I was at the Giant hypermarket in Puchong on Monday, two days before the movement control order (MCO), which aims to contain the spread of the Covid-19 virus, came into force.
What I saw was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.
Hundreds of people were panic buying, each piling up all kinds of items in their often overflowing shopping trolleys. It wasn’t a pretty sight.
It was like they were preparing for the end of days, stockpiling inordinate amounts of toilet tissue and powdered milk so they could survive the long Covid-19 winter.
I don’t blame them. More than 600 people in Malaysia have been infected and two have perished. I suppose it’s better to be overly cautious than irresponsibly relaxed in trying times like these.
I feel like I’m witnessing history unfolding. I can tell that the current situation is the kind of thing I would be telling my grandchildren about 50 years from now, describing it as a watershed moment in modern human history.
I know it might seem unimaginable now, but how will the world look post-Covid-19?
We can take a pointer from one of America’s most illustrious leaders, Theodore Roosevelt, who said: “The more you know about the past, the better prepared you are for the future.”
Throughout human history, we’ve seen many infectious diseases ravage us, crippling entire continents and toppling empires that seemed invincible. There is an argument to be made for the case that diseases such as that caused by Covid-19 shape history more than presidents, emperors and kings.
But curiously enough, we don’t learn nearly enough about diseases in our history textbooks. A possible reason for this is that we look at history from our often falsely exalted vantage point.
We have an overblown feeling of agency – we are protagonists, antagonists and everything in between in our flawed and incomplete historical narrative.
We often fail to see the incredibly important role that viruses and bacteria play on our fates. In many ways and in many junctures, they have been kingmakers, changing the course of history for better or for worse.
Infectious diseases became more common as humans evolved from being hunter gatherers to being part of agrarian societies to eventually forming highly industrialised ones. This gradual shift that took thousands of years, packed more and more humans into tighter spaces.
This kind of proximity, coupled with often unsanitary living conditions and contact with livestock became the perfect concoction for the rise of deadly infectious diseases.
The mother of all infectious diseases was the Black Death. Spreading across Europe between 1346 and 1353, it is said to have killed anywhere from 75 million to 200 million people, or around half of Europe.
This eclipses the deaths caused by the largest war ever fought, World War 2, in both sheer number and population percentage.
Spread by infected fleas on black rats, it had a fatality rate of a staggering 60-80%. Compare that with the current Covid-19 which has a fatality rate of around 2-4% and you’d immediately feel better.
It had such an outsized impact on earth that it’s said to have contributed to what’s called a Little Ice Age, a period of global cooling that occurred between the 16th and 19th centuries..
Even the then sworn enemies, the British and the French, called a moratorium on their war due to the devastating plague.
Most importantly, it’s also said to have pushed Europe out of the dark ages and kick started the Renaissance which eventually gave birth to modern scientific thought.
A more recent pandemic and the worst one the past century has seen is the Spanish Flu which infected around 500 million people – more than a quarter of the world’s population at the time. Wreaking havoc from 1918 to 1920, it killed an estimated 17 million to 100 million people worldwide.
The scariest thing about the Spanish Flu was the fact that it was especially deadly for healthy, young adults, unlike most other diseases that predominantly affect those who are old, very young or have pre-existing medical conditions.
This was because it triggered something called a cytokine storm which would kick the younger person’s stronger immune response into overdrive, eventually leading to his/her death.
The Spanish Flu is said to have contributed to the fall of Austria and Germany in World War 1 as they suffered heavier losses due to it compared with the British and the French, and this tipped the scale in favour of the Allied powers.
The pandemic, along with WW1, put an end to the second industrial revolution and contributed to the beginning of the end of the once-mighty British Empire.
How will Covid-19 measure up against such pandemics of the past?
Will it also leave an indelible mark on human history? That’s exactly what we’ll delve into in my next column.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.
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