Pandemics In History 4: A Tale Of Two Countries

A research sponsored by the Chinese Government in 2019 had warned of a new coronavirus from bats in China. “The majority of the coronaviruses (CoVs) can be found in China. Moreover, most of the bat hosts of these CoVs live near humans, potentially transmitting viruses to humans and livestock. Chinese food culture maintains that live slaughtered animals are more nutritious, and this belief may enhance viral transmission.”

Further, bats are very populous in the rural agricultural hills of China, and sold in the wet markets of China. The wet markets are so called because the floors are constantly wet because of the melting ice used to keep dead animals. Research in China’s wet markets showed that when animals from different farms are commingled under crowded, stressful conditions, animals lose their immunity to virus infections and shed virus. Because animals are stacked in cages in these markets with bats on top of civets and so forth, SARS was found to have spread from bats through their faeces to civets and from them to humans. In the case of COVID-19, it is clear that it originated from bats and moved to humans through an intermediary animal such as civet in SARS and camels in MERS, but it is not certain if the intermediary was a pangolin or another animal.

It is because COVID-19 like SARS originated in China that many call it the “the Chinese virus”. The WHO has resisted such a naming to stop the racial discrimination that it leads to. Dangers of racial stigmatization notwithstanding, there is an interesting pattern to be seen in pandemics in history. Many of them seem to have originated in China, and many of them have wrecked Italy more than other countries. In fact, communicable diseases have always travelled along trade routes. The most important and ancient trade route has been the Silk Route that dates from the second century B.C. until the 14th century A.D from China to Italy, also the route followed by disease.


The plague is thought to have originated in Eastern Asia over 2,000 years ago and was spread by trading ships. The Black Death in the 14th century was also supposed to have come originally from China to the Middle East and from there by ships to Messina in Italy, and from there to the rest of Europe. Venice was badly affected by the big plague pandemic because it was the great centre of trade with the East. The Black Death was for pandemics what the Odisha supercyclone was for disaster management. Many of the procedures for protection from pandemics starting from the practice of quarantine were set up then in Venice and are being followed in 2020 as well.

The International Sanitary Conferences in the 19th century had an ongoing tirade of defending Europe from an evil originating in Asia. The narrative continued with the great plague pandemic of the 19th century, spreading worldwide from the port town of Hong Kong in 1894 after being in China for a few decades. The plague was tamed and the flu took over in the 20th century but pandemics continued to travel from China. The Asian Flu of 1957-58, the Hong Kong Flu of 1968-69, SARS of 2002 and now COVID-19 kept reinforcing the notion of China as the origin of pandemics.

A map of the progress of the bubonic plague in Europe during the 14th Century AD. Watercolor and ink. Courtesy:

At the same time, from the plague in ancient times, Italy has been a victim of pandemics. The earliest plague pandemics in history are the Antonine plague of the 2nd century and the Justinian Plague of the 6th century, both of which devastated the Roman Empire. With COVID-19 also, the country that has been devastated most is Italy with the highest percentage of infections. Milan in northern Italy, which has been hit hardest, is the financial capital of Italy with close financial links with China. In fact, when the lockdown happened in Odisha, and we became serious about the pandemic, a video had become viral, which showed an Italian requesting the rest of the world to learn from their mistakes. History repeats itself. The history of pandemics repeats itself more frequently.

Also Read: Pandemics In History 1: ‘Shipping’ The Virus

Also Read: Pandemics In History 2: Rats And The Plague

Also Read: Pandemics In History 3: From Rats To Bats

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