Coronavirus and the Black Plague
Coronavirus and the Black Plague

It is now a month since the world was hit by the coronavirus crisis that initially originated in China. In the Far East, in countries such as China, South Korea, Japan and others, there are large numbers of people who have been infected and the disease, hitching a ride with tourists and businessmen, is appearing in country after country, among them Israel.

China, where the disease made its debut and then was revealed to the world, is being blamed for the situation, resulting in significant damage to the country's financial situation and placing it on the threshold of economic disaster. According to the International Trade Report, about 80% of the companies using China as part of their supply chain are already planning to move to another location because of factors that make the country less attractive to businessmen, among them Trump's defensive trade policy and a rise in wages, stringent environmental norms, complicated regulations and more. As of today, the cost-productivity ratio in China is double that of other Asian countries.

About 700 years ago another epidemic travelled the trade and culture routes leading westward from China – the Black Plague. It seems to have broken out in southern China, originating in a bacteria found on the bodies of fleas who lived on rats, with the fleas and rats moving from place to place inside food shipments such as sacks of wheat, clothing or other products exported from western China.

The Mongolian Empire, ruled by the descendants of Genghis Khan, consisted of several neighboring countries which provided the largest contiguous land route up to that time, going from China, Korea, Vietnam, by way of the countries of Central Asia, the Indian sub-continent, Persia, and up to Russia and Ukraine. The well-travelled trade routes and mountain passes served the merchants well, but the fleas came along for the journey bringing the disease they carried with them.

The famous Silk Route served as the main pathway for merchandise in those days. It crosses the Asian continent from East to West – from China through the lands of Central Asia all the way to Persia and Russia, thence to Europe. Alternately, at the time, sea routes from China to India continued on to Egypt and from there to the rest of Africa and the Mediterranean Sea.

The widespread and catastrophic reach of the epidemic was terrifying. During the years in which the plague was on the rampage, close to half the population of China succumbed to it and the number of people in the country went down from 123 to 65 million. In 1348 the plague hit Italy's cities with great intensity, then reached England, and from there to Iceland and Greenland, decimating the Viking community. Between 1340 and 1400 Africa's population decreased from 80 to 68 million people, Europe's from 75 to 52 million, and Asia's from 238 million to only 200 million.   

The Black Plague completely changed the way the people of that period viewed the Chinese Empire and its Mongol rulers. Until the plague broke out, the Mongols served as role models, seen as an advanced Empire which exported values such as religious tolerance, open mindedness, the adoption of modern technologies such as paper manufacture, printing, the uses of gun powder and the development of the compass, along with the use of woven silken fabrics such as satin. Things had reached the point where in frescoes and other wall decorations in churches throughout Europe, Jesus the Savior was dressed in satins, the edges of his robes embroidered with Mongolian writings, while he himself was depicted with the eyes and facial expressions of eastern Asia.      

After the plague, and during the years the plague caused the deaths of millions, the Silk Route was envisaged anew as the Death Route. The Mongolian Empire disintegrated and the main route connecting the East and West lost much of its importance. The Mongol's regime in China became progressively weaker, and when the Mongolian Emperor and tens of thousands of his fighters escaped to Mongolia, the people returned to what they had once been – nomads and shepherds, this after they had controlled half the globe.

In general, the plague was associated with the Mongols and Chinese and succeeded in blackening their image in the eyes of the world. As a consequence, Europe regressed enormously, isolated itself and abandoned the process of economic globalization spearheaded by the Mongols.

Macroeconomists at the Bank of America claim that there is a trend towards a protracted hiatus in the process of globalization today, in which the chains of supply are coming home, moving closer to consumers or directed to strategic allies. Today, as then, imperialistic China will be the main victim of this trend.

Is the coronavirus epidemic going to strengthen this trend as it did during the period of the Black Plague? Time will tell.

Translated from from Hebrew by Rochel Sylvetsky