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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

Conflict in Ukraine is doomed to escalate

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The meet-up location of NATO foreign ministers on November 29-30— Bucharest — was where ten years ago, former US President George W. Bush persuaded America’s transatlantic partners that Ukraine and Georgia should one day join their military alliance. The foreign ministers duly “reaffirmed” that decision yesterday and left it at that. 

However, their statement on the conflict in Ukraine emphatically stated that the NATO “will never recognise” Russia’s incorporation of four Ukrainian regions and underscored the alliance’s resolve to “continue and further step up political and practical support” to Kiev. 

The NATO General-Secretary Jens Stoltenberg who is the mouthpiece of Washington, warned that despite Ukraine’s bravery and progress on the ground, Russia retains strong military capabilities and a large number of troops, and the alliance will continue to support Kiev for “as long as it takes … we will not back down.” 

Such pronouncements betray the absence of any new thinking although developments on the ground are showing that Washington’s best-laid plans are floundering. And there are also growing signs of disunity on Ukraine issue among the US’ European allies and between the latter and the Biden Administration.

The neocons in the Biden team who are the driving force in the Beltway are still full of passionate intensity. The flicker of hope that the moderate opinion voiced in the famous statement by 30 Democratic lawmakers recently was brusquely snuffed out. 

Moscow has drawn appropriate conclusions too, as evident in the Russian Foreign Ministry stance that it makes no sense in the prevailing climate of unremitting hostility from Washington to hold the Bilateral Consultative Commission under the Russia-US New START Treaty, which was   originally scheduled to take place in Cairo on November 29 – December 6.   

Again, nothing much need be expected out of the French President Emmanuel Macron’s meeting with President Biden at the White House tomorrow. Macron still hopes to be the western leader to accept President Putin’s surrender terms and go down in history books, but in reality his credibility is in shatters in Europe and Atlanticist circles in particular, and even within France. 

Europe’s number one priority at this juncture, which is a turning point in the conflict in Ukraine, ought to be its strategic autonomy to act in its own interests. But that requires deep thinking as to what is it that Europe wants to be autonomous about, and secondly, the understanding that deep down, a strategic interest cannot be reduced to security interests. 

In our new Hobbesian world, a world of competing economic zones, Europe’s first goal should be to achieve strategic economic autonomy. But is that goal attainable anymore when its energy security that gave underpinning to its prosperity and industrial might has been smashed to smithereens in the depths of the Baltic Sea by unseen hands? 

Be that as it may, the unfolding events in Ukraine are sure to create a new dynamic. The visible acceleration of the Russian offensive in Bakhmut in the most recent weeks is dramatically shortening the timeline for the capture of the city from several weeks ahead to the next few days at the most. Similar signs are appearing in Maryinka and Ugledar in the Donbass region, too. 

If Bakhmut is the lynchpin of the Ukrainian defence line in Donbass, Maryinka is from where Ukrainian forces are bombarding Donetsk city; and, the capture of Ugledar will enable the Russian forces to move toward Zaporozhye city and conclusively ward off any future challenge to the land bridge to Crimea and to the ports in the Azov Sea. 

The common thread here is that the ongoing beefing up of the Russian forces deployed in Donbass after the mobilisation of nearly 400,000 soldiers is beginning to show its first results. For once, Russian forces are outnumbering Ukraine’s and Russian fortifications have been significantly strengthened. 

The fall of Bakhmut will signal that the Battle of Donbass, which is the Russian special military operation’s leitmotif, is entering its final phase. The Ukrainian defence line in Donbass is crumbling. Russian control of Donbass is at hand in a conceivable future. 

What happens next? The Russian objective may be to push the Ukrainian forces further away from the Donbass region and keep the steppes to the east of Dnieper river as a buffer zone. Indeed, the Dnipropetrovsk oblast is also rich in mineral resources, containing large deposits of iron ore, manganese ore, titanium-zirconium ore, uranium, anthracite coal, natural gas and oil and lignite coal and is the major centre of Ukraine’s steel industry, apart from being a region of intensive grain growing, animal husbandry, and dairy industry. Its loss will be a crippling blow to Kiev.  In political terms, the narrative of victory in Kiev — that Ukraine is winning the war and is about to capture Crimea, etc. — is becoming unsustainable for much longer. 

Meanwhile, Europe too is struggling with its demons — unable to shake off the idea of a price cap on Russian oil that is sure to boomerang and further aggravate Europe’s energy security; need to step up imports of LNG from Russia still, which is far cheaper than from America; Europe not being in a position to respond to the launch of the highly consequential inflation reduction act in the US or  migration of European industry to America; EU’s inability to strengthen the international role of the euro for absorbing some of the world’s surplus savings, and so on. 

Therefore, at this defining moment faced with an imminent escalation of the conflict in Ukraine in the coming weeks, the neocons in the US are having their way to step up the arms supplies to Ukraine. The neocons invariably win the turf battles in the Beltway, especially under a weak president. If the Republicans step up the investigations on Biden, his dependency on the neocons will only increase during the period ahead. 

The regime-change-in-Russia propaganda is not going to wither away even under the emerging stark realities of the emerging ground situation in Ukraine. The neocons’ aim, as the investigative historian Eric Zuesse put it succinctly, is “to destroy Russia so fast that Russia won’t be able to destroy America in retaliation.” The sheer absurdity of the thought is self-evident to everyone but the neocons. So, they are going to argue now that the cardinal mistake the US made in Ukraine was its failure to put boots on the ground in that country in 2015 itself.

