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Mississauga murder suspect has criminal history in Calgary

The man accused of killing a Mississauga man in October was due to appear in a Calgary courtroom two weeks after the deadly shooting.

Brandon Horatio Drakes-Simon, 24, was arrested by Peel Regional Police Dec. 6 in connection with the Oct. 22 shooting death of Mario Ibrahim outside of a Webb Dr. condo in Mississauga.

On Monday, members of the Calgary Police Service arrested 24-year-old Melnee Christian in connection with Ibrahim’s death, charging her also with first-degree murder.

Brandon Drakes-Simon, 24 of Mississauga, is charged with first-degree murder.

She was escorted on a commercial flight from Calgary to Toronto Pearson Airport in handcuffs by Peel police Tuesday evening.

Drakes-Simon, who has appeared on Calgary’s ‘most wanted’ lists from as far back as May. 14, 2015, was due to appear in Calgary court Nov 5. for robbery and failure to appear on recognizance charges.

Those proceedings were stayed.

Sources also tell the Sun Drakes-Simon had active warrants issued against him at the time of his arrest.

Two days prior to his Oct. 22 murder, Ibrahim narrowly escaped an attempt on his life when a dark-coloured SUV pulled up beside him on the eastbound lanes of the 401 near Hwy. 427 and opened fire.

Police are also working on linking Ibrahim’s murder with an earlier robbery and shooting at a Mississauga strip club.

Thirty-eight-year-old Jason Williams faces robbery and gun charges in connection with that crime, and a Canada-wide warrant was issued for 34-year-old Justin Malcolm of Brampton, who police describe as “armed and dangerous.”

The investigation continues.

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Cruel primary history lessons Joe Biden won’t want to hear

Joe Biden is the national front-runner in the Democratic presidential race. He is holding a steady lead in national polling, and his campaign boasts of the firewall he’s established among African American voters, who may be the key to victory in the Feb. 28 South Carolina primary and who have backed the ultimate winner in every Democratic nominating contest since 1992.

That’s the good news for Biden.

The bad news is that in the first two voting states, he’s trailing. In fact, according to an average of the polls, he’s running in fourth place in both Iowa and New Hampshire.

If that holds, it will place Biden on the perilous side of history. Traditionally, the results from Iowa and New Hampshire play a dramatic role in winnowing and clarifying presidential fields. Since the dawn of the Democratic Party’s modern presidential primary system in the 1970s, no candidate has lost contested races in both Iowa and New Hampshire and still gone on to win the nomination.

This poses some key questions:

  • What happens if Biden whiffs in the first two states? Would it cause his support elsewhere to collapse, clearing the way for a rival to grab control of the race?
  • How about if he splits Iowa, which caucuses Feb. 3, and New Hampshire, which votes Feb. 11 — would that be enough for Biden to shore up his national standing?
  • Is it possible that the first two states just don’t matter that much anymore, that the nationalization of politics now allows for a candidate to absorb back-to-back blows and emerge none the weaker for it?

History can’t give us a definite answer, but it offers some clues. So, let’s take a closer look.

First of all, the list of contested Democratic presidential races since 1976 isn’t long: There are eight examples. So the historical “rule” that candidates who lose Iowa and New Hampshire don’t win nominations isn’t built on the deepest of foundations.

Plus, the dynamics that defined each of these campaigns vary widely. On that basis, we can probably toss out two that just aren’t that relevant to Biden’s situation. In 1976, Hubert Humphrey led in a Gallup national poll taken just before the Iowa caucuses. But Humphrey wasn’t actually a candidate, and never ended up being one. So there’s not a ton to be gleaned.

The same goes for 1988, a mess of a contest for Democrats. Technically, Gary Hart was the front-runner heading into Iowa, but he was already being written off. Felled by a sex scandal in early 1987, Hart had re-entered the race just before the New Year. He jumped to the top of the polls, but he faced hostile media coverage, had no organization, attracted few endorsements and little money. His numbers — nationally and in the early states — were dropping by the day. So, again, we don’t have a meaningful Biden parallel here.

