Ancient plagues

April 11, 2020


AS we endure the coronavirus, with all its suffering, discomfort and death, we would do well to reflect on other times, other plagues.

In other words, there have been far worse pandemics over the centuries. Some of them devastated civilisations, and brought cities, tribes and nations to their knees.

Just as Covid-19 recognises no social boundaries, so, too, did ancient plagues cross physical and political borders with ease. Then, as now, globalisation was the main driver behind the spread of such pandemics.

In the third century AD, a terrible plague went through the Roman Empire, like a hot knife through butter. According to contemporary accounts, the plague, akin to Ebola, caused the bowels to melt; blood to ooze from the eyes; and feet to rot away. Among this frightful carnage, the Roman Empire collapsed into anarchy.

Once it had recovered and moved its capital to Constantinople, it fell once more to another epidemic that began its westward journey from China. In many iterations of the bubonic plague, bacteria would hitch a ride with lice that rode on rats travelling on board ships sailing to the West.

Corpses would rot in the streets.

In Alexandria, they would be filled with grain imported by Constantinople. Here, the cargo would be sold across Europe where the bacteria would cause epidemics of plague that killed hundreds of thousands. Corpses would rot in the streets, and aristocrats and peasants alike would be struck down.

Millions suffered grievously from the Justinian plague that visited Byzantium in the sixth and seventh centuries. Historians speculate that the mass deaths that occurred in East Europe and the Middle East in that era tilted the balance of power towards North Europe when Slavic invasions into the Balkans and Greece, the Lombardic incursions into Italy, and the Berber invasions of Byzantium weakened the existing world order.

In Arab lands, some 25,000 Muslim soldiers died in the plague of ’Amwas. In a familiar refrain, the suffering of the Muslims was ascribed to moral laxity. According to the clergy, the plague struck because people there drank alcohol. Since before that period, man-made and natural disasters have been blamed on similar human failings. To this day, our clerics blame all kinds of misfortunes on our deviation from holy laws.

And lest we think Covid-19 is the nastiest epidemic mankind has encountered, consider the Black Death that wreaked havoc across Europe in the mid-14th century. Started by 12 ships that docked in Sicily in 1347, it was ultimately responsible for claiming 75m to 125m lives in Europe and North Africa. This represented 30 per cent to 60pc of the population of 475m. It took 200 years to recover these numbers.

So when we speak of some thousands of lives lost, the truth is that this number is peanuts when compared with the major plagues mankind has lived through in the past. In the 19th century, a plague swept out of Yunnan in China (again!) that may have caused over 10m deaths. A million of these took place in India, hitting the port cities of Mumbai, Kolkata and Karachi.

In those days, vaccines had just made a tentative appearance. Crowded shanty towns encouraged the rapid spread of the disease, while the lack of sewage and basic hygiene made large communities highly vulnerable. And nor was ‘social distancing’ considered feasible in densely packed neighbourhoods.

Today, despite the huge advances we have made in medical science, we continue to get hit by pandemics time and again (MERS, Ebola, etc). In fact, influenza is a type of virus-borne disease not unlike Covid-19. The latter is more lethal, of course, but the former takes over 2m lives a year. Both can lead to pneumonia and death.

When AIDS first appeared on the scene in the 1980s, the godly decided that it was a disease that usually struck gay men, and was thus divine punishment aimed at homosexuals. Now, after years of experimentation, a cure has been found, and AIDS is just another addition to the long list of diseases that keeps doctors and researchers busy.

It is our response to Covid-19 that sets it apart from other pandemics. The self-isolation and social distancing put into place means that most people are cut off from jobs, businesses and personal relationships. This is playing havoc with the economy and our society. In England, there are already rumblings of rebellion.

There is also the larger question of how to put society and the economy together again after the pandemic is over. Modes of production and communication have already undergone profound changes, and we do not yet know if they can be restored to their pre-coronavirus shape again.

As usual, it is the poor who are suffering the most, especially in the Third World. Without clean water to wash their hands, they are more prone to catch the virus, and less likely to get proper treatment. Covid-19 thus exposes the deep fractures in society.

Published in Dawn, April 11th, 2020