Plagues in Perspective

“…it is hard to say who is sick and who is well…” — Daniel Defoe, Journal of the Plague Year


The coronavirus pandemic poses a clear and present danger to the most elderly and vulnerable segments of the global population, those already most prone to perish from influenza and other infectious diseases, which claim on average over 15 million lives a year. Because a vaccine is probably a year away, that year will place terrible strain not just on health systems often weakened by austerity – an ‘ordinary flu’ epidemic in Italy in 2014/15, for example, cost 25,000 lives, 10,000 over the seasonal average – but on entire economies, whole societies and almost everyone’s public and private life.

We all have to act – and to some extent deactivate – to prevent a general decimation of those at risk. But because the great majority of us are not at risk – because at least 90% of those infected seem, on available evidence, certain to recover – this will not make 2020/21 a ‘plague year’ in the sense of the indiscriminate assault described in Daniel Defoe’s reconstruction of the London Plague of 1664, a scythe reaping without regard to age or ‘underlying’ health.

Delivered by the fleets of a rapidly ‘globalizing,’ colonizing world (“some said from Italy, others from the Levant, among some goods which were brought home by their Turkish fleet”), thousands died each week for nearly a year, while many, “raving in their deliriums,” “drowned themselves in the Thames” (though “for want of people conversing with one another, in this time of calamity,” the true toll was unknown). After ‘self-isolating’ (”within doors without air”) for 14 days, Defoe’s unnamed narrator took a short walk: “Then it was indeed that I observed a profound silence in the streets.”

He would observe the same, in hundreds of towns and cities, now. And while the eerie quiet would, mercifully, not tell the same tale of mass death and stolen futures, it would testify to a time of unprecedented general confinement, a disorienting loss of liberty and latitude in which that precious social commodity, perspective, is running dangerously low. “There has,” President Trump has taken to repeating, “never been anything like it in the history of the world” – the ‘it’ referring to what he disgracefully calls “the Chinese virus.” Such hyperbole (if not its racist flavoring) is spreading with the disease, leading to routine assertions of ‘wartime’ conditions justifying – in the faceless face of the enemy – effectively unlimited ‘wartime’ powers.


All sane people – a category excluding Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, now coupling ‘virus-denial’ to climate-change denial – agree we are confronted by a major public health emergency. But we are not being attacked by anything remotely akin in its ravages to the Black Death (Bubonic Plague) in mid-14th century Europe (and beyond), or again in early-20th century Asia (and beyond), claiming 12 million lives in India alone. Or the smallpox – together with typhus, influenza, TB, scarlet fever and related scourges – carelessly imported, willfully propagated, and even deliberately ‘weaponized’ by European invaders across the Americas (and beyond).

Nine Images of the Great Plague of London 1665

Nine images of the Great Plague of London in 1665, Walter George Bell, Wellcome Trust, CC BY SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Black Death, it is timely to recall, was blamed on numerous ‘others,’ sometimes ‘witches’ – a phobia preparing the great witch-hunts of the (plague-ridden) 16th and 17th centuries – but more commonly ‘the Jews,’ a pernicious ‘hate-vector’ leading centuries later to a Holocaust explicitly justified as eradicating a ‘plague’ on humanity. And by the time of the witch-craze – the maniacal murder of millions of women – the lack of indigenous immunity to European diseases was commonly producing outbreaks with death rates in excess of 90%, holocausts routinely adduced by ‘pious’ observers as ‘proof positive’ of divine sanction for Conquest. (Hmmm, healthy Conquistador or pox-eaten child: which was sicker?)

Nor is COVID-19 a reprise of the 1918/19 ‘Spanish flu’, claiming 50 million young and old lives. Long-described as having killed ‘more people than the Great War’, the pandemic is now understood to have been indirectly caused – and directly exacerbated – by the gross conditions and brutal calculus of the world’s first total global conflict. During the first crucial first months, for example, news of the outbreak was censored by all sides, to allow the senseless slaughter – I’m sorry, the ‘death so noble’ – to proceed. And the new strain of swine flu was only dubbed ‘Spanish’ after that non-combatant nation blew the whistle on the cover-up and warned the world. Too late.


Our coronavirus travails are, then, by these grimmest of standards, relatively mild, a sobering fact that should foster new empathy for the countless victims of authentic plagues, and fresh disgust at those who spread them deliberately, or attempted to hide them. COVID-19 should also alert us to the danger of modern biological weapons (BW) – both those already capable of production, and those approaching the realm of the possible – capable of wreaking demonic havoc, and overwhelming even the finest health systems, far more ‘efficiently’ than our current ‘invisible demon.’

