Chapter 4 – Without Prejudice

As we live, we constantly get ineradicable reminders that life is indeed intended as a hard road. Being so, one could expect that preordination of tragedy has its “deliverer” lurking around and trying to imbibe us as if we were tokens in a game of chance. Tragedy afflicts victims as if some power is zapping a laser gun wildly just to see which unlucky soul the beam hits. Altogether a probability game, tragedy gets us somehow. The big consolation is gravity of tragedy does vary individually.

Personal tragedies befall every one of us and it’s just a matter of time before they strike as if purposefully bringing to fruition the glaring reality that negation consumes and overwhelms us every now and then. Still, it isn’t so personal when a single tragedy simultaneously afflicts scores of people. It’s as if one’s karma lies within a karmic spiral and one is componential to a grand karmic deliverance. It’s the grand scheme of things rendering one’s individual karma to be subservient.

Natural disasters affect scores and deal an enveloping bad fate to befall so many people at the same time. Calamities are so common, so much so man has realised the need to categorise, catalogue and monitor them. You can have a bad avalanche that buries an entire hill slope town or severe blizzards, hailstorms, snowstorms on to other catastrophes such as wildfire that decimate communities to cinders. But the colossus death-kneels come in the form of devastative earthquakes, cyclones, tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and volcano eruptions that kill thousands – often tens and even hundreds of thousands.

Ulee Lheue mass grave, Banda Aceh, Indonesia - with more than 14,000 victims of the 2004 tsunami
Ulee Lheue mass grave, Banda Aceh with more than 14,000 victims of 2004 tsunami buried

One can’t help but to question philosophically that if God had intended for us to serve him then why would he not intervene to annul them in a way so as to save the lives of his subjects. Instead, his subjects die in scores as if natural disasters which are no more than a storm in a teacup to him, are thumbing their noses at God so as to say “gotcha”. Could it then be that either he has totally left us to our devises or is he helpless as to “what will be, will be” once he spins the Wheel of Chance and Probability.

Dying becomes so impersonal and not so much within a private setting anymore. Instead, you have dying together just like you were carefully selected to be a player in death’s orchestra. So you wonder whether your fates with the others are entwined and intertwined to serve as a stark lesson and to be chosen as the vanquished in a grand game of sardonic probability. The lesson unfortunately is meant for the living who are the observers.

It’s realisable and comprehensible that off and on; or now and then, joint-risks are unavoidable. Take flying in a commercial airline, sailing in an ocean liner, a high-speed train ride or simply riding the bus meandering through precarious mountainside roads as common instances. Basically, your life and your fellow passengers’ are in the hands of other individuals. The Costa Concordia or the Titanic is a classic example where you can be happily having the time of your life when tragedy strikes.

What’s distressing is that natural disasters grow in tandem with population growth. As a matter of fact, natural disasters grew by 400 % in the past 20 years. These are in fact revelations from Oxfam, the Red Cross and the United Nations. They also cited that some 250 million people are affected by natural disasters in any given year. By circumstance or destiny, practically billions of people actually live along the paths of disaster. It’s glaringly evident that coastal regions are prone to hurricanes and tsunamis. Japan, Taiwan all the way down to Indonesia and into the Indian Ocean; and on the other side across to the South American Pacific coast, the Western North American coast stretching from Central America, Monterey, San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and all the way to Alaska are all high-prone earthquake and volcanic areas. It’s often referred to as the Pacific Ring of Fire and it’s not if quake or eruptions will happen but rather when they will strike.

Cities, towns and villages with proximity to mountains are characteristically quake prone. In a crux, mountains are massive protruding geologic formations. Elementarily speaking, they are formed mostly by intercontinental tectonic plate movements or the effects of pushing against one another. The iconoclastic Himalayas, Karakoram and Hindus Kush – the world’s highest mountain ranges are evidence to the fact that the Indian Sub-Continent is being “pushed” northwards.

Earthquakes occur and given time and repetitive thrusts, mountains are formed. Alas, people living in apparent susceptible regions such as mountainous terrain are indeed dicing with death and destruction. Disturbingly, 2,600 earthquakes occur throughout the world every day but many are too weak to be felt. The larger ones comprising 25 of these are threatening enough to be reckoned with.

Let’s take a brisk walk through Disaster Alley and look back at some catastrophic natural disasters.

The worst quake in recorded history struck 5 July, 1201 in Syria and Egypt devastating the eastern Mediterranean and killing an estimated 1.1 million people with countless more displaced. Almost equally bad was the 1556 Shaanxi 8.0 quake which recorded 830,000 deaths. Some of the worst affected counties saw 60% of their population perish. Displacement was so severe that many had to resort to living in caves. That was literal synonymy to being sent back to the Stone Age.

