Posts Tagged ‘Black Death’

No, We Are (Probably) Not Going to See a Black Death Pandemic

July 6, 2020

Mike this morning has put up a piece on his blog reporting that the Chinese city of Bayannur in the Chinese region of Inner Mongolia, has sounded the alarm after a hospital reported a case of Bubonic Plague. This was the disease, spread by fleas on rodents, which was responsible for the Black Death in 14th century Europe. The disease is believed to have killed a half to two-thirds of the European population and China experienced an even higher number of deaths.

Coming after the Coronavirus pandemic, this all sounds really scary, right? Well, I don’t think there’s any need to panic. Bubonic Plague has still been around in parts of the Developing World, like India for years. There’s no question that it should be wiped out, but it’s now much, much less lethal than its medieval and early modern predecessor. So much so that some historians and microbiologists have wondered if it really is the same disease.

For example, way back in the 1990’s New Scientist carried a piece about an outbreak in India. It was extremely localized. While the people living in one house or set of houses fell ill with the disease, the folks a few doors down were left unscathed. The small scale of Bubonic plague outbreaks, which only mercifully affect a very few, have led some scientists to question whether the Black Death was actually another, far more contagious disease. Back when I was at secondary school, the Beeb’s history series, Timewatch, aired a programme which suggested that the Black Death may instead have been anthrax. I think the symptoms are similar, but anthrax can also be contracted from dead bodies, which Bubonic Plague cannot. This would explain why Medieval people believed even handling the bodies of the dead was dangerous.

There is another, related form of Bubonic Plague, Pneumonic Plague, which is rather more serious as its an airborne disease and so more contagious. But fortunately even the outbreaks of this disease have been far more restricted than the outbreaks of the plague in the Middle Ages and 16th/17th centuries.

Rather more worrying is the news, which was also reported by the Mirror as well as a number of other papers, that a new strain of Swine Flu has developed, which is resistant to current vaccines. I’d consider that a more serious risk, but I don’t think we’re quite in danger of seeing that become a world-wide pandemic just yet.

Obviously, these diseases need to be monitored and are of serious concern to organizations like the World Health Organization, but the chances of either of these becoming another global pandemic like the Coronavirus is probably remote. As for avoiding people who have visited the Far East, I can remember Dr Kevin Fong’s remarks at the Cheltenham Festival of Science during the Bird Flu epidemic. Fong was speaking about space medicine, of which he’s an expert. He was also suffering from a cold and had just come back from Beijing. As he appeared on stage blowing his nose into a handkerchief, he reassured the crowd by saying, ‘Don’t worry – it’s just a cold.’ He explained how he’d just come back from the Chinese capital, and said that it was amazing how much room you could get now on the London Underground as an Asian man. Which was his jokey way of allaying any suspicions.

It might still be best to avoid people, who have travelled to China and neighbouring countries, but that would only be because of the Coronavirus. I’m very sure we aren’t going to see a return of the Plague next.

See: https://voxpoliticalonline.com/2020/07/06/if-you-thought-2020-couldnt-get-worse-brace-yourself-for-the-black-death/

The Coronavirus and the Death of the Dream of a Disease-Free Future

March 30, 2020

There has been one other consequence of the Coronavirus, apart from the immense toll its taken in tragic deaths, its disastrous impact on economies and social life around the world as trade and personal contact has been reduced to a minimum as countries go into lockdown. I doubt few people have noticed it, but I believe that the pandemic has finally killed the sixties dream of the conquest of disease.

It was an optimistic decade, and although the high hopes of technological, social and economic improvement and expansion ended with the depression of the 70s and its fears of overpopulation, ecological collapse, and the running out of resources, coupled with global terrorism, labour unrest and the energy crisis, some of that optimism still continued. And one of the sources of that optimism was the victories that were being won against disease. Before the introduction of modern antibiotics, diseases like tuberculosis, polio, diptheria and cholera were common and lethal. In the case of polio, they could leave their victims so severely paralysed that they had to be placed in iron lungs in order to breathe. Their threat was greatly reduced in Britain and the West through the introduction of antibiotics, as well as the improvements in housing, working conditions and sanitation. And these advances appeared to be global. Yes, there was still terrible poverty in the Developing World, but these emergent nations were improving thanks to the efforts of charities and the United Nations. The UN was helping these nations become educated through schools, setting up wells and other sources of clean water, teach their peoples about the importance of sanitation. Most importantly, it was actively eradicating disease through immunisation programmes.

