Dr R Balashankar
Contagion: How Commerce has Spread Disease, Mark Harrison, Yale University Press, Pp 376 (HB), £25.00
HUMAN beings have always been moving, looking for greener pastures, escaping religious and political persecutions, looking for greater personal freedom. Most of all, to make money. Commerce perhaps is the biggest factor for centuries of voyages criss-cross the globe. And humans carried with them something more than the wares. They were, unintentionally the carriers of infections and transmitted them to the people of their destinations. The Great Plague, the small pox and yellow fever have travelled continents and played havoc with the demographies.
Mark Harrison,a professor in History of Medicine has traced the history of the spread of communicable diseases along with trade in Contagion:How Commerce has Spread Disease. The book starts with Black Death (1348-1350), because it is from this point that trade and epidemic stayed as closely connected in the mind and memory of the people. Harrison notes that there is very little material available on the subject. “In the three centuries following the Black Death, much of Eurasia and a substantial part of northern and eastern Africa became epidemiologically intertwined. The plagues of the later Middle Ages were the latest episodes in a process which had been under way, albeit intermittently, for millennia. Up until that time, there had been some mixing between the disease pools of Africa and Eurasia but other parts of the world were now sucked in.”
Epidemics in their path left a trail, devastation and a huge change in the demography. Labour became difficult, resulting in their increased wages, leading to import of labour, and slave trade. Several nations started regulating trade in order to check the diseases. While such measures were supported in the port cities, it created tension among nation states, says Harrison. “Quarantines and sanitary embargoes came to be used consciously as instruments of statecraft and have figured prominently in international relations ever since.” Sometimes the quarantine misuse led to wars. However, by the eighteenth century, the merchants started voicing their opposition to quarantine and the medical fraternity too expressed doubts about the system. By the mid-nineteenth century the countries started having conventions to arrive at some kind of agreement on quarantines. The first of such conferences was held in Paris in 1851. In the second half of this century, ten such conventions took place which resulted in a widely accepted agreement.
In 1890, an outbreak of plague in southern China mushroomed into a full-blown pandemic. “And whereas earlier waves of plague had affected Eurasia and North Africa primarily, this one circumnavigated the globe, reaching every inhabited continent. Plague spread rapidly along the arteries of a mature global economy, its path eased by modern transportation,” says Harrison. From there it came to India via Bombay and went to Central Asia along the Silk Route. And one by one all the continents fell victim to the plague despite quarantine. It started diminishing by the 1920s. Today, the borders are not difficult to cross both for goods and people. “We are now in the midst of another great convergence, in which commodities, finance and people move at unprecedented speed. The same is true of disease. However, it is not the classic disease of trade that stalk us but a host of infections that have crossed or threaten to cross the barriers between species.” And pandemic diseases continue to wreck havoc on the economy. For instance, the losses from the avian influenza was estimated in the region of US $3 trillion. And the reactions of the governments to early warnings of such threats are only adding more losses, as most are seen as being stricter than the necessary guidelines issued by global bodies. Since the pathogens are invisible to the human eye, a true and tight security can at best be illusional. What we need is a balanced approach. “Unless we get the balance right, it is unlikely that we will enjoy either the security we crave or the commercial freedom essential to our prosperity,” he concludes.
Mark Harrison, Professor of the History of Medicine, Director of the Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine, University of Oxford, has opened up a whole new approach to the centuries-old phenomena of epidemics. It is an extremely important to understand the complications involved in such devastating events on the economy of the world, which is increasingly becoming inter-dependent and connected by moves not apparently linked. This book is as much important for the historian as for the economist and the microbiologist.
(Yale University Press, 47, Bedford Square, London WC1B 3DP)