The Black Death struck the world in three separate pandemics—the Plague of Justinian, the Black Death, and the outbreak in India and China at the end of the 19th century which, surprisingly, has never been officially declared over. Interestingly, the 1994 plague epidemic in Surat, India, eerily reminded one of many aspects of the Second Pandemic from the mid-14th century. How? Read on to find out.
For starters, there’s the event that triggered the plague—an earthquake, just like so many of those medieval plague accounts described. In those instances, because earthquake was mentioned right after conjunction of planets and right before infected air/miasma, there’s a tendency to discount an earthquake as relevant to the outbreak of the Black Death.
What happened in 1994, however, is that an earthquake near the village of Mamla seems to have displaced large colonies of rats from their native territories. As they moved into areas with high concentrations of people, the plague made a jump to the human population.
This is a transcript from the video series The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Establishing a Strong Foothold
It wasn’t caught quickly because India, like many other countries, had stopped paying attention to or worrying about plague. And once the infection was established, it followed the movements of people—in this case, migrant workers who were heading into the city of Surat, which had a population of one-and-a-half million.
The other thing that most likely allowed the plague to get a strong foothold in the city before anyone understood what was happening was because of the form the epidemic took: not bubonic, with its telltale swelling and petechiae on the skin; not septicemic, which can kill so quickly and which is harder to transmit from person to person.
So, the form that swept through Surat was pneumonic, which, in its earliest stages, looks a whole lot like the flu. It’s only when a lot of people suddenly start coughing up blood that someone might figure out that this is not simple influenza.
Add to this the fact that the first infections raged through the slums of the city, where quarters were close, good health care non-existent, and governmental oversight severely lacking, and you can see how the plague grew to a tipping point where it could not be effectively contained anymore.
Learn more about the three predominant varieties of plague.
The Outbreak and Media’s Role
It’s estimated that 78 percent of confirmed cases of plague—not just suspected, but confirmed—were in the slums of Surat. What’s chilling is that the rest of the story continues to follow much of the template for plague reaction that we saw in the medieval world. Once health care officials did figure out what was going on and tried to react, they found they were woefully underprepared. There was a shortage of antibiotics. Medical professionals in the hardest hit areas abandoned their posts.
What was different about this outbreak compared to the Second Pandemic in the medieval world is the presence of the media. Within a few days of officials understanding what was going on, sensationalist headlines about the return of the Black Death were everywhere to be found.
In the medieval world, news of the plague spurred some people to flee to the countryside to wait out the worst of it, while others decided to go on pilgrimage to atone for sins and ask for God’s mercy.
Fleeing the City
The main point is—people were moving around a lot when they just should have stayed put. In Surat, when the word got out, people started fleeing the city in droves. They got onto tightly packed trains and headed to Delhi and Calcutta, bringing the disease with them.
But here’s a major difference—out of all those millions of people who panicked when they should have stayed calm, who moved when they should have stayed put, it’s estimated that there were only about 5,000 or so cases of actual plague, and only 53 deaths. That at least is a more heartening picture than what we get from studying the Second Pandemic in the 14th century.
Learn more about the crippling effects of the plague.
The Plague in Madagascar
So, one might be thinking—plague really isn’t a big deal today. We can relax. Not really. Shortly after the outbreak in Surat, plague was discovered in Madagascar. Alarmingly, one of the strains of Yersinia pestis found there is resistant to all known antibiotics used to treat plague. All of them.
It turns out, Yersinia pestis is a clever little bacterium, and when it comes in contact with other bacteria, it borrows material from them and rewrites its own genetic code. This process is called lateral gene transfer, and scientists have figured out that Yersinia pestis has recently borrowed from E. coli and salmonella.
The lesson here is a chilling one, and it’s one we would all do well to heed.
Common Questions about the re-emergence of the Black Death in 19th Century
The earthquake, near the village of Mamla, was relevant. It explained how the plague made a jump to the human population. The earthquake displaced large colonies of rats from their native territories. As they moved into areas with high concentrations of people, the plague made a jump to the human population.
The form that swept through Surat was pneumonic plague, which in its earliest stages looks a whole lot like the flu.
What was different about this outbreak was the presence of the media. Within a few days of officials understanding what was going on, sensationalist headlines about the return of the Black Death were everywhere to be found.