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.


Questions and Relief in Equal Measure as Monster Castro Dies

The American media’s fascination with the Cleveland abduction case reached a climax yesterday evening after it was announced that Ariel Castro – the man who had imprisoned three women for over a decade, raping them on multiple occasions – had hanged himself in his jail cell. This after Castro had been sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.

Several commentators were quick to muse their disappointment, not that such a barbaric character had died, but that his death ensured we would never know the “truth” or the “reasons” behind his diabolical actions. That Castro himself had seemed rather perplexed as to why he had committed his crimes obviously did not detract from the desperate search for answers.

Castro struggled to stay awake at his trial - adding to his perplexing and confused character
Castro struggled to stay awake at his trial – adding to his perplexing and confused character

It is not uncommon for ‘lifers’ to commit suicide in prison. Some criminals can adapt to the oft-violent intricacies of prison life but for many an early death at one’s own hands is a satisfying solution to an existence terminated in every sense but the physical.

Harold Shipman, Britain’s most prolific serial killer, hanged himself whilst serving life; Fred West, one half of a notoriously murderous couple, committed suicide before he could be convicted; likewise the Prussian cannibal Karl Denke; in America the list is particularly long.

On each suicide people bemoan the fact that victims’ families will never get answers, that society will not move closer to understanding the flaws which enable such criminality to exist. Yet this overlooks two important points:

1) the actions of the worst criminals are often inexplicable, not driven by any logic, childhood corruption or societal ill;

2) if the criminals in question do have particular motives for their actions they are often unwilling to divulge them or are liable to lie and fantasise to attain or deflect attention as the case may be.

On the execution night of serial killer Ted Bundy in January 1989, pro-death penalty activists outside the prison were interviewed by national news channels. Why, they were asked, did they want the death penalty for Bundy when he could rot away in misery in a vile prison cell for the rest of his life?

Two of the campaigners were near-victims of Bundy, having been badly injured during a frenzied attack at a Florida State University sorority house in January 1978. The answer for them was simple. If Bundy was dead he could no longer hurt them. Whilst they said it might sound stupid, so long as he was alive, even locked in maximum security, they could not sleep at night. He was still out there.

This explanation is crucial. Why mourn the passing of a monster? Who cares if we cannot unlock their deepest secrets? After all, why should we believe what they say? These people are manipulators, cheats and liars. You will not gain the ‘truth’ from them.