We can also toss out 1992, a year in which Iowa was ceded to favorite son Sen. Tom Harkin by his opponents and ignored by the media. Practically speaking, Iowa didn’t happen in ‘92.

The remaining six races, however, do contain relevant elements. To understand what they might portend for Biden, we can split them into three categories:

1. National leader wins both Iowa, New Hampshire

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter fended off Ted Kennedy in both states and went on to be re-nominated. Carter’s strength was a late development, spurred by the onset of the Iranian hostage crisis in November 1979. Prior to that, Kennedy had led Carter in polling and seemed poised to grab the nomination from him.

President Carter speaks during a debate against Ronald Reagan in Cleveland, Ohio on Oct. 28, 1980.Bettmann Archive via Getty Images file

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In 2000, Vice President Al Gore ran with the full support of his boss, Bill Clinton, which helped clear the Democratic field — except for former Sen. Bill Bradley. When Gore won a sweeping victory in Iowa and held off a late Bradley charge in New Hampshire, the race was effectively over. Gore remains the only Democrat in the modern era to win every primary and caucus in a contested nomination race.

What it means for Biden now: Carter and (especially) Gore were stronger front-runners, and held polling leads in both Iowa and New Hampshire. But it’s worth remembering that Biden, while technically in fourth place, is within 10 points of the lead in both states. If he could engineer an Iowa victory, he could easily roll through New Hampshire and beyond.

Vice President Al Gore makes a speech during a stop on his presidential campaign in 1999.Brooks Kraft / Sygma via Getty Images file

2. National leader wins one or the other, not both

In 1984, Walter Mondale, like Biden, was a former vice president who loomed over the rest of a large Democratic field (although Mondale was typically faring about 10-15 percentage points better than Biden now in national polling). Mondale also enjoyed strong early support from black voters, who were split between him and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

When the voting began, Mondale won Iowa easily, but his victory was expected. It was the distant second-place candidate, Gary Hart, who then received a burst of media attention and rolled to an upset win in New Hampshire.

Suddenly, Mondale’s grip on the nomination was threatened. The race then moved South for the next set of contests, with Mondale’s fate on the line. Jackson was making a powerful pitch to black voters, but Mondale had just enough residual support from them to eke out campaign-saving wins in Alabama and Georgia. His ship steadied, and he went on to win the nomination.

What it means for Biden now: There are two big differences. One works against Biden: Mondale, a Minnesotan, enjoyed a massive built-in advantage in Iowa, where he led wire to wire. This is significant because it meant there was never any serious chance Mondale would lose both lead-off states. Biden, obviously, does face that risk.

Former Vice-President Walter Mondale gives a speech during his campaign in Minnesota in 1984.Owen Franken / Corbis via Getty Images file

But if Biden can somehow pull out a win in one of the first two states, Mondale’s example becomes quite encouraging for him. This is because of the other key difference: Biden, so far, has faced less competition for the black vote than Mondale did. A December 1983 Gallup poll put Mondale not far behind Jackson among black voters, 36 to 27 percent. By contrast, a Quinnipiac poll two weeks ago put Biden’s black support at 43 percent, with his nearest rival — Bernie Sanders — all the way back at 11 percent.

In 2008, Hillary Clinton was also the national front-runner who lost the nomination after going one-for-two in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Her main opponent was Barack Obama and for the year leading up to the primaries, Clinton had enjoyed solid national leads. She was also competitive with Obama among African American voters, and was endorsed by a number of high-profile black leaders.

But when she lost the Iowa caucuses (technically finishing third, slightly behind John Edwards), the ground shifted dramatically. At first, Clinton looked poised to suffer another loss in New Hampshire, threatening to end her candidacy. Instead, she pulled out a surprise victory, thanks to a late surge of support among female voters.