The UN and the charities are still doing this, of course, often working in hostile conditions in countries wracked by dictatorship, corruption and civil war. But in the 1970s the world won a major victory in the struggle against disease: smallpox was declared extinct in the wild. Humanity had overcome and beaten a major killer that had taken the lives of countless millions down the centuries. Cultures of the disease still remain in laboratories, just in case it returns. But outside of these, the disease was believed to be finally extinct.

It was the realisation of the optimistic ideas contained in Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek. The series envisaged a future in which humanity had set aside its national and racial division, and become united. It had joined other extraterrestrial races in a benign Federation, a kind of UN in space, and embarked on a wave of space colonisation and exploration. It sent out ships like the Enterprise ‘to seek out new life and new civilisations’, and boldly split infinitives which no-one had split before. And part of that optimistic future was the victory over disease. It was still there, and there were instances where it ravaged whole planets. But by and large humanity and its alien partners were conquering it. That optimism continued into the subsequent series, like Star Trek: The Next Generation and the films. Serious diseases, which now regularly afflict humanity would be easily treatable in this future. In the third Star Trek film, The Voyage Home,  the crew of the Enterprise journey back to the 20th century to save the whale and thus the Earth of the future from an alien spaceship that somehow causes advanced technology to shut down. Entering a hospital to rescue Chekhov, who has been captured by today’s American army, McCoy finds an elderly lady awaiting dialysis. ‘What is this!’, he characteristically exclaims, ‘the Dark Ages!’ And gives her a pill. When next we see her, She’s fit and well and raising her walking stick in thanks to McCoy as he and the others rush past. Around her two doctors are muttering in astonishment about how she has grown a new kidney. And in the Next Generation pilot episode, ‘Encounter at Far Point’, McCoy is shown as an elderly man in his 120s.

Now medical progress is still being made, and people in the West are living much longer, so that there is an increasing number of old folks who are over 100. And some scientists and doctors believe that advances in medical science, especially geriatrics, may eventually lead to people attain the age of 400 or even a thousand. The last claim appeared on a BBC 4 panel game over a decade ago, in which various scientists and doctors came before the writer and comedian Andy Hamilton and the Black American comic, Reggie Yates, to argue for the validity of their theories. And one of these was that the first person to live to a thousand has already been born.

But such optimism has also been seriously tempered by the persistence of disease. Just as humanity was eradicating Smallpox, SF writers were producing stories about the threat of new killer diseases, such as in the films The Satan Bug and The Andromeda Strain, as well as the British TV series, Survivors. I think public belief in the ability of humanity to conquer disease was seriously damaged by the emergence of AIDS in the 1980s. This was so devastating, that some viewed it in terms of the Black Death, though mercifully this wasn’t the case. And after AIDS came bird flu, swine flu, and now the present pandemic. And unlike these previous health emergencies, the world has been forced to go into lockdown. It’s an unprecedented move, that seems more like a return to the response to the plagues of the Middle Ages and 17-19th centuries than the actions of a modern state.

The lockdown is necessary, and this crisis has shown that states still need to cooperate in order to combat global diseases like Coronavirus. Medicine is still improving, so that it’s possible that some people, the rich elite who can afford it, may enjoy vastly extended lifespans. But the current crisis has also shown that serious diseases are still arising, illnesses that now spread and affect the world’s population as a whole. And so the 60s dream of a future without serious disease now seems very distant indeed.

Alleging that Something Is An ‘Anti-Semitic Trope’ Is No Argument against the Truth

February 20, 2018

One of the tactics used by the Israel lobby and the Blairites in the Labour Party to smear their opponents as anti-Semites is by denouncing anything they write, which is vaguely similar in theme to some of the malignant and poisonous myths about the Jews, as an ‘anti-Semitic trope’, even when it is solid, documented fact. The person reading or hearing these denunciations is thus meant to believe that those they’ve libelled as anti-Semites really are such, and that what they have written is also false, and based on the earlier murderous lies about the Jews.

Thus Mike’s coverage of the secret meeting between members of the Tory party and Shai Masot of the Israeli embassy, where they plotted which members of the Conservatives they wanted in the cabinet, was brought up at his hearing in the Labour party. Mike had described it as ‘a conspiracy’, which it was. it was a secret plot, and Masot and his friends in the Tories were conspiring to affect changes in the cabinet. But because Mike described it as a conspiracy, the Blairites and Israel lobby seized on it as anti-Semitic because of the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. They wanted people to think that Mike had written about it, because he’s anti-Semitic Fascist loon, who believes all the stupid conspiracy theories about the Jews controlling international finance and politics to enslave gentiles. And with that, they were then expected to ignore the fact that Masot and co really had been caught conspiring on camera by Al-Jazeera.

