|This graphic shows a Medieval doctor wearing a plague costume, center, and a patient infected with the Black Plague, left. Rats infested with the Yersina pestis bacteria spread the killer virus which sickened and killed tens of millions of people in Asia, Europe and Africa in the 14th century. / gettyimagesbank|
Smallpox aided Spanish invaders in the Americas, The Black Death triggered an East-West power shift
By Kang Hyun-kyung
"A 40-something man tested negative for coronavirus"
The breaking news about a 45-year-old man who died Monday shortly after he was taken to Busan Medical Center in the southern port city after suffering chest pains and breathing difficulty on the heels of his arrival back from a trip Vietnam has created a stir on the internet.
The news came hours after the hospital authorities temporarily shut down the emergency room he was taken to, for quarantine and conducting tests to determine if the cause of his death was related to the virus. Earlier reports said test results would be available after six hours, but updated news came hours earlier than this, confirming that he had not been infected with the killer virus. It soon stormed into the top 5 most clicked-on news articles list on the country's largest internet portal Naver.
Public opinion on social media and online forum posts, better known as "daet-geul-min-sim" among internet users, however, cast doubt on the credibility of the news.
"It couldn't be true," one internet user wrote. "How did the test results come so early? They were supposed to announce them six hours after the first news, weren't they?" another added. "The government won't tell the truth as the April elections near. Even though someone died of the virus before then, the government won't confirm so," another wrote.
Public doubt and suspicion on news sourced from the government after the deadly virus outbreak is not a new or isolated phenomenon in Korea.
Ngaire Woods, dean of the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford, remarked in her recent column "When Viruses Turn Political": "(I)n most of the world, citizens do not trust politicians to tell the truth, so they turn instead to social media and other sources of information."
The panicked public's frantic reactions, rumors and the mushrooming of conspiracy theories are a transient phenomenon that will disappear once the virus is under control.
However, historians and other experts who have researched epidemics and their impact on history say some killer viruses have a lasting impact on the community even after things are back to normal.
"Killer viruses have had enormous historical consequences," Jared Diamond, a professor in the Department of Geography at University of California, Los Angeles, said in an email interview with The Korea Times. "One of the biggest was the role of smallpox, measles and other European-introduced diseases in facilitating the European conquest of Native Americans 500 years ago."
He said infectious diseases are a decisive shaper of history.
Diamond, a historian, geographer, anthropologist and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies" and several other books, said smallbox, for example, played a key role behind the Spanish conquest of the Americas by killing more Native Americans than the Spanish troops did.
"Just after the Spanish conqueror Cortez had been thrown back in his first attempt to conquer Mexico's Aztec Empire, one of the two most powerful native American states, smallpox arrived in Mexico, killing half of the Aztecs, including the emperor, and making possible the success of Cortex's second attempt," he said.
|Jared Diamond, center, a professor in the Department of Geography at University of California, Los Angeles, speaks at a news conference for his new book "Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis" in Seoul on Oct. 31, 2019. / Korea Times file|
Smallpox also facilitated the Spanish invaders' conquering of the Inca Empire. The virus killed Inca emperor Huayna Capac which led to a fued between two of his sons who competed to rise to the throne following their father's death. Their power struggle led to a war that helped Pizarro's conquest of the Inca Empire, according to Diamond.
Pandemics trigger drastic social change
History tells us of other pandemic diseases that also have played a part in a global power shift.
Global pandemics, such as the Black Death of the 1350s and the 1918 Spanish flu, took a greater number of lives than those who were killed on the battle fields during World War I.
Korea, which was under Japanese colonial rule at that time, was also hit hard by the Spanish flu. Dr. Frank William Schofield claimed in his article "Pandemic Influenza in Korea with Special References to its Etiology" published in JAMA in April 1919, that the number of people infected with the influenza was estimated at somewhere between 4 and 8 million.
The drastic demographic change in the post-plague world, however, is not all about its fallout on mankind.
