In Depth

What was the Black Death and when did it end?

Chinese city warns of Black Death risk after case of bubonic plague

A Chinese city has issued an epidemic warning after a local farmer contracted bubonic plague, the virus that caused the Black Death.

The herdsman from the city of Bayan Nur in Inner Mongolia is now reportedly in a stable condition, but the area has been put under a level three warning for epidemic control as a precautionary measure, according to state-run Xinhua news agency

This warning is the second-lowest in a four-level system, but will stay in place until the end of the year, Xinhua reports. The same area was previously the scene of an outbreak of pneumonic plague in November 2019.

Officials in Bayan Nur are also investigating a second suspected case involving a 15-year-old who had apparently been in contact with a marmot hunted by a dog, the site says.

“At present, there is a risk of a human plague epidemic spreading in this city,” the local health authority said, according to the state-run China Daily. “The public should improve its self-protection awareness and ability, and report abnormal health conditions promptly.”

But we should not panic about a coronavirus-style outbreak just yet. “The bubonic plague was once the world’s most feared disease,” says the i newspaper. “However, the disease is now easily treated.”

What was the Black Death?

The Black Death was an epidemic of bubonic plague, a disease caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis that circulates among wild rodents where they live in great numbers and density.

Originating in China, the disease spread west along the trade routes across Europe and arrived on the British Isles from the English province of Gascony. It is believed to have been spread by flea-infected rats, as well as individuals who had been infected on the continent.

Although it was relatively well contained in the Isles, it achieved even greater potency when the virus became airborne as it meant it was more quickly spread from human to human.

In the years between 1346 and 1353, the plague destroyed a higher proportion of the population than any other single known event. One observer noted: “The living were scarcely sufficient to bury the dead,” according to History Extra.

Anthony Fauci, head of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told USA Today: “The bubonic and pneumonic plague of the 14th Century... was caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis, which is still very much alive and well around the world and generally seen in animal populations, and transmitted by the bite of a flea.

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How did it end?

The most popular theory of how the plague ended is through the implementation of quarantines. The uninfected would typically remain in their homes and only leave when it was necessary, while those who could afford to do so would leave the more densely populated areas and live in greater isolation.

Improvements in personal hygiene are also thought to have begun to take place during the pandemic, alongside the practice of cremations rather than burials due to the sheer number of bodies.

A common myth suggests that the plagues’ third epidemic was finally wiped out in London by the Great Fire of 1666.

It’s a good story, but sadly not true, says the Museum of London.

The number of people dying from the plague was already in decline before the fire, and people continued to die after it had been extinguished. 

What is the Black Death’s legacy?

“A historical turning point, as well as a vast human tragedy, the Black Death of 1346-53 is unparalleled in human history,” says Ole J Benedictow at History Today.

It would take 200 years before Europe alone was able to replenish its population to pre-plague numbers. In addition to population losses, the world also suffered monumental setbacks in terms of labour, art, culture and the economy.

Where does the Black Death still exist?

From 2010 to 2015, there were 3,248 cases of the plague reported worldwide, resulting in 584 deaths, says the World Health Organisation.

Plague can still be found on all continents, except Oceania. There is a risk of human plague wherever the bacteria, an animal carrier and human population co-exist.

It is most common in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar and Peru, and epidemics have occurred in Africa, Asia and South America. Since the 1990s, most human cases have occurred in Africa, says the WHO.

Madagascar is known for being home to the disease, and cases of bubonic plague are reported nearly every year in the country. Last year, a number cats in Wyoming, USA, were discovered with the plague, prompting warnings from state officials, says Pacific Standard magazine.

What can it teach us about coronavirus?

Serious plague outbreaks are confined to history, and the distant past is not our best source for educating current health officials on the science of virus containment.

But there are lessons to be learned from the plague on how we guard against xenophobia and persecution during outbreaks of disease. Already Europe has seen populists attempt to exploit the spread of coronavirus to call for closed borders.

Italy’s far-right politician Matteo Salvini called for “armour-plated” borders, while Germany’s far-right AfD has said the spread of the virus is down to the “dogma of the open border”.

Anti-migrant sentiment is being stoked by the far-right and fears over the coronavirus. The Italian government quarantined 276 migrants rescued off the coast of Libya last week, despite them having had no connection to people or locations affected by the coronavirus.

Economic woes also go hand-in-hand with major pandemics. Last week, the Financial Times reported that the UK’s economy could shrink by 6.5% this year in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. Citing a report by Deutsche Bank, the paper notes that the British economy contracted by a staggering 23.5% in 1349, at the height of the Black Death. The report notes that even the annual contraction after the financial crisis in 2009 - the largest since the Second World War - was “only” -4.2%.

However, Andy Mukherjee of Bloomberg News says it is “impossible to predict if the virus will inject a welcome impatience into spending out of pay checks that are augmented by state support, or whether the global economy will get mired in deeper stagnation”, adding: “A disease that’s especially harsh on older people could alter global demographics, with as-yet-unpredictable consequences for pension savings and asset demand.”

He adds that the borrowing costs for large monarchies fell to 8%-10% by the early 16th century from 20%-30% before the Black Death, while “Florence, Venice and Genoa as well as cities in Germany and Holland saw rates slump to 4% from 15%”.

Writing of coronavirus: “Even if 1% of infections prove to have been fatal by the time the coronavirus is contained, the disease would likely cast a lasting shadow on behavior, preferences, prices… and yes, interest rates.”

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