But such allegations are no argument or defence of Zionism and Israel, when the actions committed by them are documented fact. For example, in the 14th century Jews were accused of causing the Black Death, which is estimated to have killed 1/3 of the European population, by poisoning the wells. They did no such thing, but this lie was believed and led to terrible pogroms and violence against them.

But in the last days of the Second World War, or shortly afterward, a group of Jews did try to poison the drinking water in one of the lakes in Germany. They were led by a poet, Kovner, and wanted to kill six million Germans in retaliation for the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust. There was a documentary on them broadcast on BBC 4 on Holocaust Memorial Day. I can also remember reading an article on them in the Daily Heil several years ago. This plot is documented fact, and as far as I know, no-one has accused the Beeb or Fail of anti-Semitism simply for covering this story. But it is similar to the medieval myth of Jews poisoning wells, and so, going by the logic of the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism and the Jewish Labour Movement, is an ‘anti-Semitic trope’.

Similarly, One of the methods the Israeli Defence Force uses to try to make life in the territories occupied by Israel unbearable for the indigenous Palestinians is to throw chemicals into the wells to make the water undrinkable. Again, this is documented fact. It’s similar to the lies about Jews poisoning the wells in the Middle Ages, but that lie has nothing to do with the reporting of this violation of the Palestinians’ human rights.

Just because something done by the Israelis now is similar to the poisonous medieval and Nazi lies, does not mean that the accounts of the Israelis’ crimes and conspiracies isn’t true. Nor does it mean that it is anti-Semitic to document and describe them.

Mike most certainly is not an anti-Semite, as his article on Shai Masot and his fellow co-conspirators shows. The allegation that what he wrote was ‘an anti-Semitic trope’ is a fraudulent lie, made by the Blairites and the Israel lobby to smear him, and cover up their own embarrassment at being caught. They are utterly disgraceful, and owe Mike a retraction and an apology.

Vox Political: Cameron Planning Internment Camp for British Radicals

February 17, 2016

This is a really scary piece Mike’s reblogged from the Canary. Apparently, Cameron and Gove are planning to isolate Muslim extremists in special secure unit to stop Muslim radicalisation in prison. This has been compared to Guantanamo Bay in America. Mike instead in his comments asks the extremely pertinent question of whether it’s actually instead something like a Nazi concentration camp, especially with the government’s establishment of secret courts. See http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2016/02/17/cameron-wants-to-lock-radicals-in-a-single-place-like-a-nazi-concentration-camp/

Mike and so many, many others, like the Angry Yorkshireman, have blogged about the serious dangers these iniquitous courts pose to British justice and liberty. Under this system of, for want of a better term, special justice, the established standards of legal process may waived in the interests of ‘national security’. You may not see the evidence against you, nor know who your accuser is. Indeed, you may not be told what offence you have been charged. It tramples all over Magna Carta, and is exactly like something straight out of Kafka’s novels, The Trial and The Castle.

The motivation here appears to be the very rapid spread of Islam through the prison system through what looks like a very aggressive strategy of dawah, Islamic evangelisation. However alarmed some might feel about the spread of Islam in prisons, this proposal is should be more alarming. Firstly, there is difference between Islam and Islamism, and conversion to Islam does not necessarily lead to converts being set on an automatic path to extremism, at the end of which is ISIS or al-Qaeda. Indeed, the piece Mike’s reproduced from the Canary article states that the idea behind this special prison seems to be that Islamism is like an infectious disease, which isn’t the case.

The model for this special prison seems to be Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo Bay. This was extensively criticised because of the illegality of the vast majority of the incarcerations their. The majority of those imprisoned would simply not have been convicted in ordinary courts of law because of the lack of evidence against them. With the addition of the Patriot Act, which provided for the arrest of anybody George Dubya and his cronies thought wasn’t sufficiently patriotic as a potential terrorist, the system’s critics saw Gitmo very much as the thin end of a totalitarian, Nazi wedge. Conservatives, like the right-wing Canadian cable/web TV host, Michael Koren and the British/Irish journalist Mark Steyn, resident in New Hampshire, have tried to justify Gitmo by arguing that normal standards of justice cannot apply in war. The conditions of battle are just too confused, they argue, for the same standards of reasonable proof to apply when assessing whether or not a suspect is guilty. The men and women interned at Gitmo are nevertheless extremely dangerous, and present a real threat to the public security if they are released. Hence their incarceration of what may be inadequate or flimsy legal grounds is justified. Despite this argument, the majority of those imprisoned at Gitmo have been released, and those still remaining seem to be there out of sheer bloody-mindedness by the authorities rather than any convincing legal reason.

