Thursday, January 27, 2022

War Hysteria

The current war hysteria is a western beat up. Boris and Biden are both sinking in the popularity polls and talking up threats of war is an old political trick for trying to regain lost support (It worked well for Georg W). When eventually nothing happens, because nothing will happen, they will claim that it was their bold response that prevented it from happening. But astute people will understand that their belligerence only demonstrates their weakness.

Russia already controls a bigger geographic area than most nations on earth, so Vladimir Putin has no interest in invading Ukraine. It is an economic basket case, riddled with neo-Nazis. Industries that supplied parts for Russian business have collapsed because the EU is not interested in buying from Ukraine. Those industries that have survived are controlled by oligarchs. Almost everything of value has already been sold by the bankrupt government.

The US organised a pro-Western coup in Ukraine in 2014, but has been unwilling to trade seriously with Ukraine and Europe has not provided the material aid that it needs to develop. All they will supply is weapons, which just makes the situation more unstable. If Russia was going to conquer Ukraine, it would have done it years ago, when Western powers were unprepared. Putin took back Crimea because Russia needs to have a warm-water port, and it was built by Russia in the first place.

Vladimir Putin does not need to invade another economic and ethnic basket case that needs propping up. He is quite happy to leave that problem to the Europeans who were so keen to gain influence in Ukraine. Only the Americans and the British still believe that war can be used to change nations for good. The Russians learnt the hard way that war does not work.

The only other thing that Putin wants is for the Americans to keep their missiles, which can carry nuclear weapons, out of Eastern Europe. This is sensible, as during a military confrontation, a missile fired from Poland or Ukraine can reach Moscow in about five minutes. That is not much time to determine if it carries nuclear warheads, and to decide if massive nuclear retaliation against Europe and the United States is required. The people of the West who will be the targets should want them to have more time to ponder their response too.

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Russian Fears

The western media are beating the war drums, claiming that Russia is about to invade Ukraine, but they ignore the bigger issue of NATO expansion. They have no idea how fearful Russians are that their nation will be invaded from the West. Russians hate seeing NATO forces and missiles moving closer to their border. The nations of Western Europe believe that they are trustworthy, but they dont have a great record.

The biggest western nations have all invaded Russia at some time in recent history. The French armies under Napoleon burned Moscow in 1812. Britain and Sweden had a go at different times. Germany has invaded Russia (twice) in both the first and second world wars.

Professor Stephen F. Cohen has written about the terrible human cost of the Nazi invasion of Eastern Europe. He says that much of what we learn about World War 2 in textbooks and especially schools and popular media is false:

Most Americans today believe that “we defeated Nazi Germany,” as President Obama wrote on the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, a misconception promoted by Hollywood films that portray the US landing at Normandy in June 1944 as the beginning and eventual end of the war against Hitler’s Germany. In truth, America won the war in the Pacific, against Japan, but the Soviet Union fought and destroyed Hitler’s war machine on the “Eastern Front” almost alone from 1941 to 1944, from Moscow, Kursk, and Stalingrad, and eventually to Berlin in 1945. Some 75 to 80 percent of all German casualties were suffered on the Eastern Front. By the time US and British forces landed at Normandy, Hitler had relatively few divisions available to withstand the successful invasion, many more still embattled against the Soviet Union.

Soviet losses were almost unimaginable. More than 27 million Soviet citizens died, 60 to 70 percent of them ethnic Russians. Some 1,700 Soviet cities and towns were all but destroyed. Most families lost a close or extended member. Perhaps most tellingly, only three of every hundred boys who graduated from high school in 1941–42 returned from the war. This meant that millions of Soviet children never knew their fathers and that millions of Soviet women never married. (They were known as “Ivan’s widows,” many doomed to lonely lives in the often-harsh post-war Soviet Union.)

The trauma of these events has not been forgotten.

Saturday, January 22, 2022

International Tourism

The sector of the New Zealand economy that has been worst affected by the Covid shutdown is tourism. According to the Tourism Satellite Account produced by Statistics NZ, large numbers of people (possibly 70,000) lost their employment in the tourism sector during the first year of the shutdown. By the time the figures for the following year are available, more than half the employment in the sector might have disappeared.

