Today, a Chinese virus has created panic in the world. Six hundred years ago, the world had witnessed a similar scene when half of it was ridden by a pandemic created by another Chinese virus. The vector or carrier of the virus were mice that killed millions of people. The scale of the novel coronavirus disease 2019 (nCOVID-19 or just COVID) now threatens to break the record of the bubonic plague in terms of human casualty, given that in some European countries, the death toll is increasing exponentially. There have been other pandemics of Chinese origin.
No other virus or bug in human history has eliminated human populations as fast as the Black Death: Plague deaths in Europe in the 14th century. Between 1347 and 1351, about 3 crore people of Europe had died in the pandemic that had arrived from China. This is referred to as the second wave.
In that period, the infection of plague caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis spread so fast that people did not even get the opportunity to get treatment on time. Due to the lack of treatment at the right time, millions of patients died within a few days.
The infection affected a patient’s lungs directly. Coronavirus infection is similarly spreading very rapidly by air through the phlegm of today’s COVID patients. Mercifully, today people know the virus can kill. In the 14th century, many were caught unawares.
Only the first of the three plague pandemics originated in the Byzantine Empire: the Plague of Justinian in AD 541. Both the second and the third waves had Chinese origins.
Chinese pandemic again in 19th century
Centuries later, the plague reached a dangerous level again, taking the form of an epidemic in China and India in the 19th century, killing 1.2 crore people, of whom 1 crore were Indians. Even then, the epicentre of the pandemic was China.
In the 1860s, the plague first attacked the interior of China and then entered Hong Kong. The epidemic was then called the Modern Plague. It spread to the rest of the world through the Silk Route of China.
Infected rats got into ships and carried plague wherever the ships went and stayed at the docks. This disease spread in India from China. It hit India in 1889. Here it wreaked more havoc than what it had done in China — while this country was under an apathetic British regime.
The plague was severer than the present-day COVID pandemic. It killed millions of people.
Known as the “third plague pandemic”, it hit the following geographical locations in different years:
Beihai, Qing China 1882
Guangzhou, Qing China 1894
British Hong Kong 1894
Japanese Taiwan, Empire of Japan 1896 (until the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake)
Bombay Presidency, India, 1896–1898
Calcutta, India, 1898
French Madagascar, 1898
Khedive of Egypt, 1899
Manchuria, China 1899
Porto, Portugal, 1899
South Africa, 1899–1902
Glasgow, United Kingdom, 1900
San Francisco, United States, 1900
Russian Empire/Soviet Union, 1900–1927
Fujian, China 1901
British Burma, 1905
French Tunisia, 1907
Trinidad, Venezuela, Peru and Ecuador, 1908
Bolivia and Brazil, 1908
Cuba and Puerto Rico, 1912
The plague of China hit India in 1860. Statistics show that more than 1 crore Indians were killed by plague during that period 160 years ago.