-Monikangkan Barooah |
The Greatest killers of humanity throughout our history are germs that evolve from diseases of animal origin and became decisive contours of history. Until the World War II, more people died of germs than of battle wounds. Most of the wars that glorify great generals and their armies for their befitting blitz were not just their weapons, armies, and their best generals but their most evil germs that effectively transmits to enemy territories.
The murkiest examples of germs role in history comes through the Columbus’s voyage. Most of the Native Americans were killed by germs that arrived with the Spaniards than that of the battle field. The animal origins of human diseases have evolved over a different and definite pattern of human history and that lies behind some of the behavioural issues that narrated the history of diseases. Diseases like AIDS, that appears to be evolved from a virus and resident of African wild monkeys transmitted to humans. It is pertinent to note that some microbes have evolved to make us sick, whereas most other species living things do not make the humane sick. The microbes too are product of natural selection as the humans are. So the strategy is to understand the enemy in order to beat them, and to develop appropriate antidotes. The question is what evolutionary microbes derive by making us sick and eventually kill us ? Because, it is like the microbes kill its host is to kill itself. Microbes evolve like other species and spreads from one person to another and from animals to people. The strategy practiced by microbes like influenza, common cold etc. is that it induces the victim to cough or sneeze, thereby initiating a cloud of microbes to its new prospective hosts. Similarly, the cholera microbe induces its victims, massive diarrhoea that delivers bacteria into the water supplies to infect potentially new victims. Thus from human perspectives, diarrhoea, coughing are ‘symptoms of disease” and from a germs perspective these are clever strategies to transmit the germ. From the germs perspective, the host symptoms are unintended by-product of promoting efficient transmission of microbes. An untreated chlorella patient may eventually die from producing diarrheal fluid at the rate of several gallons per day, thereby creating opportunities for microbes to find its new hosts.
In response to germs interests, we humans have our own selfish interest to stay alive and healthy by killing the microbes. One such mechanism is to raise our body temperature that kills most of the microbes. The other measure is to mobilise our immune system like White blood cells that kills the microbes. But again some clever microbes learned to dodge us by changing the molecular pieces of microbes (antigens) that our antibodies recognise. That’s why the constant evolutions of new strains of flu, with different antigens explain why you getting infected a year ago did not protect you against the different strain that arrived in the next year.
And that is what that explains the fastest evolution of corona virus that has struck the humanity with modified strain within a short period of time. And here that is the challenge that the world has to face. The corona virus has evolved as its different avatars within a short span of time, which makes it almost impossible to prepare its vaccines within that time frame to stop its menace. Like corona, many germs evolved tricks to spread and many of those tricks we experience as ‘symptoms of disease’. We evolved counter tricks of our own to which germs responded by evolving counter- counter-tricks. The pathogens and we are locked in an ever escalating evolutionary contest with the resultant prize of death or a living, where the natural selection plays the role of an umpire. The lethal microbe that spreads as epidemics has several characteristics. First they spread very quickly and effectively. Second, there are acute illnesses within a short time where you die or recover completely. Third, the fortunate one that recovers develops antibodies that leave us immune. And finally these diseases restricted to be residents of humans for time to come. All these traits apply to the epidemic diseases of childhood, including measles, mumps, smallpox, rubella etc. So in short, microbes cannot survives except in the bodies of living people, eventually may dries out, until a new crop of babies reaches the vulnerable age.
It is very relevant to say that rise of agriculture has its due credit towards the growth of lethal microbes. The evolutionary process of indigenous hunter-gatherer lifestyle to sedentary agricultural life style with dense population in an area has given a stimulus to the crowded diseases. Farming populations even make it easier too, for their own faecal bacteria and worms to infect new victims by gathering their feces and urine and spreading them as fertiliser on the fields. Thus the rise of farming was a bonanza for our microbes and the rise of densely populated cities with worst satiation conditions was far more beneficial towards the growth of lethal microbes. The other bonanza of giant breeding ground for microbes was the opening of world trade routes. In the Romanian times Europe, Asia and North Africa was connected through emerging trade routes through which smallpox finally reached Rome that killed millions of Roman citizens between AD 165 to 180.