The tourism sector has always been a very noisy advocate for more government support. However, this publicity is out of proportion to the contribution that it makes to the economy. Prior to the arrival of Covid, the tourism sector contributed just 5.5 percent of GDP in NZ. Estimates for the year ending March 2021 suggest that the contribution has dropped to 2.9 of GDP. By the time the continued down downturn in tourism through 2021 is factored in, the contribution of the sector to GDP will be significantly less.

Strangely enough, the collapse of international tourism has not had the dramatic effect on the economy that was expected. In the September 2021 quarter, GDP was 0.6 percent greater than the quarter prior to the emergence of Covid. The economy has kept growing despite the shutdown. This suggests that tourism does not make as large a contribution to the economy as is often assumed.

The problem is that many tourism businesses are only viable if they can employ very cheap labour. In the past, they have tended to rely on young tourists from overseas travelling around New Zealand and taking casual employment when they need more money to keep going. The young people who want to travel the world without spending too much are the ones who benefit most from this practice.

Tourism is supposed to benefit the NZ economy because overseas tourists bring money from their home country and spend it here. However, if they earn it in poorly paid jobs that keep wages down for everyone, they are a drag on the economy, even if they spend all that they earn. They will still need to spend a significant sum for travel home with an international airline, which takes some of the money that they earn here out of the country.

That Covid shutdown has cut off the supply of cheap labour that much of the tourism sector relies on. Industry leaders are now appealing to the government for assistance. They want the border opened up so they can continue to find cheap labour. I hope that the government will resist these calls.

Tourism has significant economic costs (externalities) that tourists don’t always pay for. Increased tourism puts pressure on economic infrastructure. Better roads are needed. National parks need better support structures and maintenance. Investing in infrastructure to support international tourism is only viable if the sector is making a significant contribution to the economy.

Reliance on back-packer tourists who want to travel cheaply and spend very little money is not the basis for an economically viable industry. New Zealand needs international tourists who are willing to spend money and contribute to the economy. The Covid shutdown provides an opportunity to reposition the industry to become more economically viable. If the government encourages continuing dependence on cheap labour, it will prevent the necessary changes from occurring.

See Migration.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Labour Market Pressure

I suspect that we are going to see increasing pressure in the labour market in New Zealand. Despite Covid and the worldwide economic shutdown, the unemployment rate here has remained low. According to Stats NZ, 3.4 percent in the September 2012 quarter, which is low by international standards.

Despite the shutdown of the tourism businesses, and many related industries, such as accommodation, restaurants and cafes, transport, demand for labour is strong. Businesses are having difficulty getting staff to fill vacancies. Some industries are calling for the government to increase migration flows so that they can employ staff. One reason is that Covid restrictions in place, net migration has gone negative, with more people leaving than coming in.

Over the last couple of decades, successive New Zealand governments have allowed significant inflows of migrants. For the past decade, annual net migration to New Zealand was more than 50,000 in most years. It had peaked at over 100,000 in 2013. It was at similar levels during the first few years of the 2000s.

These high levels of migration had two consequences. The first was pressure to build enough houses and the infrastructure needed to support the large numbers of people arriving in New Zealand. Hundreds of new school classrooms have had to be constructed, and hospital capacity has felt the pressure. The housebuilding industry has boomed, and house prices have risen rapidly.

The other impact of migration is in the labour market. If there are large numbers of migrants willing to work for the minimum wage, employers have no incentive to pay their lower-paid staff more, because they can easily replace them with migrants on the minimum wage.

This external source of labour supply has now come to an end. The demand for labour will put pressure on wages. This is probably the best thing that could have happened for people in low paid jobs. They will have more choice, and should be able to negotiate better pay.

I suspect that we will begin hearing pressure on the government from industries that employ cheap labour for it to bring in more migrants, so that they can get the staff they need without having to pay high wages. The agriculture sector and the restaurant and café industry are already complaining that they cannot get staff (mainly because they have paid low wages for unsocial work hours).