Thus far, however, other than much ironically-fevered speculation that the disease is indeed a biological weapon – perhaps designed by China, US Republican Senator Tom Cotton wonders; perhaps imported to Wuhan Province by the USA, wonders Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lijian Zhao – the subject has received almost no serious attention.

What can be stated as fact is that both China and the US, together with a few dozen other ‘advanced’ military-industrial states, operate sophisticated ‘biodefense’ laboratories to study the kind of weapons – militarized microbes – potential adversaries may themselves be researching (ostensibly for the same ‘purely defensive’ purposes). Viruses like Covid-19 will thus be already be ‘under the microscope,’ and such research could very easily mutate into R&D. One consequence of the current convulsion, in fact, may be the appetite it whets not just in military bio-labs but among non-state actors – terrorists, or rogue elements in the fast-expanding ‘DIY’ biotech community – to literally engineer similar or more sinister ‘opportunities’. And to this potential ‘world of horribles’ we can add legitimate fears of accidental ‘leakage’ from bio-labs (or basements), from either carelessness or experiments gone wrong – something a few experts worry may conceivably have occurred in the case of COVID-19 – and possible theft or illicit sale of pathogens or critical know-how.

It is, thus, cold comfort to know that no state currently deploys such weapons (although suspicions attach to North Korea). Or that ‘only’ 16 states (including Canada) seem to have developed them in the past. Or that biological weapons have already been banned, not once but twice: their use in 1925, by the Geneva Protocol (also prohibiting the use of chemical weapons); and their development and production in 1972, by the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). The BWC, however, is a paper tiger, effectively unenforceable due to a lack of 1) adequate transparency, confidence-building, and verification arrangements; and 2) the kind of institutional ‘teeth’ that the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) supplies to the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), a treaty designed very much with the flaws of the BWC in mind.

During the Cold War, this ‘toothlessness’ was blamed by both Superpowers on each other. In the 1990s the BWC seemed to be moving, slowly but surely, towards a protocol rectifying its most serious defects. Until, at the BWC Review Conference in 2001, the George W. Bush Administration declared its opposition not merely to parts of the draft protocol but to any protocol, dismissing it as typical of “arms control approaches of the past”. (The saboteur-in-chief was a figure Spectator readers have heard me denounce more than once, John Bolton, President Bush’s anti-arms control Undersecretary of State for Arms Control.)

The case for the defense of the protocol was put succinctly by the Canadian delegation to the Conference: “we need to get some law on our side.” But though almost all the 180-plus delegations agreed with Canada that imperfect but evolving multilateralism was infinitely preferable to uncoordinated unilateralism (and threats of military action against suspected ‘rogue states’), the Vandal knew it wielded not just an axe but a veto.


The Convention has never recovered from the blow, with the final nail in the coffin of the protocol hammered, to the shock of many, by President Barack Obama’s Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Persuaded by the US biotech sector that proposed inspections and transparency measures could compromise commercial secrets, Clinton in turn persuaded the president to restate, if less gloatingly, the basic Bush/Bolton position.

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama (Source: CNN)

Worthy but largely ineffectual efforts by Canada and other BWC champions to strengthen the Convention have continued. One such push gives a sense of the kind of global ‘regime,’ or infrastructure of readiness-and-response, that could have been constructed to help not just prevent ‘Doomsday’ BW scenarios but trigger early-intervention, and assist recovery, in the face of natural pandemics. A historical overview provided by the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) – dedicated, despite its name, to reducing the threat from all weapons of mass destruction – records a decision in 2003 to “focus the new [i.e. post-Protocol] process” on “enhancing international capabilities for responding to, investigating and mitigating the effects of cases of alleged use of biological weapons or suspicious outbreaks of disease, and to strengthening international efforts against infectious diseases.”

Accordingly, in 2004 a Meeting of Experts was attended by specialists from over 80 states plus three UN agencies: the World Health Organization (WHO), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and the World Organization for Animal Health (WOAH). The experts issued a unanimous call for “strengthening and broadening national and international institutional efforts and existing mechanisms for the surveillance, detection, diagnosis and combating of infectious diseases affecting humans, animals, and plants.” In the context of a well-resourced, protocol-enhanced Convention – ideally supported by a powerful Organization for the Prohibition of Biological Weapons (OPBW) – such seeds may have yielded a rich crop. Instead, the Convention’s decline and fall proceeded apace, to the point where in 2018 – teetering on the brink of financial collapse from unpaid contributions – a Meeting of States Parties failed to produce any outcomes, make any recommendations, or approve even a perfunctory final document.

