Coronavirus And The Disease Cycle of Empires Part 3


Mosquito (Anopheles) feeding on human blood. Their mouthparts are adapted for piercing the skin of plants and animals. While both males and females typically feed on nectar and plant juices, the female needs to obtain nutrients from a ‘blood meal’ before she can produce eggs.



This post is the third instalment of chapter nine from Breaking the Code of History, which I am sharing with you, split over a number of days. If you haven't already please check out the first instalment below:

  1. The Disease Cycle of Empire
  2. Diseases of Expansion of Empire - Part 1
  3. Diseases of Expansion of Empire - Part 2
  4. Diseases of Contraction of Empire
  5. Diseases of the Future

At a point when the world is watching the events in China and across the world, this chapter will help you understand how diseases have affected previous empires and how it could effect the Chinese empire of today.


Diseases of Expansion of Empire - Part 2

1 Malaria

There are sixty species of mosquito that are capable of carrying the four species of protozoa parasite that infect humans. The most deadly is Plasmodium falciparum, which can cause ‘cerebral malaria’. While the other three protozoan parasites can only breed inside young red blood cells (just 10 percent of the total in the human body) thereby restricting the impact on the host, this one can multiply in any of them. This leads to blood clots, which then kill the victim via a heart attack or stroke. Children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of malaria. In early twentieth-century England, a third of all infants in the marshy areas of Kent, Essex and the fenlands died of malaria before reaching their first birthday.

Malaria Map

The malaria caused by the other three types of parasite – P. vivax, P. ovale and P. malariae – results in a repetitive debilitating disease process that blights whole communities in the tropics to this day.

The spread of malaria globally is inextricably linked to the empire cycles of the WCSE. It is believed that P. vivax was taken to the Americas from Europe in 1492, while P. falciparum spread with the slave trade to southern Europe and North America. Over the centuries, many curative responses to malaria were attempted, but it was not until the early 1600s that the bark of the cinchona tree was found to alleviate the effects of the disease. Quinine was isolated as the active ingredient of the bark in 1820, being embodied in the iconic gin and tonic of the British Empire. The protection afforded to British colonials from malaria cannot be underestimated.

Quinine facilitated the expansion of the fractal empires of the WCSE into hitherto inaccessible regions of the world. A prime example is the building of the Panama Canal, which was not just an extraordinary feat of engineering but also a milestone in the war against the mosquito – and the survival of the labour force that built it.

Urbanisation has proved to effectively counter the mosquito. The growth of a modern industrialised society, in combination with the spraying of mosquito-infested areas and the development of new anti-malarial drugs, has turned Europe into a malaria-free zone. However, the disease is still prevalent in the poorer, developing parts of the world (see Figure 50), where it currently affects some 300–500 million people and is by far the biggest cause of mortality (some 1–3 million deaths per year), mostly in infants. Indeed, the combination of malaria and HIV has proved to be a more deadly killer in Africa than the individual diseases. The development of drug-resistant strains of malaria poses a serious threat to our collective future health.

The mosquito, of which there are estimated to be a staggering 170,000 for every human, is also the vector for viral yellow fever and dengue fever. The banning of DDT, which was previously used to prevent the breeding cycle of the mosquito, has sadly proved to be an environmental own-goal.

2 Typhus


A line of port medical officers in May 1942 being hosed down after possible contact with typhus during their work to monitor the disease at British ports. Epidemic typhus is considered a potential bioterrorism agent and was tested as such in the former USSR during the 1930s.

A relative of the much older human head louse, the typhus louse has lived symbiotically with man for something like 190,000 years. It lays its eggs in the warm clothes of its host. The typhus-infected faeces of the lice then enter the human body through abrasions in the skin, or other body secretions, causing illness after seven to fourteen days. The lice will only move from one victim to the next on the death of the host when they lose the warmth of the living. Symptoms of the disease are fever, headache, aches, bright red spots that look like bites on the skin and, most importantly, a stupefied and dullish demeanour caused by the build-up of the toxins that ultimately lead to death in 10– 40 percent of infected cases.