I hope the government will resist these calls. It would be a mistake to go back to the policy of bringing in large numbers of relatively unskilled migrants so that we continue to be a low wage economy. The only ones who benefit from that policy are stingy employers, but they don’t have the right to cheap labour so they can earn greater profits.

In a competitive economy, not every business that is established will be economically viable. Some good business ideas will fail because their production costs, including wages and salaries, are greater than their sales revenue. Forcing wages down to make these uneconomic businesses viable is not a sensible economic policy.

In a free market, the solution to shortages is not a government mandate. Instead, prices should adjust until supply equals demand. This same applies to the labour market. Businesses that cannot obtain the staff that they need should pay more. If they raise their pay offer sufficiently, they will usually obtain the staff they need.

If businesses are not viable at prevailing wage rates (not those that applied last year when pushed down by cheap migrant labour), the business owner should be thinking twice about what they are doing. If they cannot pay their employees a reasonable wage rate, they are not contributing much to the New Zealand economy.

There are not a fixed number of jobs in any economy. An economist recently said that New Zealand has a shortage of about 2000 skilled an unskilled people, but that is the wrong way of looking at it. The real problem is that there are 500 odd businesses trying to operate even though they are not viable given the resources currently available.

Employees like a situation where there are more job seekers than jobs, but a situation where there are more jobs tham job seekers is more beneficial at this time when a lift in wages is needed by poor working families. 

See Employers and Wages.

Monday, January 17, 2022

Covid Shutdown

In his book called Shutdown, Adam Tooze describes the economic impact of the worldwide shutdown following the emergence of Covid19 in 2020. With all the debate about the virus and vaccines, the economic response by governments and central banks has largely been forgotten or ignored, but the issue is very important.

An initial supply shock occurred as workplaces shut down and trade ground to a halt, but this quickly translated into a demand-driven recession as people lost some of their income. The IMF predicted that world trade could collapse by 10-30 percent.

On 12 March 2020, stock markets collapsed all around the world. The drop in prices was worse than in the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) in 2008. As March progressed, the demand for US Treasuries collapsed. This was hugely concerning because US Treasuries are considered to be one of the safest assets that can be held. They can usually be traded in large volumes without influencing the price (a valuable property for a safe asset).

In 2020, 17 trillion US Treasuries were in circulation. They are usually bought during a crisis for safety, but during this one, they were sold. Economists were concerned that the collapse of this market could bring down the entire financial system.

Following the GFC, the Federal Reserve and the US Treasure had engaged in a massive monetary expansion to sustain markets during the crisis that began with mortgage-backed securities and related financial derivatives. This was supposed to be rolled back when the economy returned to normal, but by 2019 very little progress had been made on tapering the monetary interventions of the previous decade. Every time the Fed attempted to taper, the markets coughed, and the Fed relented. The result was nearly a decade of near-zero interest rates.

The Federal Reserve responded to the economic shock caused by Covid19 with an even greater monetary expansion than in the previous crisis. By 23 March 2020, the Standard & Poors share price index was down 30 percent. Worldwide, $26 trillion had been lost on the equity markets. After reducing interest rates, the Federal Reserve began a program to buy US Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities. Within a few months, the Federal Reserve had brought 1 trillion worth of US Treasuries, which is about 5 percent of the total on issue. The Bank of England also purchased a huge number of Gilts, the UK equivalent government bonds.

At the same time, the Treasury provided fiscal support with various spending programs to support people and businesses through the downturn. My mid-August 2020, the situation had turned around. The Standard and Poors index had recovered all the value that it has lost since February. Once the markets were stabilised, massive corporate bond issuance occurred as large corporates took advantage of the Fed policies.