She then won Nevada, too, but Obama’s Iowa breakthrough had altered the fundamentals of the race. This became clear when South Carolina’s primary results came in. Obama had been expected to win, but his margin — almost 30 points — was shocking. The key: Nearly 80 percent of black voters backed him. Clinton’s hopes of faring respectably with African Americans were shot and the Obama coalition was set. It was just enough to win him the Democratic nomination.

What it means for Biden now: He’s breathing a sigh of relief over this one, because it could have meant a lot, but right now it may not. At the outset of the campaign, it seemed possible that either Kamala Harris or Cory Booker (or both) would lock down significant black support, as Obama did early in the 2008 cycle, and that each would then be positioned to expand that backing rapidly with an Obama-like breakthrough in Iowa or New Hampshire. But Harris is now out of the race and Booker is running at three percent nationally with black voters. If Booker were to make a late move in Iowa, he could still pose a major threat to Biden’s black support, but the clock is ticking.

In 2016, the story for Clinton was similar and even more emphatic. She entered as the clear national front-runner, but soon faced a surprisingly strong challenge from Sanders. As the national race tightened, a potential Clinton firewall emerged: polls showed black voters remained overwhelmingly behind her. But would that support hold if she lost the early states?

She nearly did in Iowa, barely edging out Sanders in a tight race that wasn’t resolved until the morning after the caucuses. Then, she was trounced in New Hampshire by 22 points. But Clinton then pulled out a solid — eight points — victory in Nevada, and any sense of crisis had long since abated when the race reached South Carolina. There, Clinton dismantled Sanders, winning the black vote by an astounding 72 points, and the primary by 47 percentage points. It set the tone for the remainder of the race. Sanders was unable to puncture Clinton’s black support in any meaningful way, and it proved key to her ability to secure the nomination.

What it means for Biden now: Clinton won Iowa in 2016 by a total of four “state delegate equivalents.” (There was no popular vote reported, although there will be this time.) That’s about as close as you can come to losing while still winning.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton arrives onstage during a primary night rally at the Duggal Greenhouse in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, in New York on June 7, 2016.Drew Angerer / Getty Images file

Now ask yourself: What if she’d done just a hair worse and actually lost Iowa? And then lost New Hampshire in a 22-point rout? What would have happened if Clinton lost both? How would it have played in the press? How would influential Democratic voices have treated it? Would she still have been able to turn around and win Nevada or would she have lost there, too? And if she’d lost there, would her South Carolina firewall still have held? Or would Sanders have made real inroads with black voters and altered the course of the Democratic race?

That’s a lot of questions, but it’s the great unknowable that makes 2016 so fascinating to look back at now. Clinton won the nomination handily, but she almost lost both Iowa and New Hampshire. If you believe her South Carolina support would have held despite earlier defeats, then you’re probably bullish on Biden’s chances of absorbing back-to-back losses to start the primary season (and maybe losing Nevada, too) and still winning the nomination. But if you’re not so convinced, then the lesson could be ominous for Biden now.

3. National leader loses Iowa, New Hampshire

In 2004, Howard Dean was the front-runner coming into the early states but not an overwhelming one, and, unlike Biden, he was running as an insurgent. Dean’s lopsided Iowa loss triggered a meltdown of his support elsewhere. He lost New Hampshire handily and every other state, except for his native Vermont.

But Dean’s demise is not what makes 2004 worrisome for Biden. It’s the rise of John Kerry that does.

Kerry’s campaign began with high hopes — a decorated veteran seeking to challenge a wartime president. But by the end of 2003, he was languishing in single digits nationally and running far behind Dean in the early states. Kerry caught fire in the closing weeks in Iowa and, aided by some late attacks on Dean from another candidate, Richard Gephardt, surged to a victory with 38 percent. A week later, he won New Hampshire, where not long before he’d been trailing by more than 20 points.

