As the Chinese coronavirus death toll approaches 1,000 and new cases are reported in more than 20 countries, the obvious question on many people’s lips is: How worried should I be?
This previously unknown pneumonic infection has not only affected large numbers of people in China, and dozens of others across the globe, but it has led to major logistical disruption, social dislocation and, particularly in the case of the city of origin Wuhan, mass quarantining.
Whilst it is still very early days in monitoring the evolution of the coronavirus, it does appear that the mortality rate is fairly low, perhaps as few as 2% of people infected. Of course, it is always tempting in such a scenario to make comparisons with past epidemics, and I shall do no differently. Whilst the relatively recent outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in China took a smaller toll than initially anticipated, another pneumonic infection originating in the country’s northeast shortly after the turn of the 20th century was grossly more severe.
The Manchurian Plague of 1910-1911 killed some 50,000 people and had a mortality rate touching 100 per cent, an unprecedented figure. Transmitted to humans by the tarbagan marmot – whose fur was highly prized by hunters – this airborne disease was spread at a frighteningly rapid pace, with none of the immediate restrictions on movement such as those enacted after the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan.
Despite lingering in perpetual decline at the end of the Qing Dynasty, the Chinese and their foreign benefactors had developed sophisticated railway corridors across parts of the country, including in the northeast. The South Manchurian Railway was a conduit along which the plague spread, ripping through provincial capitals such as Harbin and Changchun. Worst affected were the poorer classes who lived in crowded villages with poor sanitation. Those with greater means were largely able to isolate themselves from the virus and cases outside of Manchuria were sporadic.
If ever the corrupt and weakened Qing needed a providential sign that their time was up it was this plague, originating like the Qing in Manchuria. In 1912 the dynasty fell and the great upheaval that followed brought squabbling warlords, dabbling in republicanism, nationalist dictatorship and finally, after World War Two, communism.
Yet by the time of the Qing demise the Manchurian Plague had been halted in its tracks. Despite a vicious initial march into the Chinese hinterland, efforts to contain the disease, quarantine the sick and thoroughly burn the carcasses of the dead proved fruitful. Aided by Russia and Japan, the Chinese imperialists overcame a terrible affliction that had initially appeared to be the preface to a new Black Death.
Despite a far lower mortality rate and a plethora of nations and global bodies united against its further spread, there is anxiety amongst some experts that the coronavirus will become a pandemic, potentially mutating within carriers to ensure a more efficient transmission. Fears that our increasingly globalised world would necessitate such an outcome have been popularised by movies such as Contagion and, whilst these are dramatic creations for commercial gain, it would be naive to ignore worst-case scenarios.
The Manchurian Plague killed at least 50 times as many people as the coronavirus has so far. But this occurred in one of the more remote and inhospitable regions of China, in an era of improving but far from interconnected transport networks. With huge resources being committed against it, there is every hope that the coronavirus will soon be brought to heel and the restrictions on global travel and interaction lifted.
However, we must never forget the power of nature. Humankind has the ability to tame and cajole, but it can never force complete submission. Complacency now would be very foolhardy indeed and it will take a concerted, global effort to safeguard us all from the spread of this particular contagion.