Closer to our lifetimes, the unforgettable magnitude 9.1 Boxing Day quake of 2004 off the coast of Sumatra triggered devastating tsunamis that killed about 300,000 people in countries bordering the Indian Ocean. Tidal waves reached as far as East Africa. In the worst hit coast of North-Western Sumatra, waves reached 30 metres or 100 feet high. Banda Aceh lost nearly half of the city’s population in an instance. The carnage was reminiscent of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the atomic bombs were dropped.

The Sichuan quake of May 2008 measuring 7.9 killed almost 70,000 people in that Chinese province and devastated a great scape of villages, towns and cities. Then, January 2010 saw a huge quake hit Haiti in the Caribbean and affecting more than 3 million people and causing 250,000 homes and 30,000 buildings to be completely ruined. Japan’s monstrous 2011 Tohuku 9.0 magnitude quake and the resultant waves of tsunamis caused 30,000 deaths and as many as 590,000 people displaced. Fields and all other industries were destroyed and property damage stood at an eye-popping US$ 230 billion. Furthermore, it saw the destruction of the Fukushima nuclear power plant which had 1,600 tons of nuclear fuel in reactors. This dwarfed Chernobyl which held only 180 tons of nuclear fuel when disaster struck. Moreover in the bone-chilling Chernobyl disaster only one reactor was involved whereas Fukushima had four.

Retrospectively the 1976 Tangshan quake in China claimed some 500,000 lives while the 1920 Haiyuan quake, also in China, killed over 300,000. In more recent times, there was the 2003 Bam quake in Iran that killed 26,000 and the Golcuk or Izmit earthquake of 1999 in Turkey which killed close to 20,000 people. The 1995 Great Hanshin quake of Kobe saw 6,400 killed while leaving 300,000 homeless. Japan’s worst ever, the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923 killed 140,000 people, destroyed 570,000 homes and rendered 1.9 million people homeless.

Dome of mosque washed into the padi field miles away by the tsunami and landing upright
Dome of a mosque washed miles away into the padi field by the tsunami and miraculously landing upright. Aceh

November 2013 witnessed the strongest storm ever to hit land. It was Typhoon Haiyan which lashed the eastern coast of the Philippines. 14 million people were affected with cities like Tacloban utterly destroyed by winds exceeding 200mph or 320kph – followed by killer storm surges. Altogether 4.3 million people were displaced with over 5,600 deaths and many listed as missing. Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the Gulf region, deluging the city entirely and killed 1,800 people. It was the sixth strongest and fifth most destructive hurricane ever recorded.

The Bhola cyclone of 1970 which hit East Pakistan or what has since become Bangladesh; and West Bengal, killed as many as 500,000 people and left many more homeless. The first band aid-concert of its kind ensued with George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh.

Journeying back into history, we see some even more devastating disasters claiming larger death tolls from single disasters.  These were non-quake and non-storm disasters but rather famines. The Great Indian Famine of 1769 caused by crop shortfall and drought took over 10 million lives. It lasted 4 years claiming the lives of some 25% of the entire Indian population.

Meanwhile in Ireland, a water mould fungus caused the Irish Potato Famine which lasted from 1845 to 1848 and which killed over 1 million people. Potato was their staple diet and subsequently caused some 2 million Irish to emigrate out of sheer desperation. That was a significant proportion of Eire’s population then. Today, more people of Irish descent live outside Ireland that in it. Some have also become US Presidents.

Still back in the 19th. century, three years of drought from 1876 to 1879 which affected 9 Chinese provinces killed over 9 million people. Rivers had run dry which obliterated crops and livestock. In China again and following a severe drought extending from 1928 to 1931, torrential rain fell over a stretch of 2 months, swelling the Yangtze and Huai rivers and causing cataclysmic floods which affected 50 million people and killing 4 million of them. It was as if they were victims of nature’s very own punitive cynicism. First, scores were killed by drought and as the prodigious rains came, even more perished.

In what is being described as politically-induced famine, an estimated 20 million people died between the years of 1951 to 1961 in Mao’s China. This would be delved into further on in a later chapter. Politics and famine also caused 3 million people to perish in North Korea from 1995 to 1998. Over 1 million deaths occurred in Ethiopia and 19 other African nations between 1981 and 1984 prompting Sir Bob Geldof to band together a large group of bestselling musicians and artistes in the unforgettable Band Aid concert in 1984 to raise funds for victims.