In consequence the importance of lethal germs in human history is well explained by Europeans conquest and depopulation of new world. For example, in 1519 Cortes landed in the coast of Mexico with 600 Spaniards against millions of Aztec, and lost two third of its army and somehow managed to retreat to the coast back. But when Cortes second onslaught came, the Aztecs could not resist. The decisive advantage for Cortes was smallpox, which reached Mexico in 1520, through an infected slave arriving from Spanish Cuba, killing half of the Aztec population including the king Cuitlahuac. By 1618 Mexico’s initial population of 20 million was reduce to mere 1.6 million.
The second incident, took place in the year 1532, at the Peruvian town of Cajamarca. Francisco Pizarro, the Spanish general, arrived at Cajamara, with only 62 shoulders mounted on horses along with another 106 foot shoulders, attacked Atahullapa, on his refusal to accept King Charles V, of Spain as sovereign and eventually captured him and slaughtered around 5000 Incas in just an hour. Fortunately for Pizarro and unfortunately for Incas, smallpox arrived killing much of the Inca population that has attributed Pizarro’s bold victory over Incas.
Similarly Mughals have attacked Assam 16 times but only to face defeat over the superior strategies and biological warfare’s of Ahoms, where the microbes like malaria played a crucial part on the defeat of Mughals.
Hence, with the growth of civilisation, from hunter gatherer lifestyle to the transformation of sedentary lifestyle and then towards establishment of world trade routes, the germs has played its decisive and evolutionary role. The native Indian population of Hispaniola (West indies) declined to zero by the year 1535 from 8 million, when Columbus arrived in 1492. Measles reached Fiji with a Fijian chief return from a visit to Australia in 1875 and thereby killed one quarter of all Fijians. Syphilis, tuberculosis and influenza arriving with Captain Cook in 1779, followed by a typhoid epidemic in 1804, reduced Hawaii’s population to from around half a million to in 1779 to 84000 in 1853.
Germs didn’t even spare the territory of Genghis Khan, one of the largest empires of History, ranging from China, Central Asia to modern day Ukraine. Even after the fatal bubonic plague onslaught, his successors continued to annex territories of Middle East, South and Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe. Taimur, who attacked India, and was legitimately a son-in-law of the dynasty of Genghish Khan, and Babur who conquered India was the 13th generation descendant of Gengish Khan’s second son Chaghatai, continued to carry the legacy of Mongols till the end of last emperor of India Bahadur Shah Zafar. Even after the deadly plague attack, the descendants of Gengish khan ruled most of the territories including India for a span of 731 years.
China than, too functioned as the manufacturing hub for the Mongol world systems. The Bubonic plague or the Black Death disease, which was originated in south china, struck the Mongol world in 1345. By 1351 China had reportedly lost between one half to two third populations to the plague. From 123 million inhabitants in the early thirteenth century, it has reduced to as low as 65 million towards the end of fourteenth century. The diseases have cut of the interlocking system from Persia and Russia to china and Mongolia. For a century the Mongols have exploited their mutual material interests to overcome the political fault lines dividing them and maintained a unified cultural and commercial empire. With the onslaught of plague, it has devastated the country, demoralised the living by cutting off trade and tribute leading to the collapse of centralised complex system. However, a few cities survived virtually unharmed from the onslaught of the plague. The effective measures were taken by the city of Milan, that has prevented the spread of diseases by segregating the infected people. As soon as the plague broke out in a house, the officials raced to seal the entire house- with everyone- sick and well, friends and servants, all sealed inside and effectively stopped the spread of the disease to become epidemic.
Corona virus or covid-19 has all the symptoms that destroyed the well organised Mongol rule, its supply system, trade route from Russia to South East Asia and from Middle East to Eastern Europe. May be the Covid-19 has rechristened itself to destroy the new world order trade and that’s a conundrum of 21st century to deal with.