Typhus was probably responsible for the plague in the Peloponnesian War of 430 bc that devastated Athens, but the first confirmed outbreak was among European soldiers who had passed through Cyprus before they laid siege to Moorish Granada in 1429. This epidemic killed 17,000 of their number.

Typhus thrives in an environment of social stress, with the accompanying poor hygiene, overcrowding, cold, hunger and, most importantly, unwashed bodies and clothes. Prior to the development of chemical controls for lice, the privations of long military campaigns provided the perfect conditions for the disease, and so typhus was responsible for decimating armies. Of the 600,000 soldiers who set off in Napoléon’s 1812 advance into Russia, only 90,000 reached Moscow. Of those, only 30,000 returned to France and only 1,000 were able to fight again. It was not distance, or the vicious Winter, but typhus that destroyed Napoléon’s dream of defeating the Russians.

The surviving soldiers infected the population of Europe on their return, and thousands died in the ensuing epidemic. Consistent with the empire cycle, this epidemic struck Napoleonic France just as its empire was slipping from maturity into precipitous decline (it had just lost the war against England).

Even as late as World War One, some 3 million Russian soldiers succumbed predominantly to typhus in the combat zone. This huge decimation of the army, largely made up of ordinary conscripts, assisted in catalysing the Communist Revolution.

Typhus was also rampant in prisons up until the twentieth century. There were periods when as many as four times as many inmates died of the disease as were subjected to hanging. It was not until 1909 that lice were understood to be the vector responsible for the disease’s transmission, and only in 1937 was an effective vaccine produced. However, even during World War Two, typhus was rampant in Nazi concentration camps, as well as on the Eastern Front.


Opportunistic Diseases of Expansion of Empire

In addition to the endemic diseases of expansion of empire, there are the opportunistic diseases and plagues that proliferate when key environmental conditions are optimal. As the WCSE grew in wealth and power, the effects of vectors, such as fleas carrying bubonic plague, typhus-infected lice and contaminated water, were reduced by higher standards of civil health, utilities and medical advances. With the exception of smallpox, for which various preventative vaccinations were used from the early 1700s, most diseases were a consequence of humans living at greater population densities than ever before, where infection could be transmitted freely from vector to human, and then from human to human.

During the growth of the WCSE, there were three main epidemic cycles, with each phase representing a stage in the super-empire’s development. First, there were the diseases of regionalisation, in the form of fourteenth- to seventeenth-century plagues and outbreaks of smallpox. Second, as the WCSE expanded, these diseases were exported: smallpox to the Americas and Australia, where it devastated the indigenous populations who had no natural immunity, and plague to India in the midnineteenth century. The third and final phase unfolded as the WCSE expanded into all areas of the globe and world trade connected the different disease reservoirs. Thus, cholera, which is thought to have originated in the Ganges River, was brought back to the heart of the WCSE via trade routes and then spread around the world, creating the nineteenth-century cholera epidemics


1 Bubonic Plague

Bubonic Plauge

The angel of death presides over London during the Great Plague of 1664–66, holding an hourglass in one hand and a spear in the other. This illustration was published in the 26 June 1665 edition of the Intelligencer. With no understanding of the disease, including its prevention or cure, Londoners were powerless to prevent its spread.

The Bubonic Plague, also known as the Black Death, was the predominant disease of the regional phase of empire of the WCSE.

Carried by the rat flea, its host thrived in the increasingly populous urban centres with their poor standards of hygiene. Like the Australian mouse, the rat had cycles of population growth and, if these coincided with phases of high plague infection, the rats would die very quickly. The rat fleas, seeking a new food source, would then jump to other hosts, including the human population. If the disease reached the lymphatic system, the victim had a 60 percent chance of death; if it reached the lungs, this increased to 90 percent, along with the risk of infecting others because this form was directly transmissible from human to human. Once the plague reached the bone marrow, in the septicaemia version, death was inevitable