Then it was on to the South, where Kerry faced a challenge. A December 2003 poll had shown him with just 1 percent support among black voters in South Carolina. But his twin victories in the lead-off states had transformed his standing. Democrats, eager to anoint a nominee and go after Bush, were flocking to him.

In South Carolina, Kerry ended up losing the black vote by just three points, while in other states, he won it outright. The candidate who’d barely been a blip with African American voters at the start of 2004 won a majority of them nationally in the Democratic primaries — and took the nomination with ease.

What it means for Biden: The rise of Kerry, who endorsed Biden last week, demonstrates the potentially transformative power of winning both early states — especially in a climate in which Democrats are hungry to unite. He was far from the first choice of black voters, and most white voters for that matter, but he was an acceptable choice. And when he won Iowa and New Hampshire, that was good enough.

This is the dread scenario for Biden: An opponent sweeps the first two states and Democrats elsewhere deem him or her an acceptable choice and climb on the bandwagon.

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Belgium: This country with a colonial history has a blackface problem

Belgium has a blackface problem. The country shares in the Black Pete tradition, albeit less enthusiastically than the Netherlands. But around Belgium, few seasons pass without folkloric festivals revolving around characters in the racist garb — and while its use has become polarizing around the world, Belgium has a casual approach to the tradition that is jarring to many outsiders.

It’s an attitude that goes back generations to Belgium’s colonial era, say experts — and a 21st century reappraisal seems some distance away.

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) in Antwerp.

Even those in power join in; longtime Flemish Culture Minister Sven Gatz wore blackface at an event in 2015, before responding: “Engaged against racism all my (political) life. And now I’m an ordinary racist because I colored my face dark. Come on. Love. Don’t hate.” to critics on Twitter. 

Former Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders even gave a TV interview while wearing blackface in 2015, attracting heat internationally but causing little damage to his career at home; earlier this year, he was the country’s nomination to become President of the European Commission.
Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders gives a TV interview while wearing blackface.
And earlier this year, Belgium’s controversial Africa Museum — which has attempted to lead a re-education in the country about its colonial history — was condemned for allowing an Africa-themed party in its grounds, to which a guest was seen in blackface and several others in stereotypical clothing.

“You can talk about blackface in Belgium pretty much every day,” anti-racism campaigner Mouhad Reghif told CNN. “I’m tired of trying to explain to hundreds of people that blackface is racist.”

Reghif has long led a fight against Belgium’s relationship with blackface — but that battle took an ugly turn on a sweaty, stifling afternoon earlier this year.

‘I could have been really harmed’

Undeterred by a spell of oppressively hot weather, thousands of people clogged the streets of a medieval Belgian town in August. They had gathered to drink, dance and enjoy the annual folkloric parade that sweeps through Ath; a festival dating back centuries, held to commemorate the unlikely biblical victory of David against Goliath.

It’s a story Reghif felt he could relate to; but unlike the masses surrounding him, he was not there to celebrate.

Dressed in a hat and sunglasses and surrounded by plain clothed police officers, Reghif instead tried to disappear into the crowd. “I was really scared people would recognize me,” he told CNN by telephone. “If they did only part of what they’d promised me in their threats and messages, I could have been really harmed.”

The anti-racism activist was a target for one reason. He had spent much of the past year leading a high-profile and deeply controversial campaign against the parade’s central character, “The Savage” — a sinister villain, played by a white man in blackface, who appears bound by chains with a ring through his nose.

"The Savage" during last month's festival in Ath.

In return for his activism online, he’d received “dozens, if not hundreds” of threatening messages against himself and his daughter. “They say we rape kids, we torture sheep, we are terrorists, and we want to cancel their festival and their traditions and replace it with Islamic law, which is just crazy.”

Still, the 45-year-old activist from Brussels had traveled to see the offending character in the flesh.

He hadn’t planned to disrupt the event — he was merely there “to watch.” But before The Savage had taken center stage, the police officer ensuring Reghif’s safety received an order from the mayor’s office: get him out of Ath.