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Eastern Europe

UK Special Services continue to provoke an aggravation of the situation near the Black Sea

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British foreign secretary James Cleverly in Kiev with president Zelensky.

Russian precision attacks against Ukrainian infrastructure are a necessary response to Ukrainian sabotage on Russian soil, including the bombing of the Crimean Bridge, President Vladimir Putin told German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. The two leaders spoke by phone at Berlin’s request.

Putin explained the logic behind Russia’s military operation against Ukraine which has started military aggression against Donbass in 2014 and later against Russia in 2022, and stated that the Western policy of arming and training Ukrainian troops was “destructive.”

“It was noted that the Russian Armed Forces had been refraining from conducting precision missile strikes on certain targets in the Ukrainian territory for a long time, but now such measures have become necessary and unavoidable as a reaction to Kiev’s provocative attacks on Russian civilian infrastructure, including the Crimean Bridge and energy facilities.” The “terrorist attack” against the Nord Stream undersea pipelines “stands in the same category” and requires a transparent investigation that would include Russia, Putin told the German leader.

– Belarusian and Russian troops will act as a unified force. The two countries don’t want war, but are preparing to “repel any aggression, – Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has announced amid heightened tensions with the West over the Ukraine large-scale aggression against Donbass in 2014 and later against Russia in 2022. “Today we are preparing like a single force, a single army,” Lukashenko said, adding that instructors from both countries were training each other’s troops.

Lukashenko underlined that the situation around Belarusian border is ‘tense’. The country’s security agencies have registered an increase in the number of “provocations.”

– Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu called Belarus a “trustworthy partner” for Russia during a meeting with Viktor Khrenin, his Belarusian counterpart. Two ministers signed a revised version of a Regional Security Treaty between the two governments on December 3.

– Western European states are creating a dangerous situation by trying to exclude Russian and Belarus from the continent’s security order, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned. He accused EU leaders of allowing the US to dictate policy, and surrendering their own interests to Washington, and claimed that EU policy is creating insecurity on the continent. The West “is already trying to build a security architecture [in Europe] without Russia and Belarus. We don’t need such security,” Lavrov said. “The whole security [architecture] in Europe now comes down to it being completely subservient to the USA,” he claimed.

– Kiev plotting provocation on ammonia transit from Russia. The grain deal, as a part of a UN- and Turkey-brokered agreement that unblocked exports of Ukrainian grain and Russian fertilizers in the Black Sea, did not reportedly cover exports of Russian ammonia via the Tolyatti-Odessa pipeline. However, earlier, a UN-aid chief said that the ammonia deal would likely be reached by the end of the week.

Kiev  has been given a free passage of its grain deliveries abroad via the Black Sea under the multilateral deal reached last July, but is plotting a provocation to subvert the UN initiative on resumption of Russia’s ammonia transit abroad free of charge.

Guided by UK Special Services, and with help from Canada’s private military company (PMC) GardaWorld, the provocation is to echo the blasts carried out at Nord Stream pipelines in the Baltic Sea. The goal, like in the case of the September 2022 sabotage at the pipelines, is to prevent Russia from exporting its resources to other countries.

The Kiev regime’s plan reportedly presupposes blowing up ammonia storage facilities at Odessa Portside Plant, to subsequently blame Russia for the explosion.

From our partner International Affairs

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Eastern Europe

It Is Possible To Live Peacefully In The Caucasus

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The Caucasus is a geographical area inhabited by a number of peoples. This region with its beautiful nature has experienced complicated events throughout history. The South Caucasus, which is also the historical homeland of the Azerbaijanis, has gone through difficult periods over the past periods, which shaped the current map.

December 5th marks the Day of Deportation of Western Azerbaijanis from their native lands. The policy of ethnic cleansing systematically carried out against Azerbaijanis throughout the 20th century resulted in the forced deportation of the last Azerbaijanis from the territory of West Azerbaijan in 1988-1991.

The vast majority of our compatriots displaced from their native lands on the territory of present-day Armenia at various times died longing for their homes. About 250,000 of the Azerbaijanis, who were subjected to deportation in 1988-1991, are still longing for their homes and native lands. Those people are deprived of their fundamental rights – the right to live in the lands of their birth and to visit the graves of their relatives.

Unfortunately, the rich cultural and historical heritage of West Azerbaijanis was purposefully destroyed or alienated. The destruction of cemeteries belonging to Azerbaijanis is very heartbreaking. The destruction of a monument belonging to the world heritage means the destruction of a historical object and the infliction of damage to human history. International organizations, especially UNESCO, which should react sharply to such cases, are still keeping mum. A possible just position by UNESCO, its deployment of a fact-finding mission to the monuments, which belong to West Azerbaijanis and are in danger of being wiped out, as well as their registration and ensuring their safeguarding, would be very useful for human history.

Today, West Azerbaijanis are dreaming of returning to their homes and native lands, where they were deported, and reuniting with their homeland.

The community of those people declares readiness for peaceful coexistence in their native lands in Armenia. “We desire to return to our homes and visit the graves of our loved ones. Taking into account the ongoing positive processes for peaceful coexistence of 25,000 people of Armenian origin in the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan and being inspired by it, we believe that coexistence in the territory of Armenia may be possible”, Western Azerbaijani Community members state.   

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