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N.A.Nazarbayev
This day in history

History of pandemic in Central Asia

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History of pandemic in Central Asia
With the transition from hunting and gathering to the farming and animal husbandry, there was an increase in the production of food, growth community, housing development and town. 

An appearance of trade routes and the first military conflicts contributed to the transfer of people to various ailments. Although, there is no historical or documentary confirmation, it is probably that humanity began to experience the first epidemic at that time, possibly, even a pandemic has started to spread to many people on a large territory. Our portal Qazaqstan Tarihy has collected the information on the largest and most significant pandemics, that humanity has ever known and will tell about their influence on the Central Asian region and Kazakhstan particularly.

A development of writing allowed the Greek and Roman historians to approve a disorder that occurred in 165-180 AD at the Roman Empire known as the Antonine Plague. It is interesting that the nature of the origin of this disease has not been identified until this day. That is why, some scientists believe that it was smallpox, others argue that this disease is one of the manifestations of measles. Nowadays, even the records left by the ancient Roman physician Galen, who once witnessed the outbreak of this disease, cannot shed light on the nature of the origin of the Antonine plague. In a series of his observations, that received the name “Methodus Medendi”, it is said that the disease was accompanied by the fever, diarrhea, pharyngitis and purulent rash.

Historical scholars argue that the disease influenced Roman culture and literature most, also strongly influenced the Indo-Roman trading relations in the Indian Ocean, not to mention the consequences that it had on the military policy of the empire. So, due to the illness, a lot of cities and townships on the Apennine Peninsula and in the European provinces lost all their inhabitants, that greatly facilitated the German and Gallic peoples outside the northern borders of the empire in order to travel to the south part in search of new lands. Besides that, in accordance with the Australian researcher Raf de Crespigny, when the plague reached China, it became an indirect cause of the Yellow Stripe Uprising (184-205).

Although most historians believe that this dangerous infection had appeared in Mesopotamia for the first time, there is a version about its Central Asian origin. So, the work of the researcher Raul McLaughlin was published in 2010, in which there is an assumption that the roots of the disease lie in Central Asia, among some unknown and isolated group of the population, after that the disease spread to the Chinese and Roman worlds.

The three colossal plague diseases are known in the history. As soon as the plague – a disease originally characteristic of desert and steppe rodents that found its way to people, it began to rage with a ferocity that the history of humankind has not known yet. Indeed, if during epidemics of smallpox, cholera, typhus, Spanish flu, and others, no more than 30% of those who fell ill died, with rare exceptions, then the plague meant certain death. A sick man inevitably died in a few days, so the horror of the plague epidemic overshadowed the horror of all wars.

The first of these plague pandemics began in 541. Nowadays, it is known that it was caused by a bacterium carried by the mammals, mainly rats and fleas parasitizing them. In some cases, the rat fleas have bitten people and thereby transmit a bacterium to them. Once the bacterium has entered the lungs, the infection is transmitted to other people very easily, making it much easier for the way it spreads.

According to the recent studies, the Justinian plague (this name was given to the plague in honor of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, during whose reign, it arose) began in Central Asia and spread along land and sea trade routes to the Byzantine Empire. However, in accordance with other studies carried out in 2017, one of the likely outbreaks of the plague could be in China.

If we talk about the consequences of the Justinian plague, then they were especially pronounced in the capital of Byzantium, Constantinople. This was due to the fact that the city lay at the intersection of trade routes, and therefore, it suffered the most. There is information according to which, up to ten thousand people had been perished daily in the city by 544.

Through the trade routes, the disease spread to the Mediterranean. In general, the period of the reign of Justinian I is marked by many campaigns of conquest and numerous wars aimed at restoring the territories lost by the Roman Empire in the 5th century. However, once the plague penetrated Byzantium, its consequences could not be ignored at all. An expansion of the empire has stopped then. The Sassanid State faced the same problem. It was Justinian's plague that ended the lives of the 63rd Pope Pelagius II, the Irish saint Ciaran of Clonmacnoise and the kings of the medieval kingdoms of Wales, Cyngen Glodrydd, Maelgwn ap Cadwallon.

