On 11 April 2020, James Woods tweeted a misleading graphic with the comment “Pandemic death toll throughout history…” and the graphic, originally produced by Visual Capitalist claimed that the Black Death Plague, Smallpox, the Spanish Flu, the Plague of Justinian, The Third Plague, Antonine Plague, the Asian Flu, the Russian Flu, the Hong Kong Flu, Japanese Smallpox Epidemic, the 17th Century Great Plagues, 18th Century Great Plagues, Swine Flu, COVID-19 and SARS.
While Visual Capitalist did produce the graphic, the original images did not have the red circles indicated the place of origin was China. It is not clear where James Woods got this graphic. The sources given are the CDC, WHO, BBC, Wikipedia, Historical Records, Encyclopedia Britannica and Johns Hopkins University.
The identification of China as the point of origin is true in some cases but not in others.
Black Death (Bacterium Yersinia Pestis)
According to an article in Medical News Today, the Black Death developed “in or near China” according to a recent study and is caused by the bacterium Yersinia Pestis which was also believed to be the cause of the Plague of Justinian.
The Plague of Justinian (541 AD) “probably originated in Asia, not Egypt as contemporary and more recent chroniclers had thought.” This comes from an analysis of DNA found in 137 skeletons found on the Eurasian steppe–a region that spans from modern day Hungary to Northeastern China. The researchers believe that plague came to Europe via the Huns who “were not one people but formed from diverse nomadic groups such as the Scythians and the Xiongnu who forged allegiances to extend their power and territory.” The DNA found in a Hun in the Tian Shan mountains of Central Asia is further back on the plague’s genetic “family tree” but the individual died around 200 AD. Another individual from Ossetia, Russia who probably died “who probably died between the sixth and ninth centuries AD” had a “relative of the Justinian Plague strain.” Another appearance was found in Egypt.
The 17th Century Great Plagues and 18th Century Great Plagues were also caused by Yersinia Pestis. The Third Plague (1855) began in China’s Yunnan province according to an article in Time magazine.
However, a recent discover in Sweden may indicate that the bacterium may have originated in Northern Europe. In any case, saying that the plague originated in China is misleading.
According to National Geographic, Smallpox “is thought to have originated in India or Egypt at least 3,000 years ago.” However, the Visual Capitalist graphic notes that “Smallpox killed an estimated 90% of Native Americans.”
Smallpox (Japanese Smallpox Epidemic, 735-737) was first introduced to Japan by Korea in 735. If one is to consider China as responsible for the deaths of Native Americans due to transmission (The Columbian Exchange) by Europeans, then transmission by Koreans the Chinese would similarly be discounted.
Cholera’s original reservoir was the Ganges Delta in India.
Spanish Flu (H1N1)
The so-called “Spanish Flu” or 1918 Pandemic (H1N1) did not originate in Spain, but according to the CDC, “there is not universal consensus regarding where the virus originated.” New research from Canada suggests that Chinese laborers were the source, but it also points to a problematic history of World War I: Chinese laborers were taken from China to Vancouver and shipped in sealed train cars across Canada and then transported to British and French lines in Europe during World War I despite heavy anti-Chinese sentiment in Canada. The laborers were to work behind the British and French battle lines. Do we ever see that in the movies or history books?
Special Railway Service Guards watched the laborers, who were kept in camps surrounded by barbed wire. Newspapers were banned from reporting on their movement. (National Geographic)
Yet the researcher, Mark Humphries of Canada’s Memorial University of Newfoundland “concedes that a final answer to the mystery of the Spanish flu’s origins is still a ways off.”
Researchers also consider: “For example, the origins of the 1918 virus are not precisely known, but experts think it is likely that the 1918 virus may have resulted from a bird influenza virus directly infecting humans and pigs at about the same time without reassortment.”
Swine Flu (H1N1) is thought to have originated in North America. “The 2009 H1N1 influenza virus (referred to as ‘swine flu’ early on) was first detected in people in the United States in April 2009.” A 2016 study found the point of origin to be Mexico. This was also reported in 2009 by NPR.
The Russian Flu (H1N1) first occurred in northeastern China in 1977. The Hong Kong Flu (H2N2), COVID-19 and SARS all began in China.
What is interesting is what’s not listed. The Athens pandemic during the Peloponnesian War (430 BC) was suspected of being typhoid fever. Typhoid fever is, according to Jorge Galan, “the oldest recognizable disease” and is “the main reason why the Spartans beat the Athenians.” Typhoid fever still causes about 200,00 death around the world.
Leprosy (Hansen’s disease) is caused by a bacteria called Mycobacterium leprae and was pandemic in Europe during the Middle Ages. According to an article in Science (May 2005), leprosy “seems to have originated in Eastern Africa or the Near East and spread with successive human migrations.”
There was a Fiji Measles Pandemic (1875) brought by Europeans. The point of origin of measles is not clear. Mumps is another disease that wasn’t listed and its point of origin is unclear.
Tuberculosis which is “TB is one of the top 10 causes of death and the leading cause from a single infectious agent (above HIV/AIDS).” The TB Alliance lists it as “a global pandemic.” TB can be traced back to West Asia, to a city that is now under water off the coast of Israel.
China is one of the largest countries in the world and has a longer history than the US and most European countries. In the 6th Century (the time of the Justinian Plague) was the beginning of the Middle Ages after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. The Gupta Empire of North India ended in the middle of the century. China’s Southern and Northern Dynasties were reunited under the Sui Dynasty toward the end of the 6th Century. Japan would send up in the Asuka Period (Shōtoku Taishi would write a 17-article constitution). Mohammad was born. Pope Gregory sent Augustine to lead a group of Roman monks to England.
COVID-19 is not a reason post half-true negative assertions about China. For someone with so many followers, James Woods should be more careful about the information he tweets. The Chinese are not the problem and he shouldn’t present them as such.
The New York Times posted a graphic about the spread of COVID-19 from China across the world, but that might have been premature with most of the cases in New York coming from Europe.