Time for some bible study. The Book of Exodus is the second book of the Old Testament and the Torah. It tells the story of how the Israelites are liberated from slavery in Egypt through the strength of their god Yahweh, and their journey, led by Moses, through the wilderness to Mount Sinai, where Yahweh promises them the land of Canaan in return for their faithfulness.
Per the Book of Exodus, the Israelites had been driven from their lands by famine and had ended up as slaves in Egypt. Yahweh inflicts ten plagues on the Egyptians in order to persuade the Pharaoh to let his people return home. ‘Let my people go, so that they may worship me,’ demands Yahweh, as he unleashes death, darkness and famine.
Historians consider The Plagues of Egypt to have been entirely mythical. But that’s not to say they can’t happen. What follows is an exploration of how a selection of the ten mythical plagues have come to pass at different times and places across the world – not by the hand of God, but by our own.
This is what the LORD says: By this you will know that I am the LORD: With the staff that is in my hands I will strike the water of the Nile, and it will be changed into blood. The fish in the Nile will die, and the river will stink and the Egyptians will not be able to drink its water.
— Exodus 7:17–18
Norilsk (which I wrote about before, article here) is a frozen city in northern Russia which exists to serve the Nickel industry. It’s basically run by Nornickel, the biggest Nickel company in the world.
Smelting plants surround the city, belching smoke day and night, and mines lace the hills beyond. The area is too cold for most vegetation to grow, so there’s nothing to hide the chemical waste that saturates the muddy ground and the only things that rise from the lifeless land are concrete housing blocks; mercifully well-insulated, built during the Soviet Union.
The city’s appearance and the condition of the environment is so bad that visits by foreigners are restricted. In 2016, the nearby Daldykan river began to flow blood red. Nobody took responsibility. The blame was later found to lie with a set of Nornickel-owned wastewater pipes from a nearby smelting plant. No divine intervention necessary.
This is what the great LORD says: Let my people go, so that they may worship me. If you refuse to let them go, I will plague your whole country with frogs. The Nile will teem with frogs. They will come up into your palace and your bedroom and onto your bed, into the houses of your officials and on your people, and into your ovens and kneading troughs. The frogs will go up on you and your people and all your officials.
— Exodus 8:1–4
March the 25th, 2019. Thousands of poisonous bufo toads are besieging a South Florida neighbourhood. They are leaping around people’s gardens, splashing in their pools and ‘going up on’ sidewalks and driveways. When you pick up a bufo toad, it excretes a toxic milky substance from its head, liable to irritate your skin and burn your eyes.
But bufo toads aren’t native to Florida. This isn’t a natural phenomenon. Their presence, according to a Washington Post article, is the result of an accidental release of 100 bufo toads by a pet dealer at Miami airport in 1955.
And the LORD said “Stretch out thy rod, and smite the dust of the land, that it may become lice throughout all the land of Egypt.” When Aaron stretched out his hand with the rod and struck the dust of the ground, lice came upon men and animals. All the dust throughout the land of Egypt became lice.
— Exodus 8:16–17
Many of us will remember the stigma and paranoia surrounding head lice, or nits, at school. They are one of our very own parasites. They feed on human blood only – no other is to their taste. Perfectly harmless in themselves, they just itch and are crushingly embarrassing to have.
GPs in England would happily prescribe Bug Buster kits to children with lice infestations. This provided them with a cheap and effective route of escape. That was until last Autumn, when NHS England decided to prevent GPs from prescribing the treatment as a cost-cutting measure, made necessary by the Conservative government’s strangling of health service funding. While the Bug Buster kits cost the NHS £5 per kit and last a year, over-the-counter kits in chemists cost £12 and only last for one treatment.
Schools now fear a surge in lice infestations, with poorer pupils suffering from bullying by more well-heeled, nit-free students.
This is what the LORD, the God of the Hebrews, says: Let my people go, so that they may worship me. If you refuse to let them go and continue to hold them back, the hand of the LORD will bring a terrible plague on your livestock in the field—on your horses and donkeys and camels and on your cattle and sheep and goats.
— Exodus 9:1–3
The 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak is probably the closest the UK has come in my lifetime to bringing into reality the fictional dystopias of 80s BBC TV dramas like Day of the Triffids, and is as such the only reference-point I have for what might happen in the result of a no-deal Brexit. The outbreak and mass animal culls which came with it devastated agriculture in much of England and South Scotland.
As an eight-year-old growing up in the Scottish countryside, I encountered: Foreboding government posters declaring prohibited entry; the appearance of obscure police units and even soldiers; obligatory disinfection routines; closed roads; closed visitor attractions; the enforcing of emergency government directives by sombre officials, and dark smoke on the horizon of a deserted countryside, rising from the burning carcasses of infected animals.
Then the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Take handfuls of soot from a furnace and have Moses toss it into the air in the presence of Pharaoh. It will become fine dust over the whole land of Egypt, and festering boils will break out on men and animals throughout the land.”
— Exodus 9:8–9
“He started to change; every day I met a brand-new person. The burns started to come to the surface. In his mouth, on his tongue, his cheeks – at first there were little lesions, and then they grew. It came off in layers – as white film … the colour of his face … his body … blue, red, grey-brown. And it’s all so very mine!
The only thing that saved me was it happened so fast; there wasn’t any time to think, there wasn’t any time to cry. It was a hospital for people with serious radiation poisoning. Fourteen days. In 14 days a person dies.
He was producing stools 25 to 30 times a day, with blood and mucous. His skin started cracking on his arms and legs. He became covered with boils. When he turned his head, there’d be a clump of hair left on the pillow. I tried joking: “It’s convenient, you don’t need a comb.” Soon they cut all their hair.
I tell the nurse: “He’s dying.” And she says to me: “What did you expect? He got 1,600 roentgens. Four hundred is a lethal dose. You’re sitting next to a nuclear reactor.”
When they all died, they refurbished the hospital. They scraped down the walls and dug up the parquet. When he died, they dressed him up in formal wear, with his service cap. They couldn’t get shoes on him because his feet had swollen up. They buried him barefoot. My love.’
– extract from Voices From Chernobyl, by Svetlana Alexievich, as told by Lyudmilla Ignatenko, wife of fireman Vasily Ignatenko who, with his comrades, prevented the disaster at Chernobyl nuclear power plant from spinning further out of control. Despite the heroics of Ignatenko, the fine radioactive dust from Chernobyl’s nuclear furnace spread across Europe, reaching Ireland and Great Britain.
Here endeth the lesson.