With COVID 19 having spread to every nation on earth, a review of an article published in The Good News magazine of May-June 1998 is instructive and sobering.
In February, 1975 an 11 year old boy found a dead coyote in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains in New Mexico, and decided to skin it for its hide. Within a few days he began to feel weak, and developed a bad headache, with chills and pain in his right shoulder. Then an egg-sized swelling appeared in his right armpit. After several days it was determined Danny Gallant had bubonic plague!
Danny was the first diagnosed case of the 1975 plague season, which turned out to be the worst outbreak of plague in half a century. Many wild animals perished, with each animal presenting a potential threat to domestic animals and humans. A decade after Danny's deadly encounter, plague-infected animals could still be found in at least 40 percent of the continental United States, from the Pacific eastward into Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.
History records three great pandemics during the past 2,500 years, with each ravishing nearly the whole of the inhabited world. The first lasted for 200 years, the second for 400 and the third more than 100 years.
The first pandemic began in the 15th year of the reign of Roman Emperor Justinian I (ca. A.D. 542). Apparently it first broke out in the Egyptian port of Pelusium, then spread to Byzantium (now Istanbul), probably aboard grain ships from Egypt. The Byzantine historian Procopius records the deadly march of the disease: "From [Egypt] it spread over the whole world… in either direction...it left neither island nor cave nor mountain ridge which had human inhabitants ..." ("Procopius," translated by H.B. Dewing, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Vol. 1, Book II, XXII-XXIII). For more than 50 years the plague infected much of Western Europe, taking a century to disappear.
The plague then remained dormant for 600 years, following the typical pattern of passing through a populace and largely annihilating it. Then, as conditions change for the better and it runs out of hosts to infect, it disappears as quickly as it had spread.
The plague reappeared in the 14th century, reaching Europe in 1348. When Philip VI of Spain ordered his physicians to discover the source of the pestilence, their conclusion was the plague had occurred because of the conjunction of Saturn, Mars and Jupiter. The prescribed ways to avoid the disease was to eat poultry, fatty meats and olive oil, no one should sleep past dawn, baths were dangerous and sexual intercourse fatal (Charles T. Gregg, Plague: An Ancient Disease in the Twentieth Century, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1985, p. 12). The black death (another name for the bubonic plague) then spread to Scandinavia and England, where centuries later it finally played itself out.
During the summer of 1665 the plague reappeared again in England. Instantly the wealthy retreated to the country and some 100,000 Londoners died. To this day, the old London graveyards are a mute testimony to these tragic years. Outbreaks of plague continued for more than a century in Malta, Marseilles, Moscow and Vienna, until the plague gradually withdrew to the East from whence it came, and some 400 years passed. During these four centuries the disease sporadically reappeared every 17 to 25 years, usually in urban centres where rats were numerous. It concluded its devastation of Europe in Marseilles in 1720, but history shows us that the plague only went underground.
The third pandemic, which began in the 1850s and ended in 1959, remains virtually unknown to most people. It started in the two ancient flashpoints of plague, Africa and Asia and created a third region that now permanently harbours the plague: the Western United States. This outbreak brought epidemics in San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Pensacola, several Texas ports and other coastal cities around the world (Gregg, p. 16) and lasted more than 100 years.
While the Great Plague of London (in the second pandemic) took 100,000 lives in six months, the third pandemic killed that many in a few weeks and continued monthly, and yearly, until more than 13 million were dead (Gregg, p. 17). In India alone more than 11 million perished. During the Vietnam War of the 1960s and 1970s, over 10,000 people died of the plague, with transoceanic shipping the principal transporter of the disease.
Eventually the plague again played itself out, but not before demonstrating the world's vulnerability to this and other microscopic killers: "The plague bacillus and its hosts [rodents] show increasing resistance to antibiotics and pesticides. This raises the specter of our most potent weapons [modern medical scientific discoveries] splintering in our hands at that moment when they are most needed" (Gregg, p. 17).
Laurie Garrett, who won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for reporting on the Ebola virus, wrote a bestseller on new diseases, titled The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance (Penguin Books, New York, 1995). She described the emergence of diseases such as Legionnaires' disease, AIDS, the Muerto Canyon microbe, the Rwandan cholera outbreak and others, referring to such opportunistic infections as ecological paybacks for our modern behaviour, flawed technology and the destruction of the rainforests.
Most people assume that medical science will shield us from disasters such as those in previous centuries, but we are much more vulnerable than we suppose. Garrett's analyses of outbreaks of deadly diseases show some have been actually precipitated by human actions.
In describing the deadly Machupo virus, she illustrates how easily our best intentions can bring disaster on our own heads. It was eventually determined the virus was transmitted through the urine of mice. Bolivia had initiated a massive DDT-spraying campaign to eliminate malaria, but the spraying also poisoned thousands of cats, resulting in the growth in the mouse population, which spread the virus. Thus, a well-intentioned government program inadvertently contributed to a deadly plague.
"Even in modern times there is still much we do not know about the causes, spread, and decline of many epidemic diseases. Unexplainable appearances of new or mutated strains can burst unexpectedly on an unsuspecting population and man can even, unfortunately, create an epidemic where none existed before" (Geoffrey Marks and William K. Beatty, Epidemics, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1976, pp. xi-xii).
Garrett's book is a call to realise we are much more vulnerable than we suppose. Left to our own devices, without turning to God for His help and protection, mankind could really be his own worst problem: "There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death" (Proverbs 14:12).
The Good News Magazine