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Yellow Fever 1871: Buenos Aires, never so close to hell

500 dead a day, seventy thousand people fleeing their homes, the memories of the worst pandemic that the porteños suffered 150 years ago.

fiebre amarilla

 The terrible scourge of black vomit was ravaged over Buenos Aires in an overwhelming summer of 1871, with 14,000 victims.  However, the sum of all horrors was not difficult to estimate. Corrientes would lose a few months earlier almost a quarter of its population with the same virus, which was coming down from the fambred assumption and the imperial Rio de Janeiro.  However, in Buenos Aires, the authorities allowed unrestricted entry despite the warnings of doctors, for example Dr. Argerich, due to pressures from merchants and shipping companies . The government of President Sarmiento, and the president of the municipal council Martínez de Hoz, denied yellow fever, is a “jaundice”, while Rosario soon closed his port with the  rosarinos in the streets, “With health is not negotiated ” So when the first case came confirmed in San Telmo, and that it was attempted in vain to hide from the press, the disaster was a fact. A city in uncontrolled growth of almost 180 thousand inhabitants, with little building planning and without drinking water, without avenues or green spaces, with the delayed works of the English Coghlan and Bateman, only a stretch of the West Railroad had filtered water to “clean the vapors”,  was converted. oacute; at the official birth of “save whoever can,” or “He who can flee,” said the survivor Mordeceo Navarro in his diary, collected by Vicente Cutolo.  

Buenos Aires had fought smallpox in 1792/1794, firmly since the antivariolic vaccine of Jenner in 1812, and resisted the cholera epidemics of 1867/1868, which were imported from the front of the War against Paraguay, with a fatal death of 5,000.  At that time the protosanitarians denodiously insisted on the installation of running waters that supplant the intake of liquid from an already rotten Riachuelo, and sewers that replaced the blind wells that clouded the reservoirs . They were times of bid between doctors and authorities, who came to form by law of 1867 an official Hygiene Council to carry forward proposals and health improvements.  Buenos Aires had fewer than one doctor every thousand inhabitants, partly because of an exclusive policy of the medical union, and the national authorities, which prevented the thickening of litters of new professionals at the risk of losing old privileges . One of those who fought against this situation was   Eduardo Wilde,  of the first Argentine sanitarians, and hero of San Telmo and Monserrat . In 1871 he would leave no person behind, such was the example that Paul Groussac, future director of the National Library, decided to volunteer watching the young man side by side with the sick, and Jorge Luis Borges still saw Wilde's ghost aiding in Mexico street, in “The language of the argentines”

eduardo wilde

 Something smells bad in San Telmo 

“Our readers already know that we are not alarmists,” appeared in the newspaper “La Tribuna” the day following  January 27, 1871, the beginning date of the Yellow Fever in Buenos Aires, “However, we cannot accept the responsibility of silence when we believe that the health of the people is has been threatened. In the Parish of San Telmo there is Yellow Fever .” These first cases occurred in Bolivar 392, today 1262, in an old mansion converted into a conventillo of poor and immigrants. The Italian Angel Bignollo and his daughter-in-law Colomba died. The block of Cochabamba, Peru, San Juan and Bolivar began the escalation of the terrible disease, which only ten years later would be known to be transmitted by the  Aedes aegypti mosquito, and which reproduced unequivally in the deplorable conditions of life in the neighborhoods of the South.  Dr. Guillermo Rawson was about to discover this vector, as he noted that the porteños fleeing to the outskirts but returning were adjacent to wet areas - the area of reproduction of the mosquito - but unfortunately for the population he could not solve the dilemma.  

 The first month was a bare of the national and municipal authorities, who fled deseperate to the outskirts, including deputies, senators, judges and even  Sarmiento themselves and  Martínez de Hoz  “During the carnivals -which were carried out anyway despite the warnings of doctors... it is difficult not to think November Maradona, and December, Abortion Law, in the pandemic 2020- Buenos Aires had already lost its usual physiognomy to become a dr... Eacute; give the streets where it was possible to find the most unexpected things: an abandoned bed in front of the door of a house, an armchair in balance on a roof, cows and sheep wandering around the Plaza de Mayo. Some, believing themselves condemned, gave sumptuous feasts; others were gathering supplies and locked themselves in the basements, burying themselves in life and by their own hand. I heard from a man who did not leave the cellar, he ended up feeding on spiders, worms and mice,” says Diego Muzzio in “The route of the mongoose” (The invisible spheres. Editorial Entropy), based on the stories of the press. Again, it's hard not to remember today.