Somehow, most of these natural disasters seem to target populated places. Is it coincidental or is it consequential? Is it human tendency to purposefully live in hazardous areas or have they themselves contributed partially to the hazards of their plight? Indiscriminate development, callous deforestation and environmental degradation are just some of the prominent examples of human folly and apathy. It’s no better than spitting in the wind where we are only hurting ourselves. Earthquakes don’t have anything to do with deforestation or global warming as they are internal or underground tectonic cum geologic activities. There is virtually nothing humans can do to prevent them but we may want to try to keep away from highly prone areas. Though a simple logical solution, this somehow is always going to be easier said than done.

When victims die, that’s the end of life’s journey for them. The dead suffers no more and may have faithfully voyaged to a better “world”. Yet survivors and the more distant observers who weren’t directly afflicted but spared from disasters are nonetheless all affected in various ways. Those who see the ugliness and are part of disaster with the deaths of thousands of people and the complete destruction of humble homes, generally feel an impacting sense of fear, sadness and even anger. Commonly, they suffer PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Old Dutch Cemetery, Malacca
Old Dutch Cemetery, Malacca

They may be compassionate and they may soul-search while a sense of guilt most likely associated with survivor syndrome may befall them. Strangely, some are also able to ignore or isolate their thoughts and emotions lest they get mentally and emotionally affected. They also may feel fortunate and relieved that they have been spared, while consciously acknowledging that if it can happen to others, it can certainly happen to them. So it becomes either very much a grateful relief or a cursed awakening but nonetheless a harsh lesson learned.

While the canons roar, the firecrackers burst.

We had partaken in a microscopic journey through the preceding chapters into a world of microorganisms, viruses, bacteria, cells and the likes. This inward reductive journey brings us all the way to atoms and deeper on to subatomic particles – which as we know today, are further broken down into elementary particle and composite particles.

Welcome to barely scratching the surface of particle science!

Elementary particle of the Standard Model consists of six flavours of quarks; six types of leptons; twelve gauge bosons; and Higgs boson. To the layman, these seem incomprehensible. Yet further on, there are extensions to the Standard Model which includes graviton and many others. Composite subatomic particles on the other hand include hadrons, baryons and mesons. These are further divided into protons, neutrons, pions, kaons and more. It’s all stupendously mind-boggling and continues beyond what human knowledge can ever comprehend or fathom. In essence, to an atom the human body must seem like an entire universe. That’s worth comprehending and visualising.

But just as natural disasters and calamities hit humans in a big way, there are more deaths resulting from microbial enemies that lurk around to invade our bodies and killing countless of our species. These come in the form of viruses, bacteria and cell mutations. For starters, there are thousands of virus species. They are also some 100 to 1,000 times smaller than bacteria and previously could not be seen until the advent of the electron microscope.

Since they can’t multiply or replicate on their own, they have to invade a ‘host’ cell and take over its machinery to produce more virus particles. In human context, it’s like forcibly taking over a factory to produce your own products. Viruses consist of genetic materials, either DNA or RNA, and are surrounded by a protective coat of protein making them capable of latching onto cells and getting inside them. Collating information on viruses into categories and groups is scientifically called taxonomy and the International Committee on Taxonomy of Virus has identified some 2,500 species of 395 genera, 95 families and 6 orders. They evolve rapidly and new viruses are being discovered all the time.

Bacteria on the other hand are microorganisms that are made up of just one cell. They are capable of multiplying or replicating by themselves since they have the capability to self-divide. Their shapes vary, and doctors use these characteristics to separate them into groups. Bacteria exist everywhere. Most are harmless while some are very useful but some bacteria cause diseases because they either end up in the wrong place in the body or they have been designed to invade us – such as in the case of pathogens.

Bacteria are distinguished based on their shapes and the type of cell wall they possess. There are two main groups of bacteria and they are called bacteria and cyanobacteria; and there are seven main types of bacteria and which are again divided into positive and negative gram. About 20 years ago, an American microbiologist worked out the number of bacteria on Earth and concluded that there are five million trillion-trillion of them.

Mathematically, this is 5,000,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000 (5 followed by 30 zeros).

Throughout history and among fatal diseases that kill masses, none is more chillingly macabre of mention than the plague. The Yersinia pestis bacteria cause plague – a rapid-killing scourge suffered by man since the dawn of civilization. Plague is transmitted to humans when they are bitten by fleas which had fed on plague-infected creatures such as rodents and especially rats – since where you find humans you will find rats. Historically, many incidences of plague were actually brought back by armies from battles and by traveling trader convoys. Characteristically too, this was how scourges spread.

