The world catches cold - Pakistan Today

The world catches cold

  • A price to be paid for aggressive globalisation


The saying ‘If China sneezes, the world catches cold’ is attributed to Metternich, the 19th century Austrian statesman. He was speaking in the economic sense, even though he had actually said ‘When France catches cold, the whole of Europe catches cold’, and the phrase was adapted to both the USA, as well as to China. The phrase was about politics or economics, and was not meant to be taken literally. However, now, with the spread of the Coronavirus, now designated by the World Health Organisation Covid-19, it is as if the saying must be taken literally. Until Thursday, there were 2,808 dead worldwide, with over 82,419 cases. The majority is still in China, but the disease has reached Pakistan.

It is not the first time a disease originating in China has had global effects. There was the Black Death in the middle of the 14th century, which led to the deaths of as many as 200 million people and the depopulation of Europe, and consequently to the demise of the feudal system, as agricultural labourers just died from the plague, leaving no one to till the fields. India, Mesopotamia and China were also devastated. Agricultural wages rose astronomically, and the peasant was no more tied to the land. The plague came from China, reaching Europe on the fleas on rats, which came to China on ships. One difference is that the Black Death was a bacterial infection, while the coronavirus, as its name suggests, is viral.

The rats would come off the ships when they reached port in Europe, and the fleas would then infect people, who then spread the sickness to each other. Now, the means of transport are much more plentiful, ranging from buses to planes. There was no WHO in those days, and understanding of infectious disease was so poor that it did not retard the spread of disease.

However, one of the things that has suffered in this outbreak has been the globalisation model. One component was freedom to travel. That included travel to China, as well as from China. That was not the case with the Black Death. It became endemic in Europe, and apart from the first outbreak, there were several others, with London experiencing a dire outbreak in 1666, the year of the Great Fire of London. The Black Death was the bubonic plague, which showed itself in the appearance of buboes, or the swelling of lymph nodes, which might even become infected, after which the disease would travel to the lungs, causing breathing difficulties, ending in Death. One symptom was bleeding into the skin, and hence the appearance of black spots (hence ‘Black’ death) all over the body.

Pakistan is particularly vulnerable, and not because it is China’s friend. The disease has caused fatalities in Iran already, and apart from China, where there are about a thousand Pakistanis, both traders and students, it could also get infected from Iran and Afghanistan in its west, or India in its east.

One of the last major outbreaks of bubonic plague came in Asia in the 19th century, originating in China, and spreading into India. The familiarity of the language with the plague (as how it uses the word for any epidemic) indicates that it raged here earlier. However, the 19th century plague also spread to India.

The coronavirus is not yet an epidemic, but it is definitely global, showing that borders controls of states cannot stop micro-organisms. The containment effort has not succeeded, with Italy emerging as the epicentre of the disease in Europe.

All the plague epidemics occurred in the pre-antibiotic era, but the coronavirus is viral, and though the search is on for antivirals, they have not been discovered. Perhaps that is why some positive results have been reported from the drug cocktail now used as the standard treatment for AIDS. AIDS is also a viral infection, and is treated with a mixture of anti-virals, so clearly anti-virals will help against coronavirus infection.

However, while the treatment will be debated by doctors even after the disease no longer rages, of more immediate concern for the world is the economic effect. The biggest losses will be in China itself, but because it plays such an important part in supply chains, a factory closure in China will mean that a factory in the UK might not be able to function. The losses are said to be likely to go into the trillions of dollars.

Chinese tourism, as well as tourism to China, will suffer from travel restrictions, as will airlines. Shipping will also suffer, as will the One Belt One Road Initiative. There have been outbreaks of anti-Chinese racism. A newspaper has already provoked Chinese government protests, with a headline reflecting the century-old ‘Yellow Peril’ slur. The late 19th-century plague outbreak provoked these yellow-peril fears, leading not just to the USA’s Exclusion Act, which prohibited Chinese from obtaining US citizenship, but also to the Dr Fu Manchu novels.

The recurrence of chest infection in epidemics coming out of China indicate a common origin. The present virus has been blamed on the transfer of a virus infesting animals to humans. An initial possibility was the bat, then another was the snake, but a DNA analysis of the virus indicates that it might have transferred from the pangolin. Pangolins are not native to China, but are nearby, being found (as an endangered species) in Indonesia. They are anteaters covered with scales. These scales are used in Chinese medicine, which is still practised extensively, while the meat is consumed. That may well be where the infection originated.

Pakistan is particularly vulnerable, and not because it is China’s friend. The disease has caused fatalities in Iran already, and apart from China, where there are about a thousand Pakistanis, both traders and students, it could also get infected from Iran and Afghanistan in its west, or India in its east. There have been no serious accusations of bacteriological warfare, but it should not be forgotten that plague victims’ corpses, both human and animal, were used in the mediaeval ages, mostly being flung over besieged cities’ walls.

One of the problems with bacteriological warfare is that no one knows who will be infected by germs. Perhaps that is why it has never really entered the arsenals of even any secret service. Be that as it may, the USA is trying to resist China’s passing it economically, and this epidemic fits in. However, the spread to the USA may not be stoppable. Even if the disease does not get there more prominently, the economic effects are likely to impact it. It should also be noted that this is happening in an election year, and the virus may have negative economic effects which would harm Trump’s chances of re-election.

If history is any guide, such diseases are defeated only to come back. Pakistan knows, for the poliovirus is recurring, despite a global effort to eliminate it. However, the global response to the coronavirus is such that it seems likely that it will be contained. However, it could always recur. It need not be with the same virulence, but if it is anything like the bubonic plague, it will come back. However, it may be attenuated, unlike the bacterial bubonic plague. The ‘flu’ causing colds in winter, after all, may have started out as the Spanish influenza, a deadly disease that killed as many as 100 million people worldwide just after World War I. By those standards, the coronavirus has a long way to go.