Coronavirus – lessons of past plagues

Coronavirus has been a huge shock. But history is brimming with pandemics and plagues. So, what can we learn from them?

Here’s the bad news first.

Diseases like Coronavirus have an amazingly long history

Viruses have been part of our evolutionary history since we stood on two feet and spread out of Africa. Viruses are not strangers – they have been with us for millions of years – and more than likely, will be with us forever.

Coronavirus isn’t a wholly new phenomenon or a moral judgment on our species – as some seem to suggest (on Twitter for example) – it’s just the latest manifestation of a long running phenomenon.

Here’s the really freaky thing – because of the way in which viruses hijack our cells and mess us up – they have probably played a role in our evolution as a species. So close is our relationship to viruses, that they could even be manipulated in the future to cure cancer or genetic disorders. Small comfort now.

But while the Coronavirus is taking a terrible toll – we could one day harness viruses to be a force for good. Basically instructing a virus to do something useful in our bodies instead of harming us. That’s the science of tomorrow – so what about the impact viruses have had on us in history.

Ancient Greek history – disease with a Coronavirus like impact

A catastrophe like a plague can be absorbed by a civilisation in otherwise robust health. But at a critical moment, it can have a devastating impact. The trouble is – pandemics in history often seem to occur when or because of a broader crisis. So – we know that ancient Athens was racked by plague in 430BC at the height of the Peloponessian War – which killed the great Greek leader and statesman Pericles.

Pericles – died of plague

Plague after plague in the Roman Empire

History shows us that the greatest empire of them all could succumb to the equivalent of Coronavirus and its might and majesty provided no cure.

The Roman Empire saw two huge plagues at turning points in its history. The Antonine plague of the second century AD came at the end of a period of relative stability but now the eastern frontier with Persia was becoming increasingly problematic. And it’s possible that returning soldiers from those battlefields brought the disease back into the heart of Rome.

In the following century, the Plague of Cyprian (recorded by a bishop called Cyprian) bore all the hallmarks of an influenza-driven pandemic. Cyprian wrote about fevers, the passing of blood and aching limbs. When all factors are taken into consideration, it seems the Romans at that time succumbed to an Ebola type of disease. It came at a time when the empire was divided and at war on many fronts – when its usual reserves of vitality were severely depleted.

Spanish Flu – a Coronavirus type pandemic in history

Today in 2020, the British prime minister Boris Johnson contracted the Coronavirus. But he’s not the first leader of the United Kingdom to have fallen victim to a pandemic. In 1918, the news was hushed up that the then Prime Minister Lloyd George – who had just led the country to victory in World War One – had contracted the deadly Spanish Flu.

I was never told about this studying the “Great War” as a child in the 1970s. Britain had just beaten Germany after a four year war and the establishment didn’t want anybody to know that the Prime Minister was flat on his back in bed attached to a ventilator. Ironically, he may have picked up this disease during the many celebrations at the end of the war. And tragically, the Spanish Flu ended up killing more people than died in the trenches.

David Lloyd George – British leader who got deadly flu

The tragedy of HIV/AIDS

The societal impact of a virus can ultimately be positive despite the terrible human cost. HIV/AIDS was an appalling illness that ripped through the gay community in the 1980s. I knew two men who died of AIDS and that was immensely tragic. But the virus forced gay identity to the top of the media agenda. Initially that was a negative. Gay people were accused of spreading a plague.

But within the gay community it built a gritty determination and anger to break through and demand tolerance and acceptance. And among the wider population, gay people went from largely invisible to highly visible. Families were forced to realise that a son, father or cousin was gay – because they finally had the courage to come out.

The Coronavirus has up-ended our lives. There’s already a mass of academic content on how things will be different. The state looks set to play a bigger role. Populism in politics will be in the dock. Experts may come back into fashion. And so on. Let’s see!

Russia and fake news – a long history!

Russia and fake news go together like a horse and carriage it would seem. Troll factories in St Petersburg and elsewhere pump out messaging intended to undermine confidence in democracy and western values. And with some success.

The mundanely titled Internet Research Agency in St Petersburg is a global centre of disinformation. But this kind of manufacturing of misinformation on an industrial scale isn’t knew for Russia. They have been dealing in fake news since the Soviet era.