Treasury and the Federal Reserve support provided massive benefits for the investor class. Tooze estimates that worldwide, the wealth of billionaires increased by $1.9 trillion during 2020. Something seems to be wrong with this outcome. There is no reason why wealthy investors in the financial sector should be exempt from economic pain during a serious pandemic. In both this crisis, and during the GFC of 2008 and 2009, government agencies intervened to support the finance sector because it is supposedly too big to fail. Yet it is government protection and support that has allowed them to become as big as they have become.

Governments all around the world kicked in with fiscal support for their struggling economies to the value of 21 trillion by Jan 2021. Most of this additional spending was funded with debt. The OECD estimated that by the end of 2020 total debt issuance of governments was $18 trillion. This is far in excess of what was issued during the global financial crisis of 2008/9.

When purchasing government bonds, central banks claimed that they were just stabilising the financial system and massaging interest rates to keep them down during a period of uncertainty. Yet, in effect, the central banks were funding government debt, something they claim that they don’t like doing. When the Federal Reserve turns on the monetary spigot, the flow of new money floods around the world and all countries are affected to some degree. The problem with government-created money is that it usually produces inflation. Inflation does not affect an economy evenly. The inflation created by central banks efforts to mitigate the Covid 19 crises initially flowed into share markets. This was seen as a good outcome because it benefited the big investment funds (and the billionaires).

Here in New Zealand, the money creation fed a housing boom. The middle classes welcomed this outcome because they have benefited from a big increase in value for the largest asset they own. However, their gain is at the expense of the poor who cannot afford to own houses. The money gush has vastly increased inequality.

Now the inflation that was caused by the unprecedented money expansion is spreading into the rest of the economy. The prices of consumer goods are now rising fast all over the world. Consumer inflation causes the greatest pain for poor people, so inequality will be further exacerbated.

As the pain of this consumer inflation worsens, central bankers will try to hold it back by pushing up interest rates, but they struggle to turn off their massive monetary support because every time they do, share markets and house prices will fall and they will lose their nerve. Politicians will urge them to keep interest rates low and keep the asset boom going, so they are not punished in the next election.

In Bank Deposits and Loans, I explain the big problem with modern banking that the Federal Reserve is trying to resolve, but actually makes worse.

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Real Hope

This current season is disturbing and confusing for many Christians.

In the western world, the church has been going backwards for the past fifty years. Some brilliant theology has been written, but the world is not listening. Some wonderful people have come out of seminary to serve the church, but they have been trained to preach to Christians; they have not been trained to do what Jesus disciples did. A few large churches have been established, but their growth does not compensate for the losses from thousands of smaller churches.

The consequence of this decline is that governments have been stopped being pro-Christian, and worse, the spiritual powers of evil have gained greater authority to work evil on earth. So the situation in the world has got worse, too.

Some Christians don’t care about this decline, because they see it as a sign that the end is near when Jesus will return to rescue them, but that is a false hope that is an insult to the Holy Spirit. Christians have been saying that the return of Jesus was imminent for the past century, but it now seems to be further away.

Although the church has been declining in the West for the last fifty years, most Christians have not been too worried, because they have always believed that a revival was coming, and that will turn the situation around. Even those who believe that the end is near are expecting a great end-time harvest.

The internet prophets continue to ramble on about a coming revival, and people who are desperate for hope draw hope from them, but those who are wise know that these prophets have been wrong so many times that they cannot be trusted.

Christians looking for revival will be disappointed because the next move of God will not come in the form that they are expecting. The revivals of the past were church-based movements where lukewarm or lapsed Christians were revived and drawn back into the existing church structures.

The reality is that the modern church does not want revival because it is unwilling to make the changes that God needs it to make so that he can accomplish his purposes on earth. Pastors have chosen to keep on doing what they know how to do, even though it does not work in the modern world, and the people are mostly happy to go along. The modern church is persisting with big-man leadership and big Sunday meetings, but these practices are serious obstacles to the next move of God.

God is not interested in reviving the church during this season. He wants to do something far greater. He wants to establish his kingdom on earth, and he needs people who are committed to working with his Holy Spirit to do it. Unfortunately, the modern church does not have a vision for the Kingdom of God that is real.

