The Financial Express

Of man, pandemics and the war on them

An illustration of Surat plague in India in 1994 - www.theprint.in An illustration of Surat plague in India in 1994 - www.theprint.in

Several pandemics have devastated mankind in different times, killing millions of people around the world. The earliest of them is smallpox, which dates back to 10,000 years BC. The disease wreaked havoc on populations living in the large stretch from northern Africa to South Asia. Different pandemics continued to stomp throughout different parts of the world. Dominant among them was the bubonic plague (1346-1353). It was followed by smallpox (1870-1874) and the Spanish flu (1918-1920). Besides, a few other short-lived pandemics have also claimed lives across long stretches from Europe to Asia. Initially, it took decades for the medical science to invent drugs for treating plague, the Spanish and other flus. The cures belonged to the group of crude remedies. During the period spanning 18th-19th centuries, medicines for smallpox and bubonic plague were within the reach of the common people. Those proved highly effective. Besides, preventive vaccines also followed them.
Compared to the medicines for the earlier pandemics, those for Covid-19 are still in the preliminary stage, and all of them are prophylactics. It's not known if complete Covid-19 remedies are in the pipeline. Due to the preventives being in the nascent stage, the desired results still remain veiled in shades of doubt. This tendency to bring the efficacy of a just invented medicinal prophylactic, and later the medicines, into question is universal. After short spells of trials and error, all of these pre-curatives are set to pass muster.
A grim message underlies these frenetic efforts to invent preventive vaccines. It says mankind is already in the path of an apocalypse in the making. Doomsayers have already likened it to the European Black Death pandemic in the medieval times. A distressing aspect of the campaign to eradicate the diseases from the face of the earth is their occasional reappearance. Instead of their native places, their outbreaks are now seen in areas thousands of miles away. Despite the hotbed of smallpox being in South Asia, they nowadays afflict people in Latin American countries as well. The bubonic plague has been completely wiped out from Europe. But in five south-central and western Indian states, the dreadful plague unleashed a bout of panic in 1994. Both bubonic and pneumonic plagues let loose a reign of terror in the five states. The later strain is said to be more deadly thanks to their fast speed of infecting people. The disease started in the Surat city in the Gujarat state. The region in India is considered vulnerable to the domestic rat-carrying plague virus. India has been visited by the highly contagious plague in 1899, 1903, 1920, 2019 and 2020. The dreadful Persian Plague caused a lot of panic in Asia.
According to epidemiologists, the highly contagious pandemics cannot be eradicated completely. Their viral agents remain dormant in many of their earlier places of outbreak. This truth may elucidate the phenomenon of the global onslaught of the Covid-19 pandemic. By nature, the disease is a virulent form of flu. In the 20th century, a dozen forms of flu afflicted different regions of the world at different times. But it is the novel corona virus which has struck the world almost simultaneously. Few adults die from flu or respiratory diseases these days. But the Covid-19 has descended on a vast region spilling over national borders. It is accompanied by the spectres of death chiefly from lung infections.
With the developed and medically advanced nations in a race to invent a highly effective Covid-19 vaccine, virologists are found engaged in attempts to home in on the sources of the scourge. A large section of them point the finger at post-Cold War regional conflicts in the Sub-Saharan Africa. Most of these small-scale wars witnessed the use of biological weapons coming from outside. Small bombs containing germs have allegedly been used in these conflicts as test cases. The scenario shifted from the African theatre to the Gulf War of the 1980s. Earlier, during the Vietnam War in the 1960s, biological weapons have allegedly been used against the Vietnamese soldiers. According to experts, all these wars contributed to the deterioration of the increased fragility of the environment and climate, besides vitiating the atmosphere. At one point, the world's environment became so fragile that biological aberrations helping breed hitherto-unknown viruses became inevitable. The repeated nuclear weapon tests by a superpower in the South Pacific throughout 1966-1996 had exacted their heavy toll on the marine lives and the islanders in the vast region. Simultaneously, clandestine tests continued in a number of nations. Monitoring and physical inspections by international watchdogs failed to come up with conclusive proofs. These global factors ought to have been taken into account while ferreting out the culprits responsible for the recent outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. Pointing the finger at only Wuhan runs the risk of a smokescreen being created around the real causes of the pandemic. Some of those have been lying hidden in the nooks and crannies of the vast nature.
The man-made agents of killer diseases have also to be taken into account. It's true that nature is man's greatest sustainer. But tampering with its balanced survival and growth invites hazards for man. The primitive times were free of this scourge. But mindless clearing of primordial forests to build habitats, from humble villages to cities, had compelled nature to act inscrutably. At times this weird behaviour of the sylvan expanses appeared puzzling to humans. This state of befuddlement didn't last long. Man got the light of knowledge, which let him understand that the unremitting encroachment on nature is set to result in a backlash.
It took humans quite a long time to realise the development of an alarming phenomenon: the creeping ecological imbalance. Wise men of the medieval times did not sit idle. They continued to alert man to the fallout of the acts of clearing woodlands. With the insatiable urge to conquer every bit of the earth overtaking them, man paid no heed to the warnings. The first of the raft of these feared fallout emerged in the form of droughts and desertification. Eventually the sources of conventional food began depleting forcing humans to go hunting for food in unconventional spheres. Their staple and newly added foods finally comprised exotic meats not tasted before. Upon consuming them, lots of people became sick, with others meeting untimely deaths. But hunger is the severest of bodily needs. It led the desperate people to go deeper into the forests to hunt strange but consumable animals. They had the least idea that those species of particular animals were not meant for human consumption.
Invariably, the large-scale eating of wild animal meat was followed by stray incidents of many falling ill. Few had thought that by eating the meat of animals not consumed before, they were inviting health hazards ending up in pestilences. Eventually, these bouts of death spread to the neighbouring lands to emerge as localised epidemics. Those comprised the early forms of cholera, flu and smallpox. The flea-based virus-borne plague had been ravaging civilisations since long. Ignoring the light of knowledge brought to them by sages, the pre-Christ medieval people stuck to black magic, witchcraft and other folk practices. Contagious diseases would be viewed as merely the works of evil spirits. They viewed it as their duty to call the witch doctors when they detected the symptoms of any of these diseases in any person.
Why should we blame them alone? Even in this golden age of medical science, a section of people hold the evil 'djins' responsible for the global spread of the novel corona pandemic. There are persons who believe aliens from the outer space have visited our planet to infect its air with the pandemic's virus. No matter the great extent to which the fertile human brain can go, the truth is plain. The modern forms of the old pandemics are a blend of human excesses done to nature, their penchant for tasting the inedible and the indulgence in aberrant pleasures. The latest addition to the list speaks of their sadistic custom of using lethal viruses in the weapons of mass destruction. Given the global efforts, it might not take long to finally annihilate the 21st century menace.

[email protected]

Share if you like