It is estimated that over the course of recorded history, some 200 million people have died of plague. After the Plague of Justinian, the disease appears to have lain dormant for 800 years, until it reappeared in the human population of the Gobi Desert in China. The vibrancy of the Chinese Empire facilitated its export along its trading routes to the west, and by 1347 it had once more reached Constantinople, where it ravaged the population. From there, it spread across Europe, killing thousands daily between 1347 and 1353, and becoming known as the Black Death. During this time it is believed to have resulted in the deaths of 30 percent of the total population of Europe. This prodigious death rate slowed the regional phase of the WCSE by at least a hundred years. The plague continued across Europe until the 1700s, with more than a hundred individual outbreaks, including the Italian plague of 1629–31, the 1647–52 plague of Seville, the great 1679 plague of Vienna, the plague of Marseilles in 1720–22 and that of Moscow in 1771, but fortunately none of them turned into a second European pandemic. Most notable of these was the Great Plague of London in 1665–66, which struck England in its final stages of regionalisation, killing some 38,000 Londoners (see Figure 51). The effects on the psychology of the population were sobering, as people attempted to explain the outbreaks. This resulted in the persecution of scapegoats, such as the Jewish communities, lepers and foreigners, who were blamed for the disease.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, Europe had developed beyond its regional stage, and the WCSE’s wealth had improved general living conditions to the point that the plague had all but vanished.

However, it would later reappear in a third major cycle in 1885 as the Asian Plague, killing 12.6 million in that region. From there, it spread to the US, where it appeared opportunistically in small clusters, such as after the San Francisco Earthquake in 1907–1909. At this point, the US had just passed into ascension to empire. These outbreaks occurred at much the same point in the empire cycle as the Great Plague of London had occurred in the cycle of the British Empire.

Bubonic Plauge distribution

2 Smallpox

Small Pox

A young boy with face lesions that are characteristic of smallpox. This is another potential bioterrorism agent. Routine vaccination against the disease came to an end in 1972.

During the period when plague dominated Europe, smallpox was also prevalent, as it had been for millennia. Indeed, there are records of the Chinese inoculating people by taking the dried scabs from the disease and pounding them into dust, which was inserted into an incision in the skin. The disease is transmitted via airborne droplets from the lungs or through contact with bodily secretions, and it is extremely virulent, taking only twelve days to incubate and begin its invasion of the whole body. The external symptoms are the tell-tale skin macules, which cause terrible disfigurement

Smallpox originated in Egypt some 3,000 years ago, but during the second millennium ad it became more virulent, and by the 1500s it accounted for 10–15 percent of all deaths in Europe. It was an epidemic of cities, in which 80 percent of children under ten were infected, with 25–40 percent mortality rates. The surviving population was largely immune to the disease. However, when the Spanish exported it to their growing empire in the Americas, it had a devastating effect on the local indigenous population (who had no immunity), killing as many as 90 percent of its victims.

However, in the context of empire cycles, the indigenous empires of the Americas were already in a state of maturity and decline, making them ripe for the incoming smallpox virus to ravage their populations. The Aztecs, for example, had founded their empire in the twelfth century, some 400 years before the arrival of Cortés in 1521. On the basis of the 500-year empire cycle that has been posited, they were in overextension/decline at the time of invasion. Meanwhile, the Incas on the west coast of South America, having founded their civilisation in 1200, expanded to empire in 1442, and then in 1533 suffered a massive peak civil war that greatly weakened their empire. This allowed the Spanish to launch their successful conquest, and the smallpox that they spread to the Inca people had devastating consequences

Thus both the Aztecs and the Incas were in the latter stages of their respective empires when struck with smallpox. It is not surprising then that the disease hastened the end of these ancient civilisations

It was not until 1796 that Edward Jenner developed a cowpox vaccine that proved effective against smallpox. The global inoculation process that followed was extremely effective. In 1801 in England, 100,000 people were inoculated; the French followed with 1.7 million inoculations in 1811, and the Russians with 2 million in 1814. However, despite widespread inoculation programmes, it is estimated that smallpox continued to kill 300–500 million people during the nineteenth century. Indeed, such was the virulence of this disease that it was not until December 1979 that the World Health Organization (WHO) could declare that it had finally been eliminated.

