Global coronavirus challenges reminiscent of past plagues

Global coronavirus challenges reminiscent of past plagues

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Quarantine is a word that has dominated news stories over the last fortnight. As the world struggles to cope while caught in the grip of a new virus, few have drawn historical parallels with the Black Death bubonic plague of the 14th century. Much like the current coronavirus and avian flu, this disease originated in China and was soon to have a drastic global impact, propelled by links of trade and humanity. In the end, the plague killed an estimated 25 million people, lingering for centuries and wiping out many thousands in large cities. As global markets have gone into freefall, the profound impacts of such illnesses are all too clear and modern decision-makers will have to reacquaint themselves with the same lessons learned and then forgotten from previous outbreaks.

With a fatality rate of between 3 and 4 percent, the coronavirus is markedly less lethal than the bubonic plague. However, the reactions to it have been reminiscent. The plague wiped out almost a third of Europe’s population during a particularly nasty peak between 1347 and 1350. This cull produced one of the biggest-ever decreases in human population and led to an impetus to take action. Officials in the Venetian-controlled port city of Ragusa (now Dubrovnik in modern-day Croatia) passed a law establishing “trentino,” or a 30-day period of isolation for ships arriving from plague-affected areas. No one from Ragusa was allowed to visit those ships during this time and, if someone did so, they too would be isolated for the mandatory 30 days. The practice expanded and, over the next 80 years, Marseilles, Pisa and various other coastal cities adopted similar measures. Within a century, cities extended the isolation period from 30 to 40 days, and the term changed to “quarantino” — the root of the English word quarantine that is used today.

The tried and tested measure of waiting for the crew of a sea vessel to show no signs of illness before disembarking is a practice that the world’s airport authorities, border controls and international freight companies would do well to observe. Though living in an era of immense connectivity poses challenges in implementing isolation policies, basic lessons from the past can help immensely in mitigating the crisis the world faces today.

In the same way that cargo from abroad raised suspicion, the international air travel and online service industries must similarly be curtailed — and where they have done, they should perhaps have done so earlier. British Airways on Monday announced the cancelation of 75 percent of its flights over the next two months, and other airlines will have to follow suit if the rate of infection is to be slowed. The medieval Silk Road brought a wealth of goods, spices and new ideas from China and Central Asia to Europe, as well as the plague and later viral outbreaks. Similarly, it is the aircraft and interdependence of today’s economy that has linked a virus from Central China to Iran and the Alps. Just as the great trading cities of Venice and Genoa once buckled under the plague, Italy is today a crossroads with the highest infection rate in Europe.

Basic lessons from the past can help immensely in mitigating the crisis the world faces today

Zaid M. Belbagi

The spread of COVID-19 has led to an unprecedented number of employees working from home, while the more profound effects will be how small businesses will cope and whether a global recession brought about by the virus will change working patterns forever. The 14th century plague had an important effect on working relationships in Europe, especially between feudal lords, who owned much of the land and who peasants worked for. As those fit to work gradually died, it became increasingly more difficult to cultivate land, harvest crops and produce other goods and services. Peasants began to demand higher wages and the remaining workers also had more tools and land to work, becoming more productive and producing more goods and services. In the same way that employers paid higher wages owing to the greater productivity of plague survivors, once the shock of the coronavirus passes, workers who are better integrated to work systems and networks from home may actually prove to be of benefit to their employers.

There is no doubt, however, that the initial economic impact of this virus, much like that of the bubonic plague, will be drastic. The social and emotional impact has yet to be measured, but that will be especially destabilizing. With this in mind, the most important lesson to draw from the experiences of past outbreaks is how oversights of hygiene can have drastic consequences. Historically, the plague would come and go without warning or explanation — it was only when the late 19th century outbreak (also from China) was studied that it became clear to scientists that rats were identified as the main vector in plague outbreaks, carrying a particular flea that primarily causes human cases of the plague. It may be ominous, therefore, that 2020 is the Chinese “Year of the Rat” in the zodiac tradition, or rather that the supposed creative qualities of such a year are used to provide lasting outbreak protocols to keep people safe, the virus contained and infectious wild animals firmly off the menu.

  • Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid
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