This is why blackface is offensive

“I was escorted by the policemen back to my car,” he recalled, before being followed by officers as he drove into the next major town. His treatment attracted international attention, thrusting the festival at Ath into the spotlight and leading to anger over its recognition by UNESCO.

For Reghif and many of his fellow anti-racism campaigners, that recognition had been a long time coming. Several regional celebrations use characters in blackface, which are usually depicted as shadowy antagonists.

Ath’s was not the first festival he’d campaigned against for using characters in face paint, he told CNN, and it likely won’t be the last.

‘A colonial mindset’

The prevalence of blackface is surprising in a country whose biggest city is the de facto capital of the European Union and home to one of Europe’s most diverse populations.

But in Belgium, experts say, blackface is one of many holdovers from the country’s colonial period.

“Belgians still have a colonial mindset,” said Reghif. “They do not face their colonial history … they don’t talk about the millions of dead by Leopold II.”

The "Noirauds" or "Blackies" -- a group that marks Belgium's annual carnival season by charitable fund-raising in black face paint -- changed their colours to resemble the Belgian flag in 2019.

The era of Belgium’s King Leopold II is remembered far more clearly in what was then called the Congo Free State, a rubber and ivory-rich region in central Africa ruled personally, and brutally, by the monarch who was eager to exploit Africa’s wealth. Leopold ruled between 1885 and 1908 before it was then taken over by the Belgian state until 1960.

“The cruelties imposed on African laborers to force them to collect rubber beggar the imagination,” explained historian Matthew Stanard of Berry College in the United States, who has authored works on the period and its remembrance in Belgium. He noted one particularly gruesome example — the “accounting system” known as “mains coupees,” in which officers would sever and turn in a hand of a victim to keep track of those they had killed.

In total, it is estimated that millions died under Leopold II’s rule.

But back home, even after the end of its empire in the 1960s, “imperial propaganda had long-term effects,” Stanard said. Belgians continued to see central Africans as “exotic, backwards and uncivilized,” he noted — while “memories (of colonialism) have stayed generally positive … and Leopold II was completely rehabilitated after the end of the colonial era.”

Belgium says sorry for forced removal of mixed-race children during colonial era

With no offer of visas, very few Congolese people came to Belgium until far more recently, he added — so while the country became home to people from a number of European nations, colonial sentiments towards African cultures was never shaken off.

“A lot of Belgians who wear blackface … they don’t realize how much it would be hurting or insulting somebody, because they don’t know anybody who’s of African descent,” said Stanard.

“The colonial era is when all those blackface traditions appeared,” added Laura Nsengiyumva, a Belgian-Rwandan artist, activist and professor who has examined the country’s imperial hangover through her work.

“For the white Belgian citizen, there is no access to this knowledge about what happened there,” she said, noting that the Congo Free State is barely touched on in most school curricula. “It keeps people unaware and very sensitive to their traditions.”

“My students at university are 20 years old and that’s the first time they hear about any of this,” she added. “How can you talk about Belgium without that?”

The United Nations has asked the same question. In February, a group of UN experts visited the country to investigate the role its imperial history plays today.

The group was “concerned that primary and secondary school curricula do not adequately reflect the history of colonization,” it noted in a report, suggesting that one in four Belgian school students is unaware the Congo was even a colony.
Protesters gather at a statue of Leopold II in Brussels.

“Where curriculum exists, it appears to recapitulate colonial propaganda,” the report added — focusing on Belgium’s supposed role in modernizing the Congo, and ignoring its atrocities.

It also found what many others find in the country: the use of blackface.

“The use of blackface, racialized caricatures, and racist representations of people of African descent is offensive, dehumanizing and contemptuous,” the UN report said, urging Belgium’s government to “support and facilitate an open debate on the use of blackface, racialized caricatures and racist representation of people of African descent.”

