By: August Bequai, Esq.
“Experience never errs, what alone may
err is our judgement” (Leonardo Da Vinci)
Infectious diseases have plagued humanity since its beginnings. They have killed in the millions, and have caused the collapse of numerous civilizations. The word “quarantine” has its origin in 14th century Venice. Referred to as “guaranta giorni” (40 days), ships arriving in Venice’s were quarantined for 40 days before being allowed to land as a precaution against infectious disease.
Examples of global devastation unleashed by epidemics abound. One of the earliest documented cases was that of Flu like disease in 1,200 BC; which ravaged Central and Southern Asia, Babylon and Mesopotamia. Many others followed. The Cyprian Plague (250-266 BC) savaged Europe; leaving one million dead in its wake.
While the Antonine Plague (165-180 AD) killed 5-10 million in the Roman Empire alone, the Justinian Plague (541-542 AD) left 25-100 million dead in Europe and West Asia; and the Black Death (1347-1351 AD) left 75-200 million dead in Europe, Asia and North Africa.
With the dramatic growth in commerce between Europe and Afro-Asia from the 17th century onward, Europe and the Mediterranean world continued to be revisited by devastating epidemics. The Egyptian Plague of 1609 killed more than one million; with the Plague of Naples in 1656 surpassing it. The Icelandic Plague of 1707-1709 wiped out 36 percent of its population, and the Russian Plague of 1846-1860 left more than one million dead.
The Spanish Flu killed between 17 million and 200 million worldwide; while smallpox outbreaks from 1877 to 1977 left 500 million dead worldwide. Some 40 million worldwide have lost their lives to HIV/AIDS since 1981, and the seasonal flu kills 60,000-80,000 Americans annually.
The engine that drives epidemics is global trade; accompanied by mass migrations from the impoverished rural areas of the globe to its large urban centers. Microbes have been quick to follow. Those who suffer the most are always the poor, disabled and elderly.
Epidemics kill not only people, but they also ravage their societies. While global trade has spawned impressive technologies, COVID-19 should serve to remind us that global trade comes at a price. With a multitude of microbes waiting on the sidelines; some potentially more devastating than COVID-19, the challenge for us will be how best to employ global trade without endangering our survival.