The modern church does not have the spiritual strength to engage a full-frontal attack on the kingdoms of the world to establish the Kingdom of God. The spiritual powers of evil are too deeply entrenched in our political and cultural systems to be easily defeated. To turn the situation around, the church will need to engage in guerrilla tactics and establish tiny strongholds on the edges of society and slowly expand out from there to gain more ground.

God wants to do something quite different from what the church has done in the past. His next move will be neighbourhood-based on the edge of society and away from the centres of power and privilege. To be prepared for the next season, followers of Jesus must seek out different ways of operating on the edge of culture.

The next move of God will not be like Billy Graham preaching to large crowds of lapsed Christians (who would struggle to get on board with what God is doing now), nor like televangelists preaching prosperity and comfort. They will be more like the seventy disciples that Jesus sent out in pairs, going to a village or neighbourhood of a town and living there in unity with some brothers and sisters in the Lord, loving one another, healing the sick and announcing the Kingdom of God.

I presume that the church will continue to implode as continues with the old way of working. Big-name pastors will be persecuted if they continue to push salvation by law as the solution to big social issues. At the same time, society will continue to disintegrate as the spiritual powers of evil are given more and more control on earth. But the idea that this is the beginning of the end is a lie that we should reject.

The best is still to come. God is calling and preparing a body that can work with the Holy Spirit to bring in the Kingdom of God on earth. When human political power collapses under the weight of its own evil, breaking the power of the spiritual powers of evil (and the Jews come to faith in Jesus), the Holy Spirit will move in power amongst those who have prepared. He will release a powerful move that will bring in the greatest harvest that the earth has ever experienced. Billions of people will choose to follow Jesus and join his kingdom, as they follow the leading of his Holy Spirit.

This is a discouraging season for those who trust in the church. Those who are trusting in the Holy Spirit and are open to his leading and looking for him to move in a new and better way should be excited by the opportunity that is open to them.

See Ekklesia and Kingdom.

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Plagues and Pandemics (7) Polio and Diphtheria

Poliomyelitis was a serious infectious disease in the twentieth century. When I was growing up in the 1950s, there was huge fear of polio. The fact that it affected children worst increased the fear. Some people still thought that it was caused by excess sun on the back of the neck, so we were made to wear sunhats that covered the back of the neck when we went outside.

I did not know of any children who got the disease, but two men in the farming district where we lived had a seriously shrivelled arm due to contracting polio when they were young, presumably during the 1937 outbreak.

When I did some digging around I discovered that polio was a much more serious problem than I had realised, and large numbers of deaths resulted. Poliomyelitis (polio) is caused by a virus. It is an incurable disease whose symptoms can range from none at all (95 per cent of cases) through to paralysis (up to 2 per cent) in limbs or the respiratory system. Unfortunately, the older the patient, the more serious the paralysis.

The worst years in New Zealand were

  • 1916 - 1018 new cases; 123 deaths
  • 1925 - 1159 - - 173
  • 1937 - 816 - - - 39
  • 1948 - 963 - - - 52
  • 1952 - 890 - - - 57
  • 1955 - 703 - - - 29
  • 1956 - 897 - - - 50
I had not realised that 70 children died of polio during my first years at school although I presume they were mostly in the North Island. It is not surprising that parents were fearful.

Quarantine practices were applied. During 1948 and 1949, children were prohibited from staying in motor camps and attending Sunday schools, and inter-island travel by school children was forbidden. Swimming pools in Auckland were closed to children. In Hamilton, a Christmas parade was permitted, provided the children stood at least 6 feet (1.83m) apart.

Suspect patients were isolated and school contacts excluded until the diagnosis was confirmed. All diagnosed cases were isolated, however mild. Peer group contacts and family contacts who were teachers were also quarantined for two weeks from the last exposure to infection.

I do not remember how old I was but I can remember being vaccinated for polio. Evidently, the start of the program vaccination had to be delayed when the first batch of vaccine intended for New Zealand failed tests in Great Britain. The first vaccine arrived in New Zealand in September 1956. 5-9 year-olds were vaccinated first, because they were at school they were easy to organise. Also, this age group had an "indifference to personal hygiene" which made them good spreaders of infection.

