StreetTalk: The original virus carriers

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By Greg B Macabenta

Whoever thinks that China should bear the onus of originating and spreading the coronavius/COVID-19 pandemic – along with the racist overtones that have caused an increase in hate crimes against Asians in  the US – may be interested to know that the Western world has been as guilty as the East in inflicting deadly contagions on mankind.

During the Age of Conquest and Discovery (the period of imperialist intrusions into the New World), Europeans brought with them not just Western-style civilization and culture but also a host of viruses and diseases that continue to torment us to this day.

If we are horrified over the deaths caused by Ebola, HIV, the Spanish Flu, SARS, MERS and COVID -19, how should we regard the annihilation of millions of indigenous people in the Americas because of the diseases brought by the European conquistadores?

In the United States, the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the New World in Otober 1492 is celebrated as Columbus Day, a federal holiday. In many countries in Latin America, that day is observed as Dia de la Raza or the Day of the Race. It is remembered as the start of the forcible co-mingling of European and indigenous races and cultures. It is also remembered with bitterness as the beginning of the annihilation of millions of natives of a pristine land due to new and deadly diseases and viruses.

These deaths were on top of the rape and slaughter perpetrated by the various waves of European conquistadores, from Columbus to  Juan Ponce de Leon, Francisco Pizarro and Hernando Cortez. It was Cortez  who vanquished the Aztec kingdom of Montezuma and colonized Mexico.

Columbus and his crew brought European culture and the overwhelming power of the sword, guns and cannons, plus exotic diseases that the immune systems of the indigenous population were not prepared for.

According to a 1992 study in the Yearbook of Physical Anthropology, the successive European voyages of conquest and colonization  also brought at least 30 types of diseases such as smallpox,  measles,  influenza, bubonic plague, diphtheria, typhus, cholera, scarlet fever, chicken pox, yellow fever, malaria, lyme disease, Q-fever (a bacterial disease carried by cattle, sheep, and goats), parasitic diseases such as leishmania, African sleeping sickness, schistosomiasis and filaria, whooping cough, dengue, septicemic plague (one of the three main forms of the plague),  anthrax, botulism, tetanus, toxoplasmosis, taeniasis (tape worms), staphylococci, streptococci, mycotic diseases (fungal diseases), syphilis and legionellosis (a bacterial disease).

The devastation caused by the cauldron of deadly diseases was said to have been worse than the Black Death (bubonic plague) that decimated the population of medieval Europe from 1346 to 1353.

According to historians, the first stop of Columbus in 1492 was in Hispaniola in the Caribbean, which had a population of 250,000. Of that number, 236,000 had been wiped out by 1517.

It is estimated that the indigenous population in the Americas numbered 60.5  million people towards the 1500s. A little over a century later, that number had dropped to around 6 million. Note that there were less than 600 million people in the world  at the time (the best estimate was only 554 million). In other words, the Europeans killed or caused the death of roughly 10% of the entire world’s population.

That was an astonishing  mortality rate, compared to the current COVID-19 global death toll of 310,00 (against a world population of 7.8 billion). Even if the number of COVID -19 deaths were to be quadrupled, by the time a coronavirus vaccine is developed and the pandemic is reined in, that would still pale compared to the deaths caused by the conquistadores.

In fact, that quadrupled  COVID-19 death rate would even be much less than the six million Jews killed in the holocaust. Of course, that doesn’t make Hitler any less a criminal.

There are no figures on how many of the deaths, during the colonization of the Americas, were caused by war, famine or viruses, but there is little doubt among chroniclers that diseases like smallpox, measles and influenza accounted for a significant percentage. Even assuming that only one-third of these deaths were caused by diseases, that would still make the death toll one of the highest in the history of the pandemics that have afflicted mankind.

For perspective, the HIV pandemic that struck the world early in this millennium is said to have claimed 36 million lives, while the Spanish flu, considered the worst in recorded history, killed an estimated 50 million people (of which the US accounted for some 675,000).

This begs the question: did Ferdinand Magellan and those who sailed to the Philippines after him also bring the same deadly recipe of viruses and diseases that Columbus and the other European colonists brought to the Americas?

There are no records of such an occurrence, although many of Magellan’s crewmen died on board ship from various ailments. But then, it may be theorized that the natives of Las Islas Filipinas had been exposed to foreign visitors from Asia and the Middle East, long before the Spaniards gave the archipelago that name.

The natives of the islands had been trading with China for decades and Islam was introduced in Mindanao ahead of Christianity.

It could be surmised that the immune systems of the natives had already been reinforced through trade relations with China, the future originators of SARS and COVID-19, as well as contacts with Arabia, where the Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) first struck.

Note, also, that the Philippines has no equivalent of Dia de la Raza (although inexplicably, for many years, Magellan was more highly regarded in our country than Lapu-Lapu). Neither did the Spanish colonists pro-create with the natives as much as they did in South and Central America. For that reason, that part of the American continent became Hispanic,  racially and in terms of language and culture, while the natives of Las Islas Filipinas remained predominantly Malayan.

In fact, the influence of the United States is more apparent in many aspects of the lives of Filipinos. There are only two Hispanized pockets in the Philippines – parts of Cavite and Zamboanga – where Chavacano, a kind of Spanish language, is spoken, although many Spanish words have been integrated into Tagalog, Visayan, Bicolano and other Philippine dialects.

At this point, however, there is a growing fear among many Pinoys that the originator of COVID-19 may have begun to bring to the Philippines what the Europeans did not.

(gregmacabenta@hotmail.com)

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