Russia spreading fake news about AIDS in the 1980s

The disinformation and twisting of facts has a longer pedigree in Russia than you might think. The tricks were actually developed in the pre-digital Soviet Union and have simply transferred across to the internet. One story from the 1980s shows how this kind of disinformation has been around for a while.

When AIDS first emerged at the beginning of the 80s, the Soviets decided to implicate the US as the main culprit. The KGB, the Soviet secret police, set about planting stories that would blame American interests for the spread of the HIV/AIDS virus.

‘Active measures’ – the Soviet forerunner of fake news from Russia

This kind of disinformation was referred to as “active measures” by the CIA. It was believed the Soviets spent about three billion dollars a year on disinformation initiatives.

In the pre-digital 1980s and before, the Soviets used TV, radio, newspapers, embassies and supposed experts to carry the false lines. To be successful, active measures had to include a germ of truth – that was exaggerated and distorted.

The stories also had to tap into widespread public anxieties and suspicions. So with AIDS, why not exploit fears about secret labs developing germ warfare experiments and people being secretly and unknowingly tested with deadly viruses?

On 17 July, 1983, a letter appeared in a small circulation Indian newspaper called The Patriot alleging that the AIDS virus was a result of Pentagon backed tests to develop new biological weapons.

Just to make sure the Indian readership of this newspaper sat up and took notice, the letter added that these tests were being moved to Pakistan, secretly of course. And there would be a danger of this toxic virus spreading across the border to India.

This was all laced with true facts about AIDS and the US biological weapons program. And the Soviets always made sure to pepper falsifications with lots of verifiable data – that would convince the end user it must be true.

False media titles spread fake news for Russia

How did this letter get published so easily? Well, the KGB had set up The Patriot in 1967 for the purpose of circulating pro-Soviet stories in India. Why did the Soviets circulate such an immoral story? Because they were coming under attack for their own biological weapons research!

Soviet news sources now began to circulate the story quoting the letter from a mysterious American scientist in….The Patriot. Now all that was required was an unwitting agent within the scientific community to endorse the allegation. And the KGB couldn’t believe its luck when a retired East German biophysicist Professor Jakob Segal became an enthusiastic proponent of the lie.

Actually, luck had nothing to do with it – the Soviets got their opposite numbers in the East German secret police, the Stasi, to reach out to Segal and brief him in a friendly and informal manner. He was not to feel used and manipulated. Instead, he would buy into the story himself – of his own volition.

A useful idiot to spread fake news for mother Russia

Segal was a committed communist. That said, it’s unlikely he believed that he was simply a tool of the Kremlin. All the evidence points to an intelligent man who became completely convinced that the United States had indeed unleashed the AIDS virus from one of its laboratories. In a pamphlet called AIDS – its nature and origin, Segal rejected the idea that AIDS had started in Africa and pointed the finger of blame firmly at the US.

How did the virus spread to the LGBT community? Segal claimed that US scientists had experimented on gay prisoners. They had then spread it through unprotected sex with partners on the scene in New York and San Francisco.

By placing the origin of AIDS in the US, Segal’s views were enthusiastically taken up by sections of the African media. Yet there were clearly African victims – so how had they been infected? A notorious variant on the Soviet lie was developed in a Nigerian newspaper in 1988 that the Americans had tested dodgy polio vaccines on poor Africans in the 1960s.

The Soviets pushed their line through every offline medium: newspapers, radio, TV, handbills, rumours, etc. By 1987, it had popped up in over 200 publications in 25 languages. Segal was given virtually uncritical coverage in British newspapers.

North Korea chipped in with a scare campaign that US soldiers in South Korea were spreading AIDS while broadcasts in Turkish from within the USSR said US bases in Turkey were a health risk.

Russia has second thoughts about its own fake news!

But…the USSR began to have second thoughts. Cases of HIV/AIDS were appearing within the Soviet Union and scientists there openly argued against the Segal view.

Gradually, the Kremlin realised that any political capital to be made out of this disinformation campaign was heavily outweighed by the growing public health problem within their own society. The Soviets needed to be sharing information with scientists in the west to combat the virus instead of trashing them with this AIDS fabrication.

So on this occasion, the story was allowed to quietly die.