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Coronavirus, Great Pandemics and Georgia: Short Historical Tale

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Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Triumph of Death (detail), c. 1562, Museo del Prado, Madrid

Authors: Prof. Dr. Tedo Dundua, Dr. Apolon Tabuashvili, Dr. Emil Avdaliani

As the world continues to experience deep effects (death rate, economic downturn, slowdown of globalization) of the novel Coronavirus, it is interesting to look at all the pandemics from a historical point of view. Below are several famous epidemics that affected the world and Georgia in Medieval or Modern and Contemporary periods, and which showed the countries making similar coordinated steps to stop them.

In general, after the appearance of very mobile Mongols in Georgia, we often find the facts of the spread of incurable diseases in the historical sources. According to the Georgian chronicler, king David Ulugh fell ill at the fortified frontier during the war between the Golden Horde and the Ilkhanate troops (Kartlis Tskhovreba /History of Georgia/. Editor-in-Chief R. Metreveli. Tb. 2008, p. 607). King David Ulugh and his son Giorgi died from the same disease in 1270 (Kartlis Tskhovreba /History of Georgia/. Editor-in-Chief R. Metreveli, p. 608). According to the opinion established in historiography, David Ulugh’s disease should have been typhus (Studies in History of Georgia /in Georg./. v. III. Tb. 1979, p. 576). King Vakhtang II of Eastern Georgia died from the same disease in 1292 (Kartlis Tskhovreba /History of Georgia/. Editor-in-Chief R. Metreveli, p. 651).  

The Black Death

Information about the appearance of a new epidemic, which later became known as the “Black Death”, came to Europe in 1346 when a plague was reported in the East (V. J. Derbes. De Mussis and the Great Plague of 1348. The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). 196(1). Chicago. 1966, pp. 59-62). The name “Black Death” originated from the specifics of the disease itself as the infection usually turned the skin into black colour with such symptoms such as fever and joint pains.

A year later, in 1347, first signs of the plague appeared in the Crimean Peninsula and the disease was most likely brought by the Tatar (Mongol) armies of Khan Janibeg, ruler of the Golden Hoard, when the latter besieged Caffa (nowadays Feodosya), a town which served as an important commercial Genoese city. According to the account of the contemporary, Gabriele de’ Mussi, the infection spread among the Mongol troops from man to man or from rats to humans (M. Wheelis. Biological Warfare at the 1346 Siege of Caffa. Historical Review. Vol. 8, No. 9. Atlanta. 2002, pp. 971-975). It is believed that the Mongols catapulted the corpses of the infected over the city walls, infecting those inside and poisoning wells (V. J. Derbes. De Mussis and the Great Plague of 1348. JAMA, pp. 59-62).

Caffa’s trade relations with the Mediterranean conditioned a quick spread of the disease to Europe via Italy. It is believed that the infection was carried by rats on Genoese commercial vessels sailing from Caffa to Italy.

In the wake of the Black Death, socio-economic relations across much of Europe and Middle East drastically changed. A major reason was a near obliteration of 1/3 of the population (some think about as mush as ½ of the entire populace) of Europe (N. Johnson. M. Koyama. Negative Shocks and Mass Persecutions: Evidence from the Black Death. Journal of Economic Growth. vol. 24(4). Heidelberg. 2019, pp. 345-395). Cities and entire villages turned empty – the process which impacted the existing economic relations between cities and the village. On a positive side though, the Black Death pandemic helped to develop early stages for modern medicine paving the way for hospital-like management.

Because of Caffa’s trade relations with Sebastopolis/Sokhumi in Georgia, simultaneously with the mass spread of the Black Death plague in Europe, the pandemic reached Georgia during the reign of David IX (1346-1360). The spread of the Black Death in the country is confirmed by one note of 1348 – in the country with great hardship, there was also “great death” (Ф. Д. Жордания. Описание рукописей Тифлисского церковного музея карталино-кахетинского духовенства. II. Тифлис. 1902. № 575), which, most likely, means the spread of the Black Death. And great hardship means that agriculture and commerce were depleted, and the state borders were closed. The deadly pandemic spread in Georgia in the 1340s and lasted for a long time. According to  Georgian historian prince Vakhushti, the epidemic was widespread during the early reign of David IX’s successor, Bagrat V (1360-1393), and its scale was so wide that even the queen died along with many others (Kartlis Tskhovreba /History of Georgia/. v. IV. Editor S. Kaukhchishvili. Tb. 1973, p. 262).