Consent cards were sent out to the parents of all primary school children The acceptance rate by parents was over 90% which was an incredibly high rate for any public health measure anywhere. By Spring 1959, all children between two and 16 had been vaccinated. Polio vaccine was later added to the recommended vaccine for diphtheria and whooping cough at three months.

We were also vaccinated against Diphtheria. This was another disease that created real fear. I remember my mother talking about what a nasty illness it was. She was glad to have her family vaccinated against it.

Diphtheria is a serious bacterial infection that infects the throat and nose. While some cases were mild, the bacteria could produce dangerous toxins that caused severe complications which can be life-threatening, including heart trouble, paralysis, and kidney failure.

The worst year for diphtheria was in New Zealand was 1892, when 281 deaths occurred. In 1917, the year before the flu epidemic 240 people died of diphtheria. An outbreak in 1929–30 resulted in 150 deaths. During the second world war, a number of NZ soldiers died of diphtheria while fighting overseas.

Monday, January 10, 2022

Plagues and Pandemics (6) American Continent

The indigenous populations of America were decimated by infectious diseases brought by European conquerors and settlers, who took no responsibility for the harm they were bringing. Recent estimates suggest that the population on the eve of conquest was about one hundred million, with twenty-five to thirty millions of these in Mexican and an equal number in Andean civilisations. Within fifty years, the population of central Mexico had shrunk to a tenth of what it had been.

The first pandemics were smallpox and measles. A few decades later, typhus arrived. Unfortunately, the climate was suitable for the transmission of some of the worst African infections: malaria and yellow fever. These diseases were spread rapidly by slaves brought from Africa.

The scope of this disaster is hard to imagine. The sudden death of three-quarters of the population produced severe economic collapse and repeated human anguish, as entire societies fell apart.

The Europeans travelled to the Americas had a good understanding of quarrantine methods, but they did not bother applying them for the benefit of the people they were conquering, because they considered them to be inferior peoples.

Saturday, January 08, 2022

Plagues and Pandemics (5) Black Death

The Black Death was a resurgence of bubonic plague that hit Asia, Europe and North Africa from 1346 to 1353. It is the most fatal pandemic recorded in human history, causing the death of 75–200 million people. Several factors contributed to this pandemic.

  • An expansion of shipping and trade around the Mediterranean Sea provided a way for rats to travel and spread.

  • Europe was becoming more densely populated again.

  • Land was being cleared of forest and farms were established in many places where they had disappeared after the collapse of the Roman Empire.

  • The climate deteriorated in the 14th century.

The death rate for bubonic infections transmitted by rat fleas varied from 30 to 90 percent. The best estimate is that one third of the population died. The economic consequences were severe. The trauma and fear were intense. This uncertainty probably contributed to the emergence of the Protestant Reformation.

The plague did not disappear after its first massive attack. Instead, similar plagues continued at irregular intervals and with varying patterns of intensity in different places.

The incidence of the bubonic plague began to decline in the 17th century.

  • Quarantine regulations were effective in halting the spread. People from infected areas were refused entry to towns and villages. Ships with infected sailors were refused entry to ports.

  • Wood shortages led to stone and brick house construction and tiles began to replace thatched rooves, which made it more difficult for rats to live close to humans.

  • The grey rat spread across Europe. It preferred to live in a burrow in the ground instead of infesting roofs and house walls as the black rat had done. This increased distance between humans and rats made it more difficult for the fleass that transmitted the disease to spread to humans.

I note that when a serious plague struck Europe in both the sixth and fourteenth centuries, Christians assumed that the end of the world was at hand. In both cases, they were wrong.

Plagues and Pandemics (4) Caution

People reading my posts about pandemics and plagues should be careful about drawing conclusions that are not valid. Comparing events from different times is difficult, because the background conditions are so different. We should be cautious about saying one plague was worse than another because the outcomes were different.

