The View From Here: Plagues and platitudes

Volodymyr Kish.

The COVID-19 pandemic that is currently wreaking havoc across the world, will undoubtedly go down in history as one of the defining moments of our generation’s time on this earth. There is nothing like the eminent fear of death to make us vividly aware of the fragility of our existence. Before this malicious virus has run its course and is tamed by our scientific and technological efforts, it will have probably resulted in millions of deaths, devastated the lives of countless others, and cost the world’s economies hundreds of billion of dollars.

Here in Canada, we are fortunate that we have a well developed and capable health care system, reasonably competent governments at all levels, and a relatively cohesive and cooperative society, all of which will enable us to weather out the challenge and survive this crisis in reasonable shape. The same cannot be said for many of the world’s less developed and more dysfunctional countries. Ukraine is one these, and as much as their current official COVID-19 statistics are not particularly alarming, I somehow think that before this pandemic ends, Ukraine will be particularly hard hit. Its medical infrastructure is weak and limited, its government is inexperienced and fractious, it is fighting an undeclared war, and in the past month it has experienced the return of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers from some of the hardest hit countries in Europe being ravaged by the virus. That does not bode well at all for what will happen in the coming months.

Ukraine throughout its history has not fared well when it comes to plagues and epidemics. The earliest mention in written Ukrainian history come from 1042 AD during the reign of Yaroslav the Wise. The annals of that time speak of some 7,000 inhabitants of Kyiv dying of some form of plague that year. In the middle of the fourteenth century all of Europe was devastated by the bubonic plague which killed off an estimated one third of all the people of Europe. By 1351 AD, the plague had also reached Ukraine, and though exact figures may be hard to come by, it is estimated that at least a quarter of the population died. The plague, otherwise known as the Black Death kept returning in waves virtually every century until very recent times. In 1572, half of the population of Kyiv succumbed to the disease. The last recorded outburst in Ukraine occurred in 1910 in Odesa.

Of course, the bubonic plague was not the only epidemic to torment Ukraine. For most of the 19th and part of the 20th century, one of the most feared afflictions was cholera, so much so that the word cholera itself, became entrenched in colloquial Ukrainian as one of the most potent swear words or invectives used in anger. There were a number of minor outbreaks early in the 19th century, but cholera gained steam in the aftermath of the Crimean War, with new waves appearing every decade or so throughout southern and western Ukraine. There are accounts of thousands of people dying in Bukovyna and Halychyna during the 1880’s and 1890’s. There was another major outbreak just prior to World War I, when it is said that tens of thousands perished of this particular scourge.

The other major disease with significant fatal consequences was typhus. In my own personal researches to uncover my family’s genealogical records, I have had occasion to pore through Ukrainian parish records on births, deaths and marriages. In the course of these, I was surprised at the large number deaths in the church records that were attributed to typhus. In particular, it was a major cause of death in the late 19th and early 20th century. There was a significant outbreak just after the end of World War I, when tens of thousand died of typhus in Western Ukraine. Military records of that time show that some 25,000 members of the Ukrainian Galician Army alone died of typhus in 1919-20.

One cannot recount any history of pandemics without also referring to the infamous Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-19 that killed off some 50 Million people worldwide. Ukraine was not spared, and though accurate statistics are hard to come by, it was estimated that more than 150,000 Ukrainians died of that infection.

Plagues have been around since mankind first appeared on this earth, and it is likely that those microscopic agents of death will not disappear in the near future. The religious extremists will claim that they are God’s punishment for various sins, the more scientifically inclined will see it as random mutations of genetically driven microbes, and the more fatalistic among us will see it as just another of life’s arbitrary tribulations to be endured and dealt with.

Whatever the case, I am grateful that we are living in a time when we have the knowledge and capability of not only determining what is behind this disease, but also developing solutions and treatments that will check its spread, and eventually eliminate it altogether. Now all we need is for people to behave rationally, and not let their actions be governed by emotions, biases and uninformed opinions.

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