I’m also worried about this, because it points to a long tradition of authoritarianism in the Tory Right. I’ve got a feeling Lobster ran pieces in the 1980s about Tory plans for internment camps in Northern Ireland, to be used against the IRA, modelled on the system of concentration camps the French had used in their campaigns against the indigenous peoples fighting for their freedom in what used to be Indo-China, out of which came the Vietnam War. These were dropped because whatever the threat of paramilitary violence in Ulster, it was felt that the British people would not tolerate other White Brits being rounded up and herded into concentration camps like Black Kenyans during the Mao Mao rebellion.

And the Tory need to incarcerate political and social ‘deviants’ raised its hideous physiognomy again when AIDS appeared in the 1980s. At the time there was a real fear that AIDS was so infectious and deadly, that it would wipe out the world’s population exactly as the population of Europe and Muslim North Africa had been decimated by the Black Death in the 14th century. In five years, that disease killed perhaps somewhere between a third and quarter of the European population, and a similar proportion North Africans in what is now the countries of Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya and Algeria. Radical measures were being mooted to combat the disease. And this included the isolation of its victims. I can remember being chilled by an article in the Sunday Express that announced that the Swedes were considering building an ‘AIDS Island’ to isolate and treat the victims of the disease. British ministers were looking into the possibility of doing the same. Gay sex between men had only been legal since 1969, and much of society was extremely prejudiced against homosexuals, particularly the Tory party and the police. James Anderton, the extremely right-wing head of Manchester police force, stated that he believed that AIDS was God’s punishment for gays, and described homosexuality as a cesspool, or something similarly offensive. Margaret Thatcher passed legislation intended to ban the teaching that homosexuality was at all normal or acceptable in schools. In this environment, even at the time I wondered if this was an attempt to construct a secure medical facility, like the leper hospitals that were deliberately built on islands to isolate the victims of that terrible disease. Or if instead it was a prison camp to lock up gays, just as the Nazis had done during the Third Reich. Homosexuals were then sent to the concentration camps, and identified by pink triangles placed on their prison pyjamas. This part of the persecution of gays by the Nazis was portrayed in the harrowing play, Bent, starring one of the great gay British thesps. I’ve got a feeling it was Sir Ian Mackellan in the title role, but I could be mistaken.

This strikes me as being pretty much the same squalid, authoritarian instincts rising to the Tory surface yet again. If, indeed, it ever really went away. And the danger here is that once the Tories do it to once section of the community and get away with it, they’ll do it to all of us. Muslim radicals will be the first. Then it could be others suspected of terrorism, like radical nationalists – Irish Republican splinter groups, say. And then it’ll be extended to illegal asylum-seekers, trade unionists, Socialists, Anarchists and Communists. Same as it always has been. Just like Trump in America similarly threatens to introduce real Fascism if he wins the election. This has got to be very carefully watched indeed, if not banned altogether before it even begins.

And if they are considering a round-up of Islamist radicals and other suspects, when should we expect them to stage their own fake attack on parliament to justify it all, like the Reichstag fire?

Thatcher Wanted to Block Anti-AIDS Adverts to Stop People Knowing about Anal Sex

December 31, 2015

Sorry about the sexual explicitness of this article, but it shows how bizarre and prudish Thatcher’s attitude to sexual awareness was.

Amongst the documents released under the thirty year rule yesterday were a number that revealed the battle between Norman Fowler and Maggie over how much the general public should be told about the transmission of HIV. There was a serious fear in Britain and the rest of the world that unless action was taken, AIDS would become a massive epidemic that would carry off millions of lives. It has, it is true, done so, and continues to do so, especially in Africa. The fear in Britain and other parts of the western world was that the contagion would be far more severe, perhaps even comparable with the Black Death which destroyed between a third and a half of the European population in the late 14th century.

Governments in Britain, America, New Zealand and Australia rushed out public information films to inform people of the dangers of this terrifying new disease. The one shown in Australia/NZ was particularly horrifying, as it showed Death knocking down people like bowling pins. In America, the approach was rather more subtle. All governments were urging their peoples to use condoms during sex to prevent the spread of the infection. American prudishness and sensitivity meant that in their films, contraception couldn’t be explicitly mentioned. The film therefore showed someone putting on a sock to protect his feet, while giving a little speech urging people to put similar items on if they wanted to protect themselves while having sex. A number of comedians made jokes about how ridiculous and spectacularly uninformative this was at the time.