The epidemic of plague appeared from time to time in Georgia in later periods too and had devastating consequences for the population, e.g., the epidemic spread in the capital Tbilisi in 1770, caused the death of the fifth of the population.

This fact is described in detail by the German traveler Johann Anton Güldenstädt, who notes that churches and cemeteries in Tbilisi occupy a large place in the already small area for the 20000 inhabitants. Overpopulated and downhill location on the clay soil of the city, which is completely swallowed up during the rain, and has no drainage, existence of the cemeteries, poor police, which allows the streets to be covered with garbage, and so on, – [All this] poisons the air, so dysentery, malignant fever and epidemics, as well as plague, are not uncommon. In 1770 the latter killed 4000 inhabitants. Great mortality would have increased even more if the houses had not been ventilated because of bad doors, paper windows, fireplaces, and so on. There is always air circulation. In 1770 during the plague the sick were mostly taken to the streets, and it was observed that there were relatively more of them left alive than those lying in the house (Johannes Gueldenstaedtius. Peregrinatio Georgica. Tomus Prior. Textum Germanicum cum Conversione Georgica Edidit Commentariisque Instruxit G. Gelašvili. Tb. 1962, p. 89).

The fact of the 1770 epidemic is mentioned by one of the Baratashvilis who notes that the king left the city, he himself took his sick son to the village, where the latter recovered by virtue of the healthy air (Materials for History of Georgia and the Caucasus /in Georg./. Part 28. Tb. 1950, p. 57).

As we can see, Georgians with a plague were moved to the streets. At the same time, they were taken away from the city to the countryside because there was more chance of healing them in the fresh air. People with the disease were given certain medicines too. And the main way to protect healthy population from an epidemic was to stay away from the place where disease was spread.

The disease spread in Tbilisi at the end of the 18th century, but its scale was not large. As prince Alexander reported from Tbilisi on November 21, 1797, to his mother, queen Darejan, the disease was in Ganja and Karabakh, while in Tbilisi only one person died (Antiquities of Georgia /in Georg./. v. III. Editor E. Takaishvili. Tb. 1910, p. 226). Despite its small spread, the plague was there in the country until the spring of 1798 (Platon Ioseliani. Life of Giorgi XIII. Editor A. Gatserelia. Tb. 1978, p. 51), and that is why the pompously planned funeral ceremony of Erekle II, king of Eastern Georgia, was held in a rather modest way.

In the early 19th century, quarantine was introduced in three places (Garetubani, Ortachala and Avlabari) around Tbilisi to prevent the spread of the disease (Data for the Early 19th Century History of Georgia: Joseph Shagubatov – Description of the Internal Situation of East Georgia and Imereti. The Georgian Translation of the Russian Text, Research, Commentaries, Indices and Facsimiles are Presented for Publishing by A. Tabuashvili and G. Zhuzhunasvili. Tb. 2015, p. 25). Nevertheless, the plague epidemic hit Georgia in 1804, killing 1570 people (J. Samushia. Sergei Tuchkov’s References About Georgia /in Georg. with Engl. summary/. Proceedings of Institute of Georgian History, Faculty of Humanities, Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University. XI. Tb. 2016, p. 200).

Particularly devastating was the plague of 1811 in Western Georgia, which was brought to the country by Russian soldiers fighting the Ottomans. More than 30000 people died in Western Georgia alone as a result of the epidemic. The disease also spread to Eastern Georgia, killing several thousand people there (Studies in History of Georgia /in Georg./. v. IV. Tb. 1973, p. 921).

Smallpox Disease

Another great pandemic was smallpox.  Large-scale death rates were reported in the 18th century in Europe, where in some years around 400000 people died annually of smallpox. Moreover, one-third of the survivors went blind (A. Geddes. The History of Smallpox. Clinics in Dermatology. 24. Birmingham. 2006, pp. 152-157). The recurrent smallpox epidemic also caused various attempts to combat smallpox till the discovery of inoculation as an effective vaccination.

The smallpox epidemic was spreading from time to time in Georgia too. One of the historical documents mentions the smallpox epidemic. This document is a letter of Erekle II, compiled on May 11, 1772, and addressed to commander Revaz Amilakhvari. In it, among other things, it is mentioned that the smallpox was spread in Tbilisi and the royal family had to leave the city (The Documents Issued by Erekle II. 1736-1797. Editor M. Chumburidze. Tb. 2008, p. 82).