For example, the pathogen Yersinia Pestis that caused the bubonic plague still circulates in some parts of the world, but it is easily contained with good quarantine and hygiene practices and antibiotics (because it is a bacterial infection).

Likewise, the Romans could have reduced the impact of the bubonic plague with better quarantine and a bit of rat poison. They knew about quarantine and how to kill rats, but because they did not understand the transmission of the infection, they did not bother. Basic masks would have reduced the respiratory transmission of the plague, which was the most fatal form of the disease.

Similarly, we don’t know what would have happened if Covid had arrived in the Roman Empire. The infections would have spread quickly amongst large numbers of people crammed together in slums and military camps. Without antiviral drugs, respirators and good nursing care, the death rate amongst malnourished people living with inadequate clothing and shelter could have been relatively high.

One thing is sure, for most people, life is much better today than it was in Roman times, but even then, the situation varies for different people. People living in the modern world can still struck by terrible tragedy beyond their control.

Thursday, January 06, 2022

Plagues and Pandemics (3) Bubonic Plague in Rome

By the fifth century, the Roman Empire was under serious pressure with large hostile population groups were invading from the East. The Black Death first appeared in Egypt in AD 541 and from there it quickly diffused throughout the Empire. It persisted for two centuries. The last recorded cases were in AD 749.

The Black Rat that carried the plague-bearing, oriental rat fleas were prolific breeders. They were crafty climbers and willing travellers on ships and waggons. The Rome Empire had hundreds of granaries storing grain to feed soldiers, so it was an ideal home for rats. The plague spread swiftly by sea and slowly by land to every part of the empire.

The agent that causes bubonic plague is a bacterium called Yersinia pestis. It lives and travels on rats. When the rat’s immune system fought back against it, the bacterium concentrated in the blood of the dying rat. When the rat population died, the desperate fleas would jump onto humans looking for more blood to feed on.

The injected bacterium multiplies and blackens the tissue under the skin. The lymphatic system drains the bacteria into the nearest lymph node, where they multiply explosively, causing the node to swell, forming buboes, often in the groin or under the arms. A secondary infection in the blood would cause haemorrhages that appeared as small black spots. Blood vomiting and diarrhoea would follow.

Victims first suffered pain, fever and boils, then swollen lymph nodes and blotches on the skin. After that, they vomited blood and died within a few days. Case fatality was often as high as 80 percent. The bacterium can also be spread by aerosol droplets causing pneumonic plague. This caused fever chest pain and a bloody cough. Case fatality was often 100 percent.

The ultimate death toll is hard to estimate, but the best estimates are that half the population of the empire were carried off by the plague. The population of the city of Rome dropped from over a million to as few as 20,000.

The economic and military consequences were serious. Harvests rotted in the fields, so food was scarce. Taxation was impossible to collect, so the State struggled.

The Roman army fielded half a million men who were supported by an extensive logistical system. With dwindling taxation, the army could not be paid, so the defence of the empire collapsed. The plague decimated the Roman soldiers so people from the periphery of the empire had to be recruited to take their place, but they were not as loyal to Rome.

The plague destroyed the trade that had sustained the wealth of the empire. Towns shrunk in size and many villages and manor farms disappeared. Many people went back to subsistence farming as the collapse of markets reduced their ability to trade. Building stopped, so demand for labour collapsed.

The persistence of the plague strangled hopes of a recovery. Environmental change made the situation worse. In AD 536, a year without sun, possibly caused by a serious volcanic eruption somewhere in the northern hemisphere, ushered in a season of bad weather and poor crops. This colder period lasted for a century and a half.

War, plague and climate change reversed a millennium of material advance and contributed to the collapse of the Roman empire.

Wednesday, January 05, 2022

Plagues and Pandemics (2) Roman Empire

A series of plagues contributed to the decline of the Roman Empire. A massive expansion of travel networks and movements of large armies of Roman soldiers aided the spread of infectious diseases.