The 2018 fiasco was also characterized by intense, new-Cold War bickering between the US and Russia, a small episode in an epic, self-fulfilling prophecy of 21st century ‘Great Power’ competition (and, quite possibly, unbearably major conflict) between Washington, Moscow and – as an emerging third military Superpower – Beijing.


There are many ‘pawns’ in this wretched game, and one of them is the Iranian people, hit with indiscriminate American sanctions, including on medicines and medical equipment, in part to punish their government’s close ties to Russia and China. Already responsible for acute suffering, the sanctions have gravely weakened Iran’s ability to cope with COVID-19 – a national calamity with dire regional and broader impacts. Yet US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo refuses even to modify the sanctions, even until the storm passes. (Hmmm, Secretary Pompeo or an Iranian kid dying for want of drugs: who’s sicker?)

Iran’s tragedy is just the most egregious example of a woeful lack of cooperation and coordination – even among traditional allies like the US and EU – characterizing the mishandling of COVID-19: a textbook example, in fact, of the kind of train-wreck the WHO, and so many other states and agencies, hoped a galvanized BWC would help render impossible.

Rather than thinking of ourselves, then, as ‘at war’ with the coronavirus, we should face the fact that a continuing commitment to war rather than peace – the relentless over-investment of all-too-many nations in war-making rather than health and wellbeing – is poisoning the well of global goodwill to the point of drastically impairing humanity’s capacity to care for itself (and other species). This was the basic point of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ depressingly under-reported “Appeal for Global Ceasefire“:

The fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war. That is why today I am calling for an immediate global ceasefire in all corners of the world. It is time to put armed conflict on lockdown…

Such a ceasefire would, as its main immediate benefit, allow for humanitarian access to ‘shatter-zones’ where (together with vast refugee camps) the disease can be predicted to spread fastest. But as Guterres would agree, that should just be the start of a world war not just on War ‘proper’ – often spawning, as in cholera-swept Yemen, more death from disease than fighting – but the appalling loss of life, especially young life, from preventable causes: an estimated 6.3 million children under 15 in 2017 – one every five seconds! – according to a UN Report. the causes include disease, malnutrition and two ‘plagues of progress’ perversely contained by mass-quarantine: respiratory illness from air pollution, and traffic accidents, “the leading cause of death for children and young adults aged 5-29 year-olds worldwide.”


And part of the war on such needless death should be the return from political death of arms control and disarmament. In the nuclear field, such a revival was boldly attempted with the 2017 adoption of the ‘Ban Treaty’ by 122 states (excluding, alas, the ‘nuclear nine’ and their allies). Though the CWC remains strong, the use of chemical weapons in Syria (a prime candidate for a coronavirus wildfire) has badly eroded the crucial ‘norm’ against use.

Symbols for Nuclear, Biological and Chemical WMD

US Military symbols for Symbols for Nuclear, Biological and Chemical WMD (Andux, CC by SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The cratering of the BWC, meanwhile, has occurred at a time of rapid advance toward new means of developing (and delivering) a portfolio of lab-bred pathogens. For details, readers with strong stomachs are referred to ‘Bio Plus X,’ a somber 2019 study from researchers at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) exploring how:

…advances in three specific emerging technologies…could facilitate, each in their own way, the development or production of biological weapons and their delivery systems.

Very bad things can come in threes, in this case robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), and additive manufacturing (AM), more commonly known as 3-D printing, bringing within reach the ‘bioprinting’ of disease. The study is surely right to conclude that:

…while developments in these three emerging technologies could have an enabling effect in different steps of the development and use of biological weapons, the existing governance frameworks are ill-equipped to comprehensively address these risks.

The coronavirus crisis may seem, especially in states long-spared actual war or full-fledged plague, like hell on Earth. And a real danger exists that intemperate responses, in some cases bordering on the totalitarian, may have hellish human effects, exacerbating for example – through pressures of prolonged quarantine – existing epidemics of domestic violence and abuse, while damaging the general ‘respiratory system’ of democracy, the ability of institutions, civil society and citizens to ‘breathe’ (think, act, create, protest) freely.

When it comes to modern threats of mass-destruction-by-pandemic, however, we mustn’t delude ourselves that this – COVID-19 – is the real deal. That’s the bad news: this isn’t hell yet. And the good news too: that we can still change course.

But if we want to control our future, we need to start by controlling our arms.


Sean Howard


Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Peace Quest Cape Breton. He may be reached here.