‘You’re there, but you don’t exist’

One institution finds itself at the center of the storm about Belgian colonial memory — the country’s controversial Africa Museum.

The site, which attempted to shake off a decades-long reputation of being outdated and offensive with an expensive refurbishment, re-opened last year.

But the unveiling of the new, more “critical” iteration was overshadowed by protests and a demand from the President of the DRC that it returns artifacts plundered from the country during the colonial era.
Criticism only intensified in August when a partygoer wore blackface to an event on its grounds, for which the museum apologized.

“Our museum is the most visible symbol of the colonial past of Belgium,” its director Guido Gryseels told CNN. “We’re in the middle of that debate.

A sculpture at the Museum of Central Africa (RMCA) in Brussels, commonly known as the Africa Museum.

“Some people want us to take a much more activist role, for example in condemning Leopold II. (But) we see ourselves as a forum for debate … you leave it up to the visitors to make their own minds.”

Gryseels recognized that “the majority of young people know very little about colonial past,” and as a result, “any change in cultural tradition” does not come without some opposition. “When I grew up I didn’t know a single person in the area that was of another origin,” he noted.

But he dismissed the suggestion that blackface is commonplace in Belgium, suggesting that “there is racism in the country but it’s by and large so uncommon.”

That’s a view rejected by Nsengiyumva, who served as an adviser for the museum before its re-opening but has been critical of the institution since.

Dutch Christmas character Black Pete to ditch blackface on TV

“There is a lot of prejudice, but it’s even more dangerous because you don’t see it,” she said, pointing to inequality in housing, employment opportunities and other social areas.

Her complaints have been made frequently by black and minority ethnic people in Belgium, and were supported by a study earlier this year by Brussels Observatory for Employment and Training — which found that the unemployment rate among people with African origin was around three times higher than white European candidates in Brussels.

“The structural inequality in the jobs market with respect to origin is significant,” said Khadija Sanhadi, who led the study, according to The Bulletin.

Reghif said trends like those have a profound impact. “It’s a social death — you are there, but you don’t exist,” he said.

And for Nsengiyumva, blackface in particularly can make that experience more painful.

“You had this idea that blackness and violence were related — that’s the same idea as seen in The Savage of Ath,” she said. “It’s really like an education to racism … for white kids to see their black comrades as violent, as dirty, in negative ways.

“Because it’s folklore, because it’s tradition for kids, people think it’s innocent,” she concluded. “But it’s not innocent.”

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Goar Vartanyan: Russian spy who ‘changed history’ dies at 93

Goar Vartanyan with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2005Image copyright

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Goar Vartanyan with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2005

Russia has paid tribute to a former Soviet intelligence officer it credits with uncovering a Nazi plot to kill the Allied leaders Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt during World War Two.

Goar Vartanyan died on Monday at the age of 93. She was married to Soviet spy Gevork Vartanian, who died in 2012.

Without the pair “the history of our world could have been different”, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

“These are people who left their mark on the history of mankind.”

  • Soviet spying legend Gevork Vartanian dies at 87

Born in what was then Soviet Armenia in 1926, Vartanyan moved to Iran in the 1930s. At 16 she joined an anti-fascist group led by her future husband, who was already working as a spy. They allegedly exposed hundreds of Nazi agents in the country.

The group was given responsibility for securing a 1943 conference in the Iranian capital, Tehran, where the British, Soviet and American leaders met to discuss their strategy for fighting the war.

Image copyright

Image caption

Josef Stalin, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill at the Tehran conference

The group are said to have uncovered a plot – known as Operation Long Jump – to kill the “Big Three” Allied leaders and arrested the would-be Nazi assassins.

The plot was allegedly commanded by the infamous Austrian-born Nazi commando Otto Skorzeny but was foiled after transmissions were intercepted by Soviet operatives.

However, Skorzeny later wrote in his memoirs that the plot never existed.