These plagues were reinforced by changes in the climate which caused food shortages. Rome emerged to power during a season when the climate was favourable (Roman Climate Optimum, 200 BC to 150 AD) for an agricultural empire. After the empire peaked, the weather became more disruptive (Roman Transitional Period, AD 150 to AD 450). The empire’s collapse concurred with a spell of frigid weather caused by volcanic activity (Late Antique Little Ice Age, AD 450 – AD 700).

Antonine Plague
The event called the Antonine Plague began in Asia Minor in about AD 160 amongst soldiers returning from fighting in Persia. It has arrived in Rome AD 166. Jerome recorded that it had decimated the army by AD 172, reducing its strength by at least a quarter. Roman documents do not name the pathogen that caused this plague, but historians have concluded that it was most likely Smallpox, as the symptoms were fevers, rashes and scabbing. They have estimated that this plague caused the deaths of ten to twenty million people or a quarter of the population. This plague was still around ten years later, but the population of the Roman empire recovered quickly from this plague.

Plague of Cyprian
A second severe plague struck when Cyprian was bishop of Carthage in North Africa. It came from Ethiopia and migrated west across the empire from AD 259 to about AD 270. This disease killed everyone in a household quite quickly. Fevers and headaches struck first and were followed by haemorrhaging from the mouth and bowels. Death was agonising and those who survived often had permanent disfigurement of limbs and loss of hearing and sight.

Historian Kyle Harper suggests that this pandemic was caused by a filovirus like Ebola. It was different from anything the empire had experienced before. It struck soldiers and civilians, city dwellers and villagers. The death toll was horrendous.

The pandemic seriously fragmented the empire as armies revolted and the frontiers were penetrated by enemies. Food shortages and difficulties collecting taxes made it hard to pay the armies and keep them loyal. By late in the AD 260s, there were essentially three empires and later emperors struggled to reunite them again.

The crisis sparked religious conflict and Christians were persecuted. Nevertheless, the gospel expanded, because the compassion of the Christians caring for the sick was conspicuous. Basic nursing care significantly reduced the mortality rate, as providing water and food kept many people alive who would otherwise have died.

The empire recovered from this pandemic much more slowly, but by the fourth century, it had become stronger again.

Tuesday, January 04, 2022

Plagues and Pandemics (1)

During the holiday season, I have been reading some books about plagues, infections and pandemics (as you do). Here are some of the interesting things that I discovered.

  • Right up to the beginning of the twentieth century, infectious diseases were the leading cause of death throughout the world.

  • One of the greatest blessings of living in the modern world is that the risk of dying of an infectious disease has become vanishingly small.

  • Because we live in an age where infectious diseases are under control, we have forgotten what it is like to live in a world where any or several of the following could strike at any time.

    • Typhoid
    • Smallpox
    • Leprosy
    • Tuberculosis
    • Diptheria
    • Bubonic plague
    • Rabies
    • Yellow Fever
    • Malaria
    • Hydatids
    Some of these diseases frequently decimated populations and destroyed families in earlier generations.

  • Up until the last few generations, the average life expectancy was about thirty years. A huge number of babies and children died of infectious diseases.

  • Life was not just short; it was also uncertain, as infectious diseases tended to come in waves and could strike at any time.

  • Because infectious diseases are so well controlled in the western world, most people now die of chronic diseases, cancers and degenerative disorders. The nature of dying has changed significantly.

  • Many aspects of modern life are designed to limit the effects of infectious diseases, even if we have forgotten the reasons.

    • cleaning floors and surfaces with disinfectants
    • flushing toilets
    • toilet paper
    • washing hands with soap
    • shaving beards
    • cooking food
    • refrigeration of food
    • chlorinated water
    • fly screens
    • grates on drains
    • hot drinks
    • washing clothes
    • changing bedding frequently
    • washing hair.
    All these regular activities help reduce our vulnerability to infections.

The tools available to mitigate the risk of infectious diseases are not perfect, and some of the pathogens that attack us adapt quickly, so future pandemics are inevitable. Covid is a reminder of this reality. Eternal vigilance is the price of liberation from infectious disease, but severe disruptions are inevitable.