Diseases of Maturity of Empire

1 Cholera

During its maturity phase of empire, the WCSE continued to expand into the few undiscovered regions of the globe. Ironically, having previously exported diseases from Europe, this expansion led to contact with new disease reservoirs that were carried via trade routes back to the core of the WCSE and then outwards to the rest of the world. This process first occurred with syphilis, which was imported by the Spanish from the Americas. Then, in 1817, the British encountered cholera in India. This proceeded to spread around the globe in a series of six epidemics during the next century

Cholera is a waterborne disease, also transmitted via food, carried by the bacterium Vibrio cholerae. It kills by causing acute diarrhoea and dehydration, and it has the unpleasant reputation of being one of the most rapidly fatal diseases. At the extreme end of the spectrum, a victim can die in just three hours, but usually death occurs somewhere between eighteen hours and a few days. At its height, cholera killed one in four infants before their first birthday

Like other diseases, cholera thrives in areas of social stress, poverty and poor water hygiene. Epidemics persisted until improved living standards, coupled with advances in medical science and the recognition of the need for clean water, finally eradicated the disease from Europe. However, it is endemic in the majority of developing countries where water hygiene is still lacking (see Figure 52).

The most recent cholera epidemic took place in Zimbabwe in 2008–2009 after the country had suffered severe economic deprivations and social stress under the tyrannical rule of Robert Mugabe. The public water supply became contaminated and some 80,000 people were infected, with an estimated 3,000 deaths.

3 Tuberculosis

TB Map

 (TB, caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis) attacks the lungs in its pulmonary form. It has long infected man, but in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it took on a new virulence in areas of urban poverty, most probably exacerbated by the pollution of industrialisation and high population density. It was also called the White Death, as its victims suffered pallor, a bloody cough, breathlessness, pain, sweats and wasting. In the nineteenth century it was a major cause of death, but by the early twentieth century it was the greatest killer in the newly globalised world. A very high percentage of urbanised populations were exposed, with 10 percent developing the disease and 80 percent of those dying, suggesting that a staggering 8 percent of the urbanised population, over a number of decades, died from TB.

From the 1920s, vaccination, combined with a new drug-treatment regime in the 1950s and vigilance in keeping cattle herds free of bovine TB, made significant progress in containing the disease. However, despite the widespread use of the vaccine (known as the BCG after its inventors Calmette and Guérin), the disease is still with us. Indeed, it has become one of the biggest single killers in the modern world. An estimated 2 billion people or almost one-third of the world’s population are infected with TB, 8–10 million are manifesting the illness and 1.5–2 million die each year (see Figure 53). The majority of these deaths are in Africa, Bangladesh, China, India, Pakistan and the Philippines. Problems are now arising with drug-resistant strains of TB, and there is a risk that the unresolved disease pool will lead to mutations that will not be protected against by the current vaccination programme.

From the 1920s, vaccination, combined with a new drug-treatment regime in the 1950s and vigilance in keeping cattle herds free of bovine TB, made significant progress in containing the disease. However, despite the widespread use of the vaccine (known as the BCG after its inventors Calmette and Guérin), the disease is still with us. Indeed, it has become one of the biggest single killers in the modern world. An estimated 2 billion people or almost one-third of the world’s population are infected with TB, 8–10 million are manifesting the illness and 1.5–2 million die each year (see Figure 53). The majority of these deaths are in Africa, Bangladesh, China, India, Pakistan and the Philippines. Problems are now arising with drug-resistant strains of TB, and there is a risk that the unresolved disease pool will lead to mutations that will not be protected against by the current vaccination programme.

 Part 4 Diseases of Contraction of Empire - Part 2, follows tomorrow. Subscribe now to receive this direct to your inbox.




We must identify the theories that underlie historical cycles, learn the lessons and apply them to today’s changing world. Studying the ebb and flow of empires throughout history, in particular, can enable us to pinpoint the mechanisms that cause civilisations to rise and fall. Read about the book, an introduction to BTCHfeedback or purchase the book direct.





Engage With David On Social Media

LinkedIn  Twitter  Facebook