Güldenstädt also mentions this fact and informs us about the method of preventing the spreading of smallpox: “On May 15 (1772) more than 100 children were inoculated, and I especially watched my house owner’s 6-year-old healthy boy and girl who was not even a year old… One week before the illness and during the illness children are not given meat, fish and rice, they are given only wheat bread and milk; however, breast, horse and donkey’s milk are considered the healthiest, while cow’s milk is considered the most useless. The inoculator made not deep, bloody, cross-shaped incision, 1/2 inch in size, in the groove between the thumb and forefinger with the tip of a large knife; he would lift the tip of a knife into the horn, where the smallpox serum was, clean the blood with a cotton swab, and put a poisoned knife on the wound, then he used to put cotton on a wound, and wrap it in a piece of cloth. The children usually had fresh air and recovered before May 19, with three freckles on the wound. On May 22, they became swollen and white, on May 23 they joined each other. The children were not sick, and the boy ran barefoot. On this day I went out of town and returned on the 2nd of June; I met the boy recovered and learned that he had no more freckles…” (Johannes Gueldenstaedtius. Peregrinatio Georgica. Tomus Prior, p. 63-65).

According to Güldenstädt, on May 23, 1772, he visited the king’s son, prince Yulon, who had been given a smallpox inoculation a few days earlier (Johannes Gueldenstaedtius. Peregrinatio Georgica. Tomus Prior, p. 67).

As we can see, during the spread of the smallpox epidemic in Georgia in the 18th century, the way to protect oneself was to keep a distance from the place of the epidemic. The vaccine, according to Güldenstädt, was quite effective at the time.

From 20th century pandemics to the Coronavirus

In 1918 a new flu pandemic launched worldwide. The outbreak was devastating, causing millions to die, more than the World War I casualties. During new experiments upon the old virus strain, it was proved that the 1918 pandemic was caused by an influenza A – subtype H1N1 progenitor strain (G. Tsoucalas, A. Kousoulis, M. Sgantzos. The 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic, the Origins of the H1N1-virus Strain, a Glance in History. European Journal of Clinical and Biomedical Sciences (EJCBS). 2(4). New York. 2016, pp. 23-28).

The next major pandemic was and has remained (though under control) since then is HIV/AIDS. Most likely HIV originated in Kinshasa, Congo in the 1920s (HIV spread from chimpanzees to humans). Up until the 1980s, we do not know how many people were infected with HIV or developed AIDS. HIV was unknown and transmission was not accompanied by noticeable signs or symptoms. By 1980, HIV spread to five continents killing hundreds of thousands of people (P. Sharp, B. Hahn. Origins of HIV and the AIDS pandemic. Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Medicine. 1.  Huntington. 2011, pp. 1-21).

In the early 21st century, there were other major epidemics too such as Ebola and H1N1 paving the way for the novel coronavirus – a major epidemic that covers the entire globe affects billions of people and stagnates the world economy (many similarities with the Medieval period).

Though the above pandemics took place in different historical periods, there are many similarities in how various world regions, whether it is Georgia, Western European states or Middle East countries, responded to the outbreaks. Nowadays, in the increasingly interconnected world, it is the World Health Organization that coordinates the work on battling/preventing global or local epidemics.

Author’s note: First published in Georgia Today

Prof. Dr. Tedo Dundua is the Director of the Institute of Georgian History, Faculty of Humanities, at the Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University.

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Eastern Europe

Unhappy Iran Battles for Lost Influence in South Caucasus

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Events that might not matter elsewhere in the world matter quite a lot in the South Caucasus. Given a recent history of conflict, with all the bad feelings that generates, plus outside powers playing geostrategic games, and its growing importance as an energy corridor between Europe and Central Asia, the region is vulnerable. 

This has been worsened by the two-year-long Western absence of engagement. In 2020, Europe and the U.S. were barely involved as the second Nagorno-Karabakh war broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan, leaving about 7,000 dead. With tensions now on the rise between Azerbaijan and Iran, Western uninterest is again evident, even though this might have wider ramifications for future re-alignment in the South Caucasus. 

The drumbeat of Iranian activity against Azerbaijan has been consistent in recent months. Iran is getting increasingly edgy about Israel’s presence in the South Caucasus — hardly surprising given Israel’s painfully well-targeted assassination and computer hacking campaigns against nuclear staff and facilities — and especially its growing security and military ties with Azerbaijan, with whom Iran shares a 765km (430 mile) border. Iran has also voiced concern about the presence in the region of Turkish-backed Syrian mercenaries, who were used as Azeri assault troops last year.  

