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The deadliest virus we face is complacency

Niall Ferguson

By Niall Ferguson (original source The Boston Globe)

“When I was 11, I was scarred for life by the BBC. It was 1975 and the show was called “Survivors.”

The title sequence began with a masked Chinese scientist dropping a glass flask. It smashes. We then see him boarding a plane to Moscow, where he starts to feel unwell. Suddenly, a naked arm falls lifeless across the screen. We see passport stamps for Berlin, Singapore, New York . . . finally London. And then a ghastly red stain spreads across the screen.

The genius of the series was that it was set in middle-class England — a serene Herefordshire of tennis courts, boarding schools, and stay-at-home wives. Within 10 minutes of episode one, however, that England was spiraling back to the 14th century. For the Chinese scientist’s flask contained a bacterium even more deadly than Yersinia pestis, which is now generally recognized to have caused the Black Death.

The Black Death — mainly bubonic plague but also the even more lethal pneumonic variant — killed between 75 million and 200 million people as it spread eastwards across Eurasia in the 1340s. The disease was transmitted by flea bites; the fleas traveled by rodent. Up to 60 percent of the population of Europe perished. Survivors imagined an even worse plague — originating, like the Black Death, in China.”

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