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We’ve Been Here Before

Far less than we are inclined to think, we are no strangers to suffering. As a species, we know well how to be agonised – but, as media organisations deftly like to keep hidden, we know even better how to endure.

We’ve been here before when, in the 27th century BC, the Nile failed to flood for seven successive years and caused one of the first and largest famines in Egyptian history. Hieroglyphs record that the national calamity was resolved only when Pharaoh Djoser ordered the construction of a giant temple to appease the temperamental and vain Nile river god, Khnum: the waters rose again the following year.

We’ve been here before when, on 13 December 115 AD, a devastating earthquake hit the ancient city of Antioch, destroying three-quarters of its buildings and killing half of its 500,000 inhabitants in minutes. Reconstruction work continued for a decade. 

We’ve been here before when a devastating tsunami shored at Alexandria on 21 July 365. 50,000 people were killed in the busy port city and its surroundings. The city’s Royal Quarter disappeared permanently underwater only to be rediscovered by a chance dig for a cable in 1995.

We’ve been here before when the first global bubonic plague pandemic began raging in Constantinople in 542, having entered via the busy trade routes from Asia. Known as the plague of Justinian, it continued to infect the Mediterranean world for another 225 years, disappearing only in 750 after killing some 50 million people.

We’ve been here before when, in 1346, the ‘Black Death’ arrived in Europe from the Russian steppes and killed a quarter of the continent’s population – an estimated 25 million people. 

We’ve been here before when in 1519 Hernán Cortés landed on the shores of what is now Mexico and what was then the Aztec Empire bringing in his saliva the smallpox virus, which in the next hundred years killed ninety-five percent of the population of central and South America.

We’ve been here before when, on 23 January 1556, one of the deadliest earthquakes ever recorded in history occurred in the densely populated province of Shaanxi, China. Building collapses and mudslides killed an estimated 830,000 people.

We’ve been here before when on 1 November 1755, an earthquake shattered Lisbon and drove the surviving population to the shoreline, where they were met by a gigantic tsunami. The combination made off with 30,000 people and at a stroke ended the optimism of the European Enlightenment.

We’ve been here before when the largest volcanic eruption in human history occurred at Mount Tambora, Indonesia in April 1815, killing 71,000 people and creating an ash cloud that reduced global temperatures by 0.4ºC, leading to major food shortages, epidemics and civil unrest around the world for the following three years.

We’ve been here before when monsoon failures in 1837 and 1838 led to famine in the north-western Indian provinces of Punjab and Rajasthan, killing 800,000 people. The economic and social disruption, and the cholera that came with it, live on in Indian memory to this day.

We’ve been here before when a third global bubonic plague pandemic broke out in 1894. The crisis lasted on and off for twenty years, its global spread accelerated by steam travel and the scale of imperial trade networks. Worldwide, 15 million died; India was by far the worst hit, with 12 million deaths.

We’ve been here before when, in 1896–8, over 95 per cent of Southern Africa’s cattle herds were wiped out by a devastating panzootic of rinderpest. Coinciding with a severe drought and crop failures, this resulted in unprecedented famine in the Northern Transvaal. Desperate, people ate roots, caterpillars and old animal hides; many resorted to drowning their children.

We’ve been here before when, in 1918–19, the influenza pandemic known as the ‘Spanish Flu’ killed over 50 million people, far eclipsing the deaths of the First World War, a mere 13 million.

We’re here now, we will be here again. None of this is to diminish for even a moment the individual immense sufferings of our own times. It is just to add – as the newspapers always fail to mention – that there will (somehow) be a tomorrow.

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