The Black Death is considered the second bubonic plague pandemic. Its peak fell in 1346-1353, and repeated outbreaks continued until the 19th century. In all likelihood, it arose in the steppes of Central Asia, on the territory of which the Golden Horde and the Chagatai ulus were located at that time. From there, it began to spread across the continent.

A lake Issyk-Kul is considered as the turning point, from where the plague began its journey to the West, where, Russian archaeologist, Daniil Khvolson noticed that the number of gravestones at the local Nestorian community, dated in 1338-1339, turned out to be catastrophically high at the end of the 19th century. On one of these gravestones, that still exist today, Khvolson was able to read an inscription: “Here Kutluk rests. He died from the plague along with his wife Magnu-Kelka”. This interpretation was questioned subsequently, and it was indicated that the name of the disease should rather be understood as “Pestilence”, that could mean any infectious disease. However, the coincidence of dates indicates that with a very high probability it was precisely about the plague, that began to spread from here to the westward. For the next few years, there are no exact data on the progress of the plague to the west. It is believed that its outbreaks had occurred in Balasagun in 1340, then in Talas in 1341 and finally in Samarkand. In 1346, the plague appeared in the lower reaches of the Don and Volga, devastating the capital of the Golden Horde khans, Saray and nearby cities, and then spread to the southward through the Caucasian ridge to the Middle East.

It is the soldiers of the Golden Horde who are responsible for the spread of the plague throughout Europe. The history says that the Genoese fortress in Feodosia on the Black Sea coast was besieged by the Golden Horde Khan Zhanibek in 1343-1346. After the plague broke out in the Golden Horde army, the khan ordered to throw the corpses of those who died from the disease with the help of catapults to Kaffa, where an epidemic began immediately. A siege ended in nothing, as the army weakened by the disease was forced to retreat, while the Genoese ships from Kaffa continued their voyage, spreading the plague further along all Mediterranean ports. However, there are many scientists who consider this explanation dubious.

In the next few years, an outbreak of the disease had occurred in Constantinople (in spring of 1347), in Mesopotamia and Persia (during spring-summer of 1347), Alexandria, Messina, Catania, Genoa, Marseille (in autumn of 1347) and in 1351-1353 it had reached the North Europe. The disease had spread to the entire interior of Europe, for unknown reasons, without affecting only certain regions of France and Navarre, Finland and the Kingdom of Bohemia.

After the cases of infection with the Black Death had been subsided, and the world experienced the pandemics until the beginning of the 19th century, but they were local in nature. So, in England, the outbreaks of English sweat periodically occurred, the syphilis began to spread across Europe, brought by the sailors of Columbus from the New World, and the plague returned to Tenerife, Russia, England, Vienna, Northern and Eastern Europe. Then, there was smallpox, that killed dozens of thousands people in North America and Australia, and the typhus, that killed the lives of thousands of Napoleonic army soldiers in 1813.

In 1817, the world was faced with the cholera pandemic.

Cholera is a bacterial infection that is spread to humans through the ingestion of contaminated food or water. The disease causes a severe diarrhea, leading to life-threatening dehydration. Without treatment, half of those infected people might die within days or even hours.

In 1817-1824 years, an explosive spread of the cholera pandemic began, that started near Calcutta and spread throughout Southeast Asia to the Middle East. In 1826-1828, the cholera had spread to the east from India, to China, Indochina, and also, from the northwest to Afghanistan, Khiva and Bukhara. In the Russian Empire, the disease appeared in Orenburg in 1829, as a result of a drift by the Bukhara caravan. Fearing cholera, the Orenburg governor sent an official letter to meet him for special assignments with several hundred Cossacks. At the border, the caravan was stopped, after which the official made the merchants swear on the Koran that there were no sick people among them. Then they demanded from the Bukharians to throw pieces of wool and cotton at each other from the unpacked bales, and then chew the cotton and wool. All this forced the merchants to “Eat” the dried fruits and sweets that were in the caravan. The checks were successful, the caravan was allowed through, but cholera outbreaks began in Orenburg soon.

At the end of the 19th century, in 1889-1890, a severe influenza pandemic began, killing about the million people around the world. It was nicknamed as the “Asian flu” (in other sources – “Russian flu”) and became the first world, and not only Eurasian, epidemic.