A new world order was created, and the wax or wane of certain countries' global power hinged on which side the infectious diseases "favored."
While smallpox and other European-introduced infectious diseases decisively helped the Spanish invaders conquer the New World "discovered" by the Italian explorer and colonizer Christopher Columbus in 1492, the Black Death led to the decline of the Mongol Empire and ushered Europe to a post-pandemic cultural and economic boom.
The Black Death, also known as the "Pestilence" that swept Asia, Europe and Africa in the 14th century and killed more than 20 million people in Europe alone, which was almost one third of the continent's population at that time, facilitated an East-West power shift as the spread of the killer virus fueled the decline of the Mongol Empire which controlled a considerable part of the Eurasia region.
The bacteria, now known as Yersina pestis after the 19th century French biologist Amerandre Yersin who identified it, had spread through the East-West trade lane connecting Manchuria to the Black Sea. Furs infested with fleas that carried the bacteria travelled from Central Asia to Europe and Africa.
Italian poet Giovanni Boccaccio described in great detail the dying process of those who were infected: "In men and women alike, at the beginning of malady, certain swellings, either on the groin or under the armpits… waxed to the bigness of a common apple, others to the size of an egg, some more and some less and these the vulgar named plague-boils. The infected became gravely ill and covered in black boils that oozed blood and pus."
With the spread of the Black Death, the Mongolians were unable to effectively control the remote region they had conquered and revolts occurred and disrupted the production of goods and flow of trade.
The deadly outbreak, paradoxically, led Europe to witness post-pandemic cultural and economic booms.
Labor shortages created a favorable condition for the people in the lower-class, such as peasants, women and laborers and their wages soared.
The shortages of servants, craftsmen, workmen, agricultural workers and laborers gave an advantage to the underprivileged, so they were able to sign lucrative contracts with their employers in return for their manual services.
|The municipal health authorities conduct quarantine measures at Shincheonji Church of Jejus in the Namgu district of Daegu Wednesday after a 61-year-old churchgoer was confirmed to have been infected with the coronavirus and considered a 'super spreader'. Dozens of other confirmed cases have since been reported in Daegu and the neighboring North Gyeongsang Province. / Yonhap|
"Latest research suggests that the Black Death produced a change in the amount of disposable income that was distributed in society: the poor were able to negotiate better agreements with the wealthy, which in turn gave them more spending power. In other words, a greater ability to buy more things," Peter Frankopan, a professor of world history at the University of Oxford, told The Korea Times.
"The shot in the arm to European economies seems to have played a role in the demand for new goods and services, including arts, fashion and food. So the lift-off of culture in Europe from 1350 can plausibly be linked with recovery from the effects of the pandemic."
Wealth redistribution and the drastic demographic and social change in the post-plague Europe had paved the way for an economic upturn.
"Clearly the removal of a significant part of the labor force of a significant part of its primary workers, regardless of which sector they work in, can and does have a dramatic effect on society," said Frankopan. "It also seems to have an impact on the way in which people spend their disposable income, playing a role in galvanizing what came to be known in Europe as the Renaissance."
Frankopan, author of the 2015 global bestseller "The Silk Roads: A New History of the World," said the Spanish flu outbreak in 1918, which is believed to have killed nearly one third of the global population, left a similar lesson for the post-pandemic landscape.
"My research more recently suggested something similar happened after the Spanish flu," he said. "It led to major changes, the distribution and the demographics of many economies around the world. It also seems to have played a part in the expectations of a generation that live through what I've come to be called the Roaring 20s_ a period of exuberance, high spending and relaxed moralities, although charting emotional responses to disease is of course rather hard to do empirically."
He declined to share more details of his findings as his research will be published next year.
Going back to China and the coronavirus, the British historian said, it is difficult to predict accurately how the epidemic disease that has infected over 75,000 globally as of Wednesday, mostly in China, would bring change to the region.
