In what instances can the Bubonic plague be argued to have shaped history? Could it return on an epidemic level again in the future?
An epidemic of bubonic plague that wiped out 60 percent of Europe’s population -- some 50 million people -- between the years 1346 and 1353 could not have been considered anything other than catastrophic and politically significant given the scale of devastation and the degree to which governments were impotent to act in the face of the scourge. Believed to have originated in the Caspian Sea region of Russia, the spread of the disease destroyed economies dependent upon trade along the Silk Road – the very trade route that facilitated the spread of the bacteria responsible for the plague. Early efforts at forging economic systems less dependent upon agriculture while trade links between Asia and Europe expanded and greater concentrations of humanity in condensed villages and towns all contributed to the epidemic’s vast sweep. In the island nation of Britain in particular the social and economic ramifications of the Black Death were acutely felt in the enormous depletion of the previously plentiful supply of cheap labor. Peasants who survived the plague represented a greatly diminished labor pool, which allowed for higher wages, which translated into higher production costs and the consequent inflation such developments entail. The net result was a serious shift in wealth as land-owners saw their fortunes shrink.
It is entirely possible that another epidemic of massive proportions will sweep across continents again at some point in the future. There is currently a race underway between the development of new strains of old bacteria resistant to antibiotics and the efforts among scientists to refine newer antibiotics that can defeat the so-called “superbugs.” A recent report by the BBC quoted senior-level officials in Britain’s medical research community as attesting to the scale of the threat such antibiotic-resistant bacteria will pose to populations. One of those officials, Dame Sally Davies, the country’s chief medical officer, referred to the evolution of bacteria, viruses and parasites as “a ticking time bomb” confronting her country – a threat she suggested was on-par with that of terrorism. [See “Golden Age of Antibiotics Set to End,” BBC, January 8, 2014. In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control has referred to these “superbugs” as “nightmare” bacteria that will prove deadly in what for the past century were reduced to minor or inconsequential infections or injuries. [See the episode of PBS Frontline “Hunting the Nightmare Bacteria,” www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/hunting-the-nightmare-bacteria/]
The advent of superbugs can very well lead to another epidemic that results in millions of deaths.