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Virulent Virus

The resurgence of zoonotic and vector-borne diseases in the 21st century (SARS, bird flu, MERS, Ebola, Zika, Nipah and COVID-19) has turned the spotlight on animals and insects and vectors of infectious diseases as epidemic villains. Rightly are they regarded as the incubators of the existential risk for humanity.

Prasenjit Chowdhury | Kolkata |

Transparency does not cause panic, the only source of panic is an absence of truth. That is the lesson SARS taught us 17 years ago, and this has proven it again at a terrible cost. ~ Editorial in Caixin, a Chinese magazine known for its ‘independent’ reporting by Chinese standards. The battle mounted by China against the deadly outbreak of the novel coronavirus is a test of its national character and it is indeed fighting the calamity very bravely.

But in the wake of the outbreak, the mighty middle kingdom had been accused of underplaying the horrors and scale of COVID-19 by suppressing the voices of whistle-blowers such as Dr Li Wenliang. He was arrested for having predicted quite early the looming threat. Subsequently, he succumbed to the virus. The botched-up attempts at cover-up allowed the novel coronavirus to spread, leading to the unprecedented lockdown of 11 million people of Wuhan and more than 40 million in Hubei province.

At a special meeting of the party’s top Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) on February 3, China’s President Xi Jinping had to admit that the outbreak was “a major test of China’s system and capacity for governance”. Had China not been so obsessed with self-projection, it would have owned up to the reality that much like the origin of the outbreak being traced to Wuhan and Hubei province, the SARS attack was also traced to China’s Guangdong province. Epidemics can cut across geographical frontiers.

They have killed humanity with reckless abandon since recorded history began to take notice. The Athenian general and historian, Thucydides, for instance, chronicled the Plague of Athens that struck the city, then under siege by Sparta during the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC). A quarter of the Athenian troops, and a quarter of the city’s population perished over four years. The Plague of Athens occupies has occupied a prominent slot in the history of the West for the past 2500 years, partly because of the importance of Thucydides and Athens in Western history and culture. It is also a stark reminder of human helplessness against emerging diseases.

Epidemics strike fear because they spread faster than the marauding Huns over a vast inter-continental spread. First, they inflict huge loss of lives. Take the instance of Black Death that started in the 14th century accounting for the deaths of some 75 million people, which starting in Asia, reached the Mediterranean and western Europe in 1348 (possibly from Italian merchants fleeing the war in the Crimea).

It killed an estimated 20 to 30 million Europeans in six years. About 8 million Germans were wiped out by bubonic plague and typhus fever during the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), besides accounting for the destruction of Napoleon’s Grande Armée in Russia in 1812. In 1618-19, smallpox exterminated 90 per cent of the Massachusetts Bay Native Americans, and more than a century and a half later during the 1770s, some 30 per cent of the Pacific Northwest Native Americans.

Smallpox devastated the native population of Australia, killing around 50 per cent of Indigenous Australians in the early years of British colonization. The Great Plague of London of 1665-66 killed approximately 100,000 people, some 20 per cent of London’s population. A major bubonic plague pandemic (“Third Pandemic”) that began in Yunnan, China in 1855, led to more than 12 million deaths in India and China, with about 10 million killed in India alone. It continues to kill about 3,000 people each year according to the World Health Organization.

Between 1918 and 1920, an estimated 18 million Indians lost their lives to influenza or its complications, making this country the epicentre of the disaster in absolute terms of mortality. The first cholera pandemic 1816-26, previously restricted to the Indian subcontinent, which began in Bengal and then spread across India by 1820, killed some 10,000 British troops and countless Indians. It extended as far as China, Indonesia (where more than 100,000 people succumbed in the island of Java alone) and the Caspian Sea before declining.

Deaths in India between 1817 and 1860 are estimated to have exceeded 15 million. As per one estimate, only some 10 per cent of East India Company’s officers survived to take the final voyage home between 1736 and 1834. Fewer British soldiers died of war than they succumbed to diseases. The resurgence of zoonotic and vector-borne diseases in the 21st century (SARS, bird flu, MERS, Ebola, Zika, Nipah and COVID-19) has turned the spotlight on animals and insects and vectors of infectious diseases as ‘epidemic villains’. Rightly are they regarded as the incubators of the existential risk for humanity.

But at the same time, the outbreak is a stark reminder, once again, of the civilizational vulnerabilities of the human race regardless of the geographical areas they inhabit, its fighting spirit against the agents of extinction, and the unsustainable nature of its interaction with nature and other non-human species. Consider the current outbreak of novel coronavirus.

In barely a month since China alerted the World Health Organisation against several cases of pneumonia in Wuhan on December 31, there have been reports of confirmed cases in Australia, Belgium, Cambodia, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Nepal, the Philippines, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Taiwan, Thailand, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, the United States and Vietnam. Instances of onward transmission from people who had not travelled to China, as discovered in France and the United Kingdom recently, attest to the risk of escalation particularly in countries such as India known for its weak public health system.

While WHO has identified 168 laboratories with the right technology to identify the coronavirus, India has only one nodal laboratory for testing highrisk pathogens ~ the National Institute of Virology in Pune that is equipped with the rare biological safety level-4 (BSL-4) certification from the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention. Therefore, the outbreak does demonstrate, once again, that there is no room for smugness and complacence with the belief that most of the threats and dangers of the past have been dealt with and that and we can simply sit back.

As the 21st century progresses, their formidable power strikes us once again. SARS is believed to be the first emerging disease of the age of globalization. Had it occurred before mass international travel, it would probably have been contained as a localized problem, with barely any consequence in terms of global health. But the virus travelled around the world on passenger jets, with potential consequences of one affected person spreading the disease in a single flight, making it a true disease of the 21st century.

Today such viruses can ruin economies, cripple international trade and travel, and send stock markets into a tizzy. Although the social media is now abuzz with conspiracy theories holding the immigrants, ‘other’ countries, bad leadership, germ warfare or the feckless poor responsible, the advantages of modern communication have been enormous. People have been informed on a daily basis and have been offered advice on technical issues.

Health advisories have been issued. Setting aside traditional animosities, international laboratory experts grouped their expertise in a virtual network to decode the secrets of the virus with a spirit of unprecedented solidarity. Thus were they able to identify the causative agent, the coronavirus, within weeks, a feat which have taken months or years in pre-internet days.

(The writer is a Kolkata based commentator on politics, development and cultural issues)