Mentioning the death toll and number of the infected in China, Frankopan said, "That may have a bigger long-term consequence for China's economic and social development in the short term than the infection and mortality rates where the data is still rather unreliable."
"It is however fair to assume that once there is a recovery, that there will be major changes to health policy and the way in which people travel and to the expectations and realities of the labor force that is recovering from the shock and fear of the outbreak. Some of these will have positive outcomes and silver linings for the state and local populations. However, shocks within communist systems often reverberate in a very different way to how they do in free markets."
Unlike the Black Death or the Spanish flu which decimated global population, the coronavirus so far is not a global pandemic. The vast majority of victims are Chinese as the virus originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan on Dec. 31 last year. Other Asian countries and some countries in Europe and North America have confirmed cases.
In South Korea, 104 cases have been confirmed as of 5 p.m. on Thursday.
The number of people confirmed to have been infected with the virus has surged since Wednesday when the 31st case was reported. The 61-year-old woman tested positive for the virus after having pneumonia-like symptoms. She, along with hundreds of others, attended Shincheonji Church of Jejus in the southeastern city of Daegu and became a "super spreader." The confirmed cases in the greater Daegu region have since continued to increase.
The deadly virus has had a negative impact on the economy.
President Moon Jae-in said Tuesday that the deadly virus has more negatively affected the Korean economy than any other previous viruses, such as SARS and Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome. While presiding over a Cabinet meeting, he directed his deputies to mobilize "all possible means" to prevent the coronavirus from wreaking further havoc on the economy.
The impact of the coronavirus is global, according to a recent research paper. The global business research firm Dun & Bradstreet said Tuesday (Seoul time) that as many as 5 million global companies will be impacted by the deadly virus and at least 51,000 companies worldwide, 163 of which are in the Fortune 1000, have one or more direct supplier in the impacted region.
|Peter Frankopan, a professor of world history at the University of Oxford / Courtesy of Peter Frankopan|
China after coronavirus
In China, the epicenter of the deadly virus, the consequences of the outbreak are not limited to businesses. The public health crisis has infuriated the people as the Chinese leadership's ineffective early responses are mentioned as one of the factors that facilitated a higher number of deaths.
Earlier this month, the death of doctor Li Wenliang who tried to warn of the deadly virus outbreak on Dec. 30 only to be investigated by the Chinese authorities for allegedly spreading "false" information, sparked online rage. The Chinese public joined rallies to pay tribute to the late doctor, posting social media messages and videos about him and called him "a hero" who tried in vain to fight against the authoritarian Chinese government that mishandled the epidemic and allegedly tried to hide it in the early stages.
It remains uncertain if the simmering sentiments of Chinese citizens and their online revolt can possibly lead the Chinese public to hold their leader Xi Jinping and his key deputies accountable for the mishandling of the key public health issue. But some China experts shared the view that the public health crisis is unlikely to change the Chinese leadership's way of governing the nation and won't stop President Xi Jinping from his pursuit to consolidate power.
Criticism is also erupting outside China as the virus spreads to other countries and lives have been lost because of the Chinese government's inappropriate response to the disease.
Professor Diamond is one of the critics.
"The current spread of coronavirus illustrates the Chinese government paradoxically carrying out exactly the policy most likely to facilitate the spread of a new disease, rather than carrying out a policy likely to prevent the spread," he said. "The most effective way to promote a disease of animals spreading to humans is to have hunters kill or capture a wide variety of animal species and bring them to a market visited by many people."
Diamond said China should close its animal markets as this is a human disease with animal origins.
"The Chinese government should have learned from the SARS epidemic of 15 years ago and closed down the markets all over China then," he said. "But it did not do so. Today, China should close down all of its animal markets, forever."
Some experts outside China raised doubt about the reliability of Beijing's data on the death toll and those who have been infected with the virus.
Scientists at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine claimed that as many as 500,000 people might have been infected with the virus based on a mathematical model that estimates transmission of the virus in Wuhan.