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Sunday, April 05, 2020

Speakeasy: How coronavirus-like outbreaks have shaped human history

Over the last decade, research in old plague pits in Europe and the UK has tied all three outbreaks to the same pathogen and pinned its origin to China, from where it spread by the Silk Route, and hitched rides on merchant ships.

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | New Delhi | Updated: February 15, 2020 9:19:07 am
Coronavirus, China, Outbreaks, Epidemics, Justinian Plague, Black Death, SARS, Yersinia Pestis, Wuhan, Shanghai, Deng Xiaoping, Xi Jinping, Sunday Eye, Eye 2020, Indian Express, Indian Express news Health emergency: China was in denial of the pending epidemic for far too long. (Photo by Praveen Khanna)

After the battle with coronavirus is over, China will be remembered as the hatchery of one of the fastest-moving killers in modern times. It is a reputation that the country fails to live down, having been the origin of the bubonic plague which, in the 12th century, killed millions within three or four days of infection in Europe. The disease, caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, reached Europe in three waves. The first was the Justinian Plague of 541-542 AD, which recurred repeatedly until the 8th century, devastated Europe and the Middle East, and may have created the political vacuum that was filled by the expansion of Islam.

The Black Death in the 14th century was the second wave, and originated from what is suspected to have been a single infected corpse, which was catapulted by Kipchak besiegers into the defences of the Crimean town of Caffa (modern Feodosia), held by Genoese traders. When they fled, every port their ships made landfall on the voyage home to Italy became a new epicentre of the disease. The third wave broke out in Yunnan in the late 19th century, spread to Hong Kong and took ship to Hawaii and San Francisco. Over the last decade, research in old plague pits in Europe and the UK has tied all three outbreaks to the same pathogen and pinned its origin to China, from where it spread by the Silk Route, and hitched rides on merchant ships.

Accounts of plagues in history tend to focus on the human toll, which was staggering in pre-modern times. There is very little literature accessible to the lay reader on the first effects of a public health emergency, which are economic and political. But our times are different. As the death toll from coronavirus in China crossed the number of fatalities during the SARS epidemic in 2002-2003, press coverage turned from containment efforts to the economic and political effects on China.

A long and uncertain trade war with the US had already burdened a slowing economy, and restiveness in Hong Kong and impatience in Taiwan have not helped. Now, in major financial centres like Shanghai, people are staying home, and the disruption in everyday life and reduction in consumption will curb the margins of big companies and wipe out small operators and retailers. Growth is going to suffer. And the economic effects have brought into question the legitimacy of Xi Jinping’s rule.

China remained in denial of a pending epidemic for far too long, and the death of Li, who had first blown the whistle, seems to have sparked off a small movement for more freedom of speech. The public reaction to the failure of the state to act in time has apparently triggered a crisis of faith that recalls the period of the Tiananmen Square protest. That was handled, with a shocking degree of force, by Deng Xiaoping. But Deng’s China would have probably reacted faster to a public health emergency than the capitalist system the Xi era has developed. It has responded in scale, rapidly converting stadiums and public buildings into critical care wards. But it did not respond in time. The crisis is probably winding down, though it will have left the lives of millions of survivors seriously damaged. It could have been worse.

Indeed, it used to be worse. In the world’s imagination, the Black Death in Europe and Asia arched over the other great killers of the past, like typhus, which appeared in Europe during the Crusades, and tuberculosis, which still infects one in three humans. Accounts like those in the early pages in Boccaccio’s Decameron (1353) reflected public shock at the suddenness with which they ravaged populations. The prognosis is much better in contemporary times, when antibiotics can deal with secondary infections, and the spread of disease is retarded by better living conditions and hygiene. The coronavirus outbreak will be contained, but diseases that appear in the future may prove to be more difficult because large populations are developing antibiotic resistance. What would happen if future plagues killed fewer but lived longer in the wild, disrupting normal life?

We would be repeating history again. The Black Death brought commerce to a standstill, as fewer were left to produce, and even fewer willing to transport produce, just like in some Chinese cities. Wages rose because of the scarcity of labour, but the gain was cancelled out by runaway inflation fuelled by the scarcity of goods. The result was a reordering of agrarian society. Manor houses had to offer better terms to labour, which rejected indenture and indebtedness and set itself on the path to eventual freedom.

That’s the good part. The ugly part was scapegoating, as political control faltered, structures of power were rearranged, and people in several regions felt free to blame Jews, mendicants, gypsies, beggars — almost anyone who was different or seemed to have no fixed address. Having recently seen a wave of lynchings in India, it isn’t difficult to imagine medieval history repeating itself. Extended waves of highly infectious disease could drastically alter relations between people and nations. No wonder some of the world’s political and military leaders look upon banned biological weapons with a guilty fascination.

(Pratik Kanjilal lectures a surprisingly tolerant public on far too many issues)

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