But Maggie Thatcher seems to have shared some of those prudish attitudes. Fowler wished to publish a string of adverts in newspapers and magazines pointing out the particular dangers of anal sex. At the time this accounted for 85% of all cases. Thatcher, however, wanted to block this, as she was afraid that if the great British public found out about it, they’d start doing it.

At which point, you begin to wonder precisely where Thatcher got her ideas on sex from, and how much she really understood the people over whom she ruled. Perhaps well brought up ‘gels’ of her class and generation weren’t supposed to know about such things, rather like the massive sexual ignorance that plagued 19th century England. Unfortunately, even my grandparents’ time, such basic biological facts as menstruation weren’t taught in schools, so that many girls were frightened and bewildered by the changes that their bodies underwent at puberty.

And in the first half of the 20th century, when homosexuality was illegal, a number of people really didn’t know it even existed until they were in the early adulthood. I can remember a friend of mine telling me about one writer or actor, I’ve forgotten quite who, who said that he was in the 20s when he found out that there were such things as gays. And even then, his first reaction was that the person who told him was pulling his leg.

But by the time Thatcher got into power in the 1980s, people knew about gays and anal sex all right. All Thatcher needed to do to find out about this was to have one of her cabinet ministers tell her some of the coarse jokes being bandied around bars and pubs. Or school playgrounds. I found out about it all in secondary school, where there were some very crude jokes. Many of the circumlocutions used for gay men also referred obliquely to anal sex. In 19th century England one of such euphemisms was ‘gentleman of the back door’. Lenny Henry had a section on his TV show at the time, sending up the contemporary vogue for screen adaptations of novels set in pre-independence India. These were The Jewel in the Crown and A Passage to India. Henry spoofed them and the racial attitudes behind them as ‘The Jewel in India’s Passage’, which is surely a double entendre on the back passage, the human rectum. Just a few years ago Julian Clary made the same double entendre in the title of his autobiography, A Young Man’s Passage.

Or Thatcher could simply have turned the TV on. The 1980s saw a number of dramas, which included gay characters, or dealt with gay relationships. Gay sex could not be shown on TV, along with masturbation and bestiality, but even so there was a new sexual frankness there. And some of the comedies could be extremely explicit and very coarse, despite the traditional constraints on what was fit for broadcast. One of the programmes I remember on ITV at the time was Spooner’s Patch’, a police comedy about a particularly coarse and boorish police captain and his unit. It was written by Galton and Simpson, the pair responsible for the classic Steptoe and Son, who really should have known better. One episode included homosexuality, and had Spooner making a number of very coarse and bigoted comments about ‘brown hatters’. These were very clear in describing homosexuality in terms of anal sex, even if they didn’t describe it in those exact terms. It was all a very long way away from the 1950s, when comics and comedy writers were told they could not makes jokes about ‘effeminacy in men’, along with other taboo subjects such as religion, the monarchy, disability or the colour question.

What made Thatcher’s views even more anachronistic and misplaced is that a few years previously there had been the massive scandal surrounding the gay affair Jeremy Thorpe had with a male model, leading blackmail demands and a hitman allegedly being hired to shoot the man’s dog. This was so notorious that it led to schoolchildren using ‘Jeremy’ as a term of abuse.

All this shows just out of touch and petit bourgeois Thatcher and her sexual attitudes actually were. Now there are genuine issues about how much children should be taught about sex in schools, including homosexuality. Children do need some, if only to understand their bodies, the physical changes that go with puberty, and the need to protect themselves against STDs, and not just AIDS. There are those, who would prevent them knowing even about that. Peter Hitchens, the Conservative journalist and writer for the Mail on Sunday, opposes sex education on the grounds that it was started in Hungary in order to break the power of conservative Christian parental attitudes. He believes it encourages promiscuity. This is news to me. I remember the sex education we had at school, how awkward some of out teachers looked talking about it. And despite raging teenage hormones, the dry descriptions of the act were quite enough to put you off it. In the same way, Thatcher must have been out of her tiny little mind to think that knowing about anal sex would make the rest of British society want to try it. Anyone already interested in experimenting with gay sex was far more likely to be influenced by David Bowie and the sexual ambiguity of his Ziggy Stardust persona than get even remotely turned on by an advert warning of the dangers of a terrible and debilitating disease.

There are reasonable limits to how much children should be taught about sex and when. But adults reading newspapers and magazines are different. People need to be informed. And, to paraphrase the slogan used about the disease at the time, it’s not just AIDS which will kill you due to ignorance.