Plague and Panic in Central Asia: Historic Fears Resurrected

There has been somewhat of a health scare in Central Asia recently, after a young herder contracted and died from Bubonic plague in Kyrgyzstan. Neighbouring Kazakhstan closed one of its borders, China refused to allow some of its athletes to compete in Kyrgyzstan and a 100 mile quarantine radius was established around the source.

This quarantine has since been lifted as the concerns about a possible epidemic were unfounded. Indeed, there are only approximately 400 cases of Bubonic plague in the world each year, 90% of which originate in Africa.

In Central Asian countries like Kyrgyzstan the likelihood of contraction is low and generally only liable to affect isolated rural communities exposed to the outdoors for long periods. The fact that the fatality in this case was a shepherd is not too surprising.

The source of the plague in Kyrgyzstan is thought to have been a flea from a marmot, a common rural meal
The source of the plague in Kyrgyzstan is thought to have been a flea from a marmot, a common rural meal

However the reaction of Kyrgyzstan’s neighbours, and the warnings given out by regional health organisations, shows how one event, which occurred some 650 years ago, continues to cast a lingering shadow over contemporary human life.

The ‘Black Death’ of the 14th century killed upward of 100 million people, annihilating entire communities as it spread across Asia and Europe. As the pestilence rampaged across the continents, its affects on society can be seen as an exaggeration of the contemporary reaction in Central Asia.

Towns and villages kept themselves isolated from outsiders and one another as they sought to halt the spread of the curse; strangers were made scapegoats for the disease; many, including women, were burned for witchcraft and sorcery as the intensity of the plague was deemed too powerful to be a force of nature.

The horrific boils caused by the plague intensified people's fears
The horrific boils caused by the plague intensified people’s fears of an ungodly attack

Married to the spread of the plague was a deepening mistrust between communities, misunderstandings, paranoia and ultimately violence. The Kyrgyzstan scare did not last long enough for such symptoms to manifest themselves, yet the irrational fear provoked by one death is illuminating of human nature; segregation and self-preservation are a common resort in the face of danger.

Thomas Malthus’ population theory, outlined in his 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population, determined that population would be kept in check by natural disasters, famine and disease.

Today, such a thesis is no longer credible. Our development of super-efficient crop production methods and curative medicines enables the global population to keep on growing. The debilitating affects of this persisting trend are seen worldwide today; pollution, poverty, crime, ethnic tension to name but a few.

Perhaps that is why we still fear pandemics, particularly one carrying such a powerful name as the Bubonic plague. We know that our world is need of another population check; without it, our existence will only become more strained.


Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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