A spread of the 1889`s flu was facilitated by the transport infrastructure. In 19 major European countries, including the Russian Empire, the 202,887 km of railways were laid, and the transatlantic voyage by the ship took less than six days.

For the first time, the flu was noticed in Bukhara in May 1889, while in some areas up to two thirds of the population died in some areas. The flu reached Samarkand by August along the Trans-Caspian Railway, and 3,200 kilometers to Tomsk by October. The Trans-Siberian Railway had not been built yet, so the spread eastward was slow, but the epidemic reached the westernmost station of the Caspian, Krasnovodsk, and from there – the Volga trade routes, along which the flu reached St. Petersburg and Moscow by November. By the mid-November, the flu had arrived in Kiev, the next month – in the area of ​​Lake Baikal, and by the end of the year it spread throughout the rest of Siberia and Sakhalin.

As it was mentioned above, the Asian flu claimed the lives of one million people worldwide, that is a very small number compared to the devastating Spanish flu pandemic. The “Spanish flu” became the most massive influenza pandemic in the history of humankind, both in terms of the number of people infected and the number of deaths. The epidemic had lasted from January 1918 to 1920. Worldwide, the Spanish flu has infected at least 550 million people (about 30% of the world's population). The number of deaths is estimated from 17 million to 50-100 million people, or 0.9-5.3% of the world's population, that makes this epidemic one of the largest disasters in human history. The epidemic began in the last months of the First World War and quickly bypassed this largest armed conflict at that time in terms of the number of victims. It is considered that the development of the pandemic was facilitated by the hardships of the war – unsanitary conditions, poor nutrition, overcrowding of military and refugee camps.

It is still not entirely clear where the focus of the 1918 pandemic had appeared first. It has been indisputably proven that the flu had already been widespread in China since the beginning of 1918. French authors believe that it was that place where the last pandemic occurred at that time. In January and February, the epidemic appeared in America, in April it broke out to France, in May – to Switzerland, Spain, Italy, Serbia and England, and then to South Africa. In June, it spread to Poland, Romania, Sweden and Germany and, in addition, to India. In July it was in Belgium, Holland and Denmark. This was the end of its first wave. The number of diseases began to decrease, and there was a temporary lull. But in August and September, the mass illnesses began again everywhere. An incidence of flu covered all continents of the Earth, except for Antarctica, during these years.

In Russia and Kazakhstan, the epidemic occurred during the Civil War, simultaneously with epidemics of typhus and other infectious diseases. From the annual report of the People's Commissariat of Health of the RSFSR, it follows that about 1,09 million people fell ill with the “Spanish flu” from August 1918 to the spring 1919 in Soviet Russia. However, according to the experts, this figure is significantly underestimated, since those who fell ill with flu symptoms were usually diagnosed with typhoid.

A historian Anuar Zhumanov talked about how Kazakhstan fought back with the epidemic:

“In August-September 1918, the People's Commissariat of Health began to receive the first information about the epidemic from the western regions of the former Russian Empire, then the disease spread to the central regions of Russia, from where it moved to us. The Bolsheviks tried to close the area in order to prevent the spread of the disease. But due to the fact that not all of the territory was controlled, they could not actually implement it ...”

“There is information that a peasant, along with his wife and children, was suspected of deliberately spreading the flu in a village in Russia. The Chekists, summoned from the city, drove the whole family into the house. Then I cite an excerpt from the report: “An arrest of the Pryazhin family was difficult due to the fear of being infected. Therefore, the house was shot with rifles and burned with all the people who were there”.

The pandemic did not end completely until 1920.

After almost a hundred years of the victory over the Spanish Flu, the world was gripped by the panic again, facing a pandemic of the coronavirus infection COVID-19. The outbreak was first reported in Wuhan, China in December 2019, and was declared as a pandemic by the World Health Organization in March 2020. As of February 12, 2021, the pandemic had recorded over 108 million cases worldwide, with more than 2.37 million deaths.

In addition, about 200 thousand cases of infection and 2540 deaths have been recorded in Kazakhstan.


Author: Ayan Aden