Goar and Gevork Vartanyan moved to the Soviet Union in 1951 and later worked together as spies posted overseas under deep cover – as part of the so-called “illegals” programme – from 1956 to 1986, Russia’s SVR foreign intelligence agency said. Her code name was Anita and his Anri.

  • The man who turned Soviet spies into Americans

Mr Peskov, spokesman for President Vladimir Putin, said Russia’s leader – a former intelligence agent – knew the pair well.

“He is a Hero of the Soviet Union! She is the heroine of all his achievements! He passed away first. She passed away today,” the SVR said in a statement.

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Black Death in China: A history of plagues, from ancient times to now

Finally — for many of them — came death.

Today, many of us think of the plague as something confined to the history books — a grim symbol of the medieval period, before doctors knew about the existence of viruses or bacteria.

But this month, three people in China were diagnosed with two different forms of plague, highlighting that while the plague is not as serious an issue as it once was, it’s also not entirely a thing of the past.

Neither is debate about the cause of the disease, how it spread, and even where it came from.

Plagued by questions

For a disease that has impacted humans for centuries, there’s still plenty we don’t know about the plague.

Humans have been hit by three major plague pandemics over the past 2,000 years, resulting in nearly 200 million deaths. The first pandemic was in the 6th century, during the reign of Byzantine emperor Justinian I. The second — which was known as the Black Death — swept through medieval Europe, starting from the 14th century. The third pandemic began in China in the 19th century, and spread to other parts of Asia and the United States.
In the Middle Ages, many thought the disease had been sent by god as punishment for their sins. By the 20th century, scientists were pretty sure that all three pandemics were caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis, which is found in small mammals and fleas. They knew that there were a number of varieties of Yersinia pestis, the most common of which are pneumonic and bubonic — the type that causes large sores.
14th-century plague of Florence as described by Giovanni Boccaccio.

But starting in the 1970s and 1980s, historians and biologists began pointing out that the second pandemic didn’t act like the third pandemic in a significant way: it killed many more people. That prompted people to posit that another disease had caused the Black Death, said historian Winston Black, who is writing a book that busts a number of plague theories.

“They’re often called the ‘plague deniers’ — they’re denying that the medieval Black Death was the bubonic plague,” Black said. “They’ve proposed anthrax, (and) something like an early Ebola.”

The turning point came in the 2000s, when scientists developed the ability to extract ancient DNA — including from medieval skeletons.

When scientists analyzed the skeletons of plague victims, they found fragments of Yersinia pestis, said Black. But that only led to another question: if the disease wasn’t genetically different, then why was the second pandemic so deadly?

In the past, that’s been attributed to the poor hygiene and close living quarters of people during the medieval period. But Black says that still doesn’t completely explain it, as others have lived in similarly bad conditions and not experienced such a rapid and deadly plague.

And there are other questions and misconceptions that remain over the Black Death.

Although the nursery rhyme “Ring Around the Rosie” is widely thought to be about the plague, Black said that was an incorrect theory created decades after the song was first sung. And the popular notion that doctors wore beaks — supposedly to protect them from infection — during the Black Death was also wrong, Black said — the mask wasn’t invented for hundreds of years after the second pandemic.

A world map that is believed by some to have been compiled by Zheng He(1371-1435), China's most famous navigator.
About a decade ago, some scientists argued that the plague could have originated in East Asia over 2,600 years ago. The second pandemic could have started in China, they said, and been brought to Europe through the Silk Road, an ancient trade route that connects China to Europe. They also posited that the disease could have been brought to Africa by Zheng He, a Chinese explorer who traveled around the world in the 15th century, and who has drawn comparisons with Italian explorer Marco Polo.
But scientists have since found DNA evidence that the plague could have existed much further back than previously thought — there’s evidence it existed in Europe some 5,000 years ago.

And the idea that the second pandemic, the Black Death, could have started in China is unlikely, Black said.

