The Year of the Rat is one of pestilence

Mark Hughes

It’s not often one starts an article with the word musophobia in the first or, indeed, any sentence outside the annals of zoology, but here we must.


It’s not often one starts an article with the word musophobia in the first or, indeed, any sentence outside the annals of zoology, but here we must.

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For those who don’t know, it is a fear of rats and, this year, the rodent’s moment is “celebrated” around the world because, according to the Chinese calendar, it is the Year of the Rat, the rodent that can start breeding after five weeks and mate up to 500 times in six hours. Resulting pregnancy lasts about three weeks and each litter produces six to 20 infants. Do the mathematics yourself.

Common literature has come to associate rats with disease-carrying, sewer-dwelling traitors or snitches. Between 1347 and 1351, rats with plague-infested fleas killed an estimated 25 million people in Europe.

The common noun for a group of rats is the rather-too-gentle “mischief”, given their propensity to chew through soft concrete, wood, cinder blocks and plastic in order to keep their ever-growing teeth whittled down.

So perhaps it is no wonder the year of the rat has not actually been celebrated in many places but considered extremely unwelcome, coinciding with pestilence of perhaps greater than biblical proportions. I use the word pestilence according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary: a contagious or infectious epidemic disease that is virulent and devastating and something that is destructive or pernicious.

Last week, the United Nations warned 45 million people are threatened by famine in Southern Africa from drought, floods and economic hardship in their countries.

“This hunger crisis is reaching unprecedented proportions and our field observations show that it will still get worse,” says Lola Castro from the World Food Programme.

It is not hard to think in the early days of this thus far benighted 2020 of the Four Horses of the Aplocalypse in the New Testament’s Book of Revelation. They were given power over a quarter of the world to kill by famine, plague or sword – pestilence, in other words, and all too well known to mankind.

On the minds of many now is the devastating outbreak of the new Coronavirus outbreak, with its feared capacity to kill possibly millions.

The most pessimistic observers see a repeat of the 1918 influenza pandemic (January 1918-December 1920; colloquially known as Spanish flu). This infected 500 million people around the world,  including some on remote Pacific islands and in the Arctic. Probably 50 million, and possibly as high as 100 million (3 to 5 percent of the world’s population at the time) died, making it one of the deadliest epidemics in human history, according to medical historians.

The mayor of the Chinese city of Wuhan, which is at the centre of the current viral outbreak, said on Sunday that there could be many thousands  more confirmed cases of the yet-explained  illness in the city.

Media reports said earlier this week  there were 5,794 confirmed cases of the disease in mainland China, including 132 deaths, the latter no doubt leaving families grief-stricken and bereft. The youngest confirmed case involved a 9-month-old girl in Beijing, according to The People’s Daily, a state newspaper. Her  current condition is unknown.

At the same time, the UN is appealing for urgent international action as the worst swarms of desert locusts in decades threaten to destroy farming regions across East Africa. The body’s Food and Agriculture Organisation is calling for emergency funding of $70 million to combat the locusts through aerial spraying as swarms – some of them billions strong – make their way from Ethiopia and Somalia across Kenya.  Uganda and South Sudan – the latter especially vulnerable to hunger after years of civil war – are also at risk.

Those who follow current affairs may have seen at least 44 people have died during severe rainstorms in Brazil’s Minas Gerais state, according to the country’s emergency services.

Many of the victims were buried in landslides or washed away in floods after intense rain last Friday and Saturday.

More than 2,500 people were evacuated from their homes, and local TV showed images of ruined houses under red mud. The Brazilian weather service said on Saturday that the state capital of Minas Gerais, Belo Horizonte, had 17 centimetres of rain in one 24-hour period – the heaviest rainfall since records were first kept 110 years ago.

Still in many people’s minds are the so-called megafires in Australia. Observers say it’s hard to estimate the eventual economic cost of this, partly because they are still under way and partly because it is hard to know the cost to attribute to deaths and the decimation of species and habitats, but it is easy to get an idea of its significance – the cost will be unprecedented, says the Australian government.

One thing that isn’t going away is air pollution worldwide. In the UK alone, more than one in 19 deaths in towns and cities is linked to this insidious killer,  a charity warns. People living in urban areas are 25 times more likely to die of long-term exposure to pollution than a car crash, according to the Centre for Cities. They are at risk from Particulate Matter (PM2.5), a toxic mixture of dust, ash and soot that the UK Department for Environment admits is likely to have “adverse effects” even in small doses. The threat is worst in London and south-eastern towns including Luton and Slough, with PM2.5 linked to about one in 16 deaths in these areas. Zak Bond, of the British Lung Foundation, said breathing toxic air can lead to a range of health conditions including lung disease, stroke and cancer.

Now, let’s not forget one other power of those damned apocalyptic horses: the power to kill by sword, historically in weaponry terms a precursor of today’s mass-killing machines.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group based in the UK, the estimated number of people killed since the Syrian civil war started in 2011 was as high as 511,000 as of March 2018. Years of relentless fighting left 6.6 million displaced internally and 5.6 million around the world, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Can things get better?

According to the 34th president of the US, Dwight D. Eisenhower, a five-star general in the army who inhabited the White House from 1953 to 1961, “The essence of war is fire, famine, and pestilence. They contribute to its outbreak; they are among its weapons; they become its consequences.”

An optimist may say we’ve seen the worst of it. A pessimist will say the opposite. As an old teacher of mine defined the difference: “An optimist believes this is the best of all possible worlds; a pessimist agrees with him.” Take your pick.

Mark Hughes is group business editor of Khmer Times

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