Wilde, Aurelio French, a member of the People's Commission who was self-formed in March after marching to Casa Rosada, 10,000 people, and who died on March 10 with his wife, Commissioner Lisandro Suárez and the Sisters of Charity of San Vicente Paul struggled with the media they had at hand, especially in Monserrat and San Telmo, where 5,000 people would die, and against healers and mass newspapers who initially dismissed the seriousness of the health disaster “I saw... late at night, amidst that dreadful loneliness,  a man dressed in black, walking through those deserted streets. He was the priest, who was going to bring the last word of comfort to the dying,”  said the chroniclers of the time, who also highlighted the asylum of children promoted by the priest Eduardo O' Gorman of San Nicola de Bari. A separate comment deserves the famous painting by Juan Manuel Blanes present at the Museum of Visual Arts in Uruguay: in the early morning of March 17, 1871, Manuel Domínguez, serene from block 72, warned that the door of the house located in Balcarce 384 was open. Noting that no one answered his call, he advanced into the tenant, and found the body of a woman with a creature sucking from her chest. Her mother's name was Ana Cristina, residing with her sick husband in La Boca, from whom she had been driven in the poor car to that house that was abandoned.

Contemporary medical treatment, in total ignorance of the cause, did not go from immersion and hydration baths, measures against miasma -bad smells combated with white smoke-, some hemeopathic action, which tried to counteract chills, diarrhea, arrhythmias, and already in the worst cases ending with death, widespread bleeding, black vomiting and delusions.  So they could do little more than comfort patients and try to avoid looting and looting which also added to fraudulent wills.    A month of Yellow Fever and Buenos Aires was a cemetery ravaged by bandits, abandonment encouraged by its leaders in the first time in history, and that had no concrete plan.  Even within the same Commission that was resisting in the city there were internal divisions, between Héctor Varela and Lucio V. Mansilla to name. Or he did have a plan for them, flamed by the press.

In the newspaper La Nación of March 5, 1871 appeared “... fever has sought the point of greatest agglomeration and desaseo and has attacked him mercilessly. Immediately that the causes of the spread have ceased, the plague has disappeared being locked up again in its primary lair. It is known that a new focus of plague had been announced in Paraguay street, between Artes and Cerrito. Finding out the fact, it turned out that the place attacked, having a capacity for fifty people, housed three hundred and twenty. But there was something worse... with an object that is not easy to guess, the locator or owner of that house did not consent to take out the garbage that was made daily in it, which would not be few nor of good quality (sic)... There gave its assault the yellow fever, undoubtedly attracted by the unclean effluvious from that atmosphere, and the first victim he made was the same owner or tenant of the house, his wife was then attacked and died...” What this medium, very well known, did not say was that the majority of our immigrant pioneers lived there, which justified supported by the People's Commission, in the words of American historian Alison William Bunkley, that “... Italian immigrants are blamed for the epidemic. They were expelled from their jobs. They walked the streets without work, no home, some even died on the pavement, where their bodies were often uncollected for hours .” Almost 50 percent of the victims were immigrants and Afro-descendants, with the discussion still open whether it had a negative impact on the black community. In today's Ramos Mejia, improvised shops were erected to neighbors who had been violently evicted, and their scarce belongings burned. Many had just got off the boat.

While the same president of the Commission, Dr. José Roque Perez, died of the plague, and the brave Father Antonio Fahy, who went from home to house in San Telmo assisting the victims, the cemeteries in the city did not supply, and the coffins were stolen at night for use in the morning. The Commission decides to buy some farms in Chacarita, inaugurating this Buenos Aires cemetery, and organizes the “Death Train” that goes from the current Abasto to la Chacarita.  It was at Easter that the definitive hecatombe looked like with an average of 500 deaths per day, conventillos burned with reasons or without, and a presidential and provincial decree declaring a holiday until May only in April!   Autumn cold drove the cases down and in June there were no reports, so the People's Commission dissolved, and authorities at all levels returned to their palaces although never beyond Plaza de Mayo. As a later measure, they installed the “Iron Cross of Knights of the Order of Martyrs”, the first in the country.  Wilde  would immediately be concerned with signing a regional treaty alerting the disease's progress, and as  president Roca's minister,  he would promote a hyginiesta policy that managed to eradicate the country's yellow plague.

 Man's sacrifice for mankind is a duty and a virtue 

It is the phrase in homage to the victims of the worst epidemic that suffered Buenos Aires, which is lost in the immense Ameghino Park in Parque Patricios - former cemetery. Wilde has a small bust in a corridor of the Faculty of Medicine, passing bills to the journalist and writer, for his secular positions, promoter of the Education and Civil Marriage Act, and his iron anti-porteñismo.  The city that aspired the scepter of the Queen of Plata quickly passed the leaf and began an ambitious plan of sewage works, and first environmental protection measures, with the ban on salts.   What frightened the Porteños was their worst face, greed, prey, moral fraud, xenophobia and government incompetence, which was saved by the action of neighbors and the same anonymous heroes as ever. Comparing the photo of 1871 and 2021, 150 years of time, do we change?

Sources: Lobato, M. Z.  Politics, doctors and diseases. Readings of history of Argentine health.  Buenos Aires: Biblos. 1996; Scenna, M. A.  When Buenos Aires died: 1871 . Buenos Aires: La Bastille, 1971; Sanguinetti, M.  San Telmo and its historical past . Buenos Aires: Editions San Telmo. 1965

Publication Date: 27/01/2021

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