Much of the anger has been played out in military exercises. The Azeri military has been busy since its victory, exercising near the strategic Lachin corridor which connects the separatist region to Armenia, and in the Caspian Sea, where it has jointly exercised with Turkish personnel. Iran, in turn, sent units to the border region this month for drills of an unstated scale. 

This week, the Azeri and Iranian foreign ministers agreed to dial down the rhetoric amid much talk of mutual understanding. Whether that involved promises regarding the Israeli presence or a pledge by Iran to abandon a newly promised road to Armenia was not stated. 

Iran’s behavior is a recognition of the long-term strategic changes caused by the Armenian defeat last year. Iran has been sidelined. Its diplomatic initiatives have failed, and it has been unwelcome in post-conflict discussions. 

It is true that Iran was never a dominant power in the South Caucasus. Unlike Russia or Turkey, the traditional power brokers, it has not had a true ally. Iran was certainly part of the calculus for states in the region, but it was not feared, like Russia or Turkey. And yet, the South Caucasus represents an area of key influence, based on millennia of close political and cultural contacts. 

Seen in this light, it is unsurprising that Iran ratcheted up tensions with Azerbaijan. Firstly, this reasserted the involvement of the Islamic Republic in the geopolitics of the South Caucasus. It was also a thinly-veiled warning to Turkey that its growing ambitions and presence in the region are seen as a threat. In Iran’s view, Turkey’s key role as an enabler of Azeri irridentism is unmistakable. 

Turkish involvement has disrupted the foundations of the South Caucasian status quo established in the 1990s. To expect Turkey to become a major power there is an overstretch, but it nevertheless worries Iran. For example, the recent Caspian Sea exercises between Azerbaijan and Turkey appear to run counter to a 2018 agreement among the sea’s littoral states stipulating no external military involvement. 

The Caspian Sea has always been regarded by Iranians as an exclusive zone shared first with the Russian Empire, later the Soviets, and presently the Russian Federation. Other littoral states play a minor role. This makes Turkish moves in the basin and the recent improvement of ties between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan an unpleasant development for Iran — fewer barriers to the Trans-Caspian Pipeline threatens the Islamic Republic’s ability to block the project.  

This is where Iranian views align almost squarely with the Kremlin’s. Both fear Turkish progress and new energy routes. The new Iranian leadership might now lean strongly toward Russia. With Russia’s backing, opposition to Turkey would become more serious; Iran’s foreign minister said this month that his country was seeking a “big jump” in relations with Russia. 

The fact is that the region is increasingly fractured and is being pulled in different directions by the greater powers around it. This state of affairs essentially dooms the prospects of pan-regional peace and cooperation initiatives. Take the latest effort by Russia and Turkey to introduce a 3+3 platform with Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, as well as Iran. Beyond excluding the West, disagreements will eventually preclude any meaningful progress. There is no unity of purpose between the six states and there are profound disagreements. 

Thus, trouble will at some point recur between Iran and Azerbaijan, and by extension Turkey. Given the current situation, and Iran’s visible discontent, it is likely it will take some kind of initiative lest it loses completely its position to Turkey and Russia. 

Author’s note: first published in cepa

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Eastern Europe

Right-wing extremist soldiers pose threat to Lithuania

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It is no secret that Lithuania has become a victim of German army’s radicalization. Could this country count on its partners further or foreign military criminals threaten locals?

It is well known that Germany is one of the largest provider of troops in NATO. There are about 600 German troops in Lithuania, leading a Nato battlegroup. According to Lithuanian authorities, Lithuania needs their support to train national military and to protect NATO’s Central and Northern European member states on NATO’s eastern flank.

Two sides of the same coin should be mentioned when we look at foreign troops in Lithuania.

Though Russian threat fortunately remains hypothetical, foreign soldiers deployed in the country cause serious trouble. Thus, the German defence minister admitted that reported this year cases of racist and sexual abuse in a German platoon based in Lithuania was unacceptable.

Members of the platoon allegedly filmed an incident of sexual assault against another soldier and sang anti-Semitic songs. Later more allegations emerged of sexual and racial abuse in the platoon, including soldiers singing a song to mark Adolf Hitler’s birthday on 20 April this year.

It turned out that German media report that far-right abuses among the Lithuania-based troops had already surfaced last year. In one case, a soldier allegedly racially abused a non-white fellow soldier. In another case, four German soldiers smoking outside a Lithuanian barracks made animal noises when a black soldier walked past.

Lithuania’s Defence Minister Arvydas Anušauskas said later that the investigation was carried out by Germany and that Lithuania was not privy to its details. The more so, Lithuania is not privy to its details even now. “We are not being informed about the details of the investigation. […] The Lithuanian military is not involved in the investigation, nor can it be,” Anušauskas told reporters, stressing that Germany was in charge of the matter.

Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer, German defence minister, said that these misdeeds would be severely prosecuted and punished. Time has passed, and the details are not still known.

It should be said Germany has for years struggled to modernize its military as it becomes more involved in Nato operations. Nevertheless problems existed and have not been solved yet. According to the annual report on the state of the Bundeswehr made in 2020 by Hans-Peter Bartel, then armed forces commissioner for the German Bundestag, Germany’s army “has too little materiel, too few personnel and too much bureaucracy despite a big budget increase.” Mr Bartels’ report made clear that the Bundeswehr continues to be plagued by deep-seated problems. Recruitment remains a key problem. Mr Bartels said 20,000 army posts remained unfilled, and last year the number of newly recruited soldiers stood at just over 20,000, 3,000 fewer than in 2017. The other problem is radicalization of the armed forces.

Apparently, moral requirements for those wishing to serve in the German army have been reduced. Federal Volunteer Military Service Candidate must be subjected to a thorough medical examination. Desirable to play sports, have a driver’s license and be able to eliminate minor malfunctions in the motor, to speak at least one foreign language, have experience of communicating with representatives of other nationalities, be initiative and independent. After the general the interview follows the establishment of the candidate’s suitability for service in certain types of armed forces, taking into account his wishes. Further candidate passes a test on a computer. He will be asked if he wants study a foreign language and attend courses, then serve in German French, German-Dutch formations or institutions NATO.

So, any strong and healthy person could be admitted, even though he or she could adhere to far-right views or even belong to neo-Nazi groups. Such persons served in Lithuania and, probably, serve now and pose a real threat to Lithuanian military, local population. Neo-Nazism leads to cultivating racial inequalities. The main goal of the neo-Nazis is to cause disorder and chaos in the country, as well as to take over the army and security organs. Lithuanian authorities should fully realize this threat and do not turn a blind eye to the criminal behaviour of foreign military in Lithuania. There is no room to excessive loyalty in this case.

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Eastern Europe

Lithuanian foreign policy: Image is everything

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It seems as if Lithuanian government takes care of its image in the eyes of EU and NATO partners much more than of its population. Over the past year Lithuania managed to quarrel with such important for its economy states like China and Belarus, condemned Hungary for the ban on the distribution of images of LGBT relationships among minors, Latvia and Estonia for refusing to completely cut energy from Belarus. Judging by the actions of the authorities, Lithuania has few tools to achieve its political goals. So, it failed to find a compromise and to maintain mutually beneficial relations with economic partners and neighbours. The authorities decided to achieve the desired results by demanding from EU and NATO member states various sanctions for those countries that, in their opinion, are misbehaving.

Calling for sanctions and demonstrating its “enduring political will”, Lithuania exposed the welfare of its own population. Thus, district heating prices will surge by around 30 percent on average across Lithuania.

The more so, prices for biofuels, which make up 70 percent of heat production on average, are now about 40 higher than last year, Taparauskas, a member of the National Energy Regulatory Council (VERT) said.

“Such a huge jump in prices at such a tense time could threaten a social crisis and an even greater increase in tensions in society. We believe that the state must take responsibility for managing rising prices, especially given the situation of the most vulnerable members of society and the potential consequences for them. All the more so as companies such as Ignitis or Vilnius heating networks “has not only financial resources, but also a certain duty again,” sums up Lukas Tamulynas, the chairman of the LSDP Momentum Vilnius movement.

It should be said, that according to the Lithuanian Department of Statistics, prices for consumer goods and services have been rising for the eighth month in a row. According to the latest figures, the annual inflation rate is five percent.

Earlier it became known that in 2020 every fifth inhabitant of Lithuania was below the poverty risk line.

Pensioners are considered one of the most vulnerable groups in Lithuania. In 2019, Lithuania was included in the top five EU anti-leaders in terms of poverty risk for pensioners. The share of people over 65 at risk of poverty was 18.7 percent.

In such situation sanctions imposed on neighbouring countries which tightly connected to Lithuanian economy and directly influence the welfare of people in Lithuania are at least damaging. The more so, according Vladimir Andreichenko, the speaker of the House of Representatives of the Belarus parliament, “the unification of the economic potentials of Minsk and Moscow would be a good response to sanctions.” It turned out that Lithuania itself makes its opponents stronger. Such counter-productiveness is obvious to everyone in Lithuania except for its authorities.

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