DNA evidence extracted from the skeletons of medieval plague victims, and genetic analysis of the bacteria, suggest that the outbreak probably originated in central Asia, and moved east into China, and west into Europe via trade routes, said Black.

Even if the second pandemic had come from China, the Zheng He theory isn’t feasible — as Black points out, if Zheng He’s ship was carrying plague-infested rats, the whole crew would most likely be dead before they reached Africa.

China’s brush with modern plague

But when it comes to the third pandemic, there are fewer questions. This time, scientists are sure it originated in China in the 19th century, in what is now the southwestern province of Yunnan.

That bubonic plague outbreak made its way to Hong Kong — then a British colony — and from there, spread via trade routes to other parts of Asia and the United States.

“It’s undeniable that there was this pathway of transmission from China to the outside world,” said Jack Greatrex, who is working on a PhD at Hong Kong University about the history of the plague in Hong Kong.

Plague inspectors on a street of Hong Kong, around 1890.

That outbreak sparked the third global plague pandemic. But it was another plague outbreak that would help shape China’s future.

In the 1910s, there was another outbreak of plague in Manchuria — now northeast China. Thousands were killed by pneumonic plague, the most severe strand.

At the time, parts of China were occupied by foreign powers. Both the Russian and Japanese empires claimed they could manage the plague in Manchuria better than China, which showed China that disease could be a “security disaster” as it “legitimated colonial meddling,” said Miriam Gross, who studies public health in China and is a professor at the University of Oklahoma.

When the founder of modern China, Mao Zedong, came to power in 1949, he made disease control a priority. There were a number of reasons for that, but one was to show that China could handle its own affairs and didn’t need outside help, Gross said.

Chinese Cultural revolution poster about the so-called four pests: mosquitoes, rats, flies and sparrows.

So Mao put in place a number of measures to control the country’s rampant disease. One of his most famous and unusual proposals was the “Four Pests Campaign,” where Mao called for rats, flies, mosquitoes and sparrows to be eliminated. The rats were to be killed to control schistosomiasis, which is sometimes translated in English as “plague” although it is a different disease.

But the Four Pests Campaign led to the slaughter of millions of wildlife, which disrupted the country’s ecology and contributed to a mass famine during which millions of people died.

Ultimately, though, China did improve its overall health care across the country. Nevertheless, the plague — which had not been the main focus of the health push — has occasionally reared its ugly head. Yunnan was hit by another breakout between 1986 and 2005, and another case was diagnosed in Yunnan in 2016.

Why we’re so fascinated by the plague

Centuries on from the Black Death, people around the world continue to be transfixed by the plague in a way they’re not by other diseases.

These days, the plague is hardly the biggest health risk facing many countries. In 2017 alone, 219 million people caught malaria and 435,000 people died of the disease. By contrast, between 2010 and 2015, 584 people died of the plague worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.
While the plague can be deadly if untreated, patients can easily be treated with antibiotics. After the plague diagnosis in China, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention said there was an extremely low risk of it spreading, state media China Daily reported.

But even if the disease isn’t a major threat for most countries, it still interests scientists and historians, who are continuing to make discoveries about the Black Death, despite it occurring hundreds of years ago.

Staff members from a local disease control center wear prevention clothes and masks before entering a plague surveillance lab in Sichuan Province of China in August 28, 2019.

Greatrex, from Hong Kong University, said the plague continued to be haunted by its history. “You hear of the plague, and instantly you think of Black Death which ravages Europe, it has that enormous historical baggage,” he said. “It’s where lots of our ideas about what it means to have an epidemic comes from.”

Black, the historian, said the fascination with the Black Death comes from a deep cultural memory in the Middle East and Europe, where the disease was written about for centuries.

However, he said other diseases — such as malaria and Ebola — should be of greater concern.

“It’s so central to Western identity,” he said. “It’s part of our past, where something like malaria, which is so much more devastating in the last century, it doesn’t interest us.”

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