards around telling (possibly exaggerated, possibly true?) stories on how the plague could spread and what to avoid. This seems similar to the modern day briefings / news.

Seventh, they demanded people not visit their friends for Chinese New Years. This is our lockdown. This was helped by the weather: it snowed a lot, so people couldn’t travel easily.


People reacted much as we see today: with doubt, conspiracy theories, and attempts to evade the rules:

At the beginning there was general disbelief in the necessity or usefulness of preventive measures. It was an absolute novelty to the Chinese mind to attempt to check the spread of any infection, and apathy naturally accompanied their fatalism. “This is the scourge of Heaven,” said many. “All will die whose time has come, and no others. Then why take people away to isolation stations? Why burn good clothes and bedding?”

The Japanese were credited with encouraging or even causing the epidemic in order to destroy the people and possess the land.

It was said that everyone who went [to the isolation camps] would die, that people were sent from them to the Plague hospital who had not Plague, and that some were buried before they were dead

Day by day men saw their neighbours fall by their side; in five days seventy died. Panic seized the remainder, the military cordon was not very strict, and a number escaped one night, carrying infection into the city.

It was some time before opposition to Government measures altogether ceased. The most serious resistance was on the part of some merchants, who determined that their business should not be interfered with.

The plague defense was helped by the plague’s extreme deadliness: people kept to the lockdown and quarantined themselves as much as possible. Visitors from outside were rejected. Goods were bought in bulk and people kept to themselves. The plague of Manchuria lasted three months; the COVID lockdowns, while varying in scope, have lasted much longer. Lockdown opposition isn’t obvious in those it kills: if going to a party without a mask lead to the deaths of everybody at the party and their entire households, I’d expect more people to follow the rules.