The Plague of Justinian afflicted the Byzantine Empire including its capital Constantinople in 541–542 CE. 5,000 people were dying a day in the city and where even Emperor Justinian wasn’t spared. It killed some 40% of the people of Constantinople and up to a quarter of the population of the eastern Mediterranean.

Hagia Sofia, Istanbul
Hagia Sofia, Istanbul

Prior to that, the Antonine Plague or Plague of Galen of the 2nd. Century CE claimed the lives of two Roman emperors. Some 2,000 people were dying daily in the scourge and it decimated the Roman army. It killed as many as a third of the population and spread throughout the Roman Empire where overall deaths were estimated at 5 million.

The Black Death or The Black Plague was one of the deadliest pandemics in human history. The origins of the plague are disputed among scholars but it’s widely believed to have originated in China or Central Asia in the early 1300s. It had reached Crimea in 1346 and mercilessly spread to Europe and North Africa. In total, it killed some 75 million people with Europe bearing the brunt of it. An estimated 25 million to 50 million people perished in Europe alone. Moreover, it was also believed to have returned with every generation way until the 1700s – by which time over 100 plague epidemics have scourged across Europe.

The Italian Plague of 1629–1631, also called the Great Plague of Milan, killed some 280,000 people. Lombardy and Venice were particularly hard hit. Milan suffered approximately 60,000 deaths out of its total population of 130,000. The Great Plague of 1665-1666 in England killed 75,000 to 100,000 people which represented 20% of the population of London. The Great Plague of Marseille was a bubonic outbreak which occurred sometime around 1720 and killed some 100,000 people in the city and other nearby provinces.

The Third Pandemic was a bubonic plague pandemic which occurred in Yunnan, China in 1855 and spread to inhabitants in all continents. It eventually killed some 12 million people in India and China alone. In fact, the World Health Organization considered the pandemic to have had been active until 1959.

St. Paul's Hill, Malacca
15th. Century church built by the Portuguese – St. Paul’s Hill, Malacca

Another population-decimating scourge was the Spanish Flu of 1918-1920. It occurred at the end of WWI. Also known as La Grippe, it was a global disaster spreading as far as the Arctic and Pacific islands and viciously infecting some 500 million people. The total number of deaths remains unknown while experts estimate it to have claimed the lives of 50 million to 100 million people.

The spread was exceedingly fast partly aided by the ending of WWI or commonly referred to as The Great War, with soldiers returning to their respective countries across the world. Often described as the greatest medical holocaust in history, the Spanish Flu was cited as the most devastating epidemic in recorded history where more people died in a year than four years of the Black Death bubonic plague from 1347 to 1351.

One anecdote was of four women playing bridge together one night but by morning, three had died from influenza. Infection rate was 50% while mortality rate was a shocking 10% to 20%. There were eerie stories of people on their way to work having suddenly developed the flu and died within hours. Even young healthy adults fell prey to it since it killed through cytokine storm or overreaction of the immune system. This also made it extra-deadly. The death toll in British-ruled areas in India alone was almost 14 million. In total, as many as 17 million people died in India which at that time constituted 5% of its entire population.

AIDS or Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome is another modern day scourge caused by virus and transmitted mostly through sex. That is very scary since sex rules all of us and sexual contact is among the most common form of intimate contact. Discovered in 1981, Aids is caused by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus or simply HIV-1 and HIV-2. They are retroviruses of the Retroviridae family and of the Lentivirus genus. HIV invades immune system cells and reprograms them to produce more HIV to attack more cells. Upon manifestation, the infected individual is susceptible to a myriad of serious diseases including rare cancers and tuberculosis.

Old Dutch Cemetery, Malacca
Old Dutch Cemetery, Malacca

The disease is presently incurable while HIV is able to mutate which means that finding a cure is virtually impossible. Neither is there a vaccine to prevent infection and a carrier could transmit the disease for years on end before symptoms actually surface. Since its discovery in 1981, some 60 million people have contracted the disease and 25 million are known to have died of related causes. Some 7,000 people contract HIV daily and currently, there are some 35 million people in the world living with the disease. Still, many cases have gone and continue to go unreported.

Alternatively, cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells which are also called malignant cells in the body. There are over 200 types of cancers and a greater number of causes. In a country like Britain alone, 890 people are diagnosed with cancer daily or almost a third of a million people a year.  What’s startling is that an estimated 1 in 3 people will develop cancer during their lifetime. Globally, 12.7 million people are diagnosed with cancer every year with 7.6 million dying from it. This represents more fatality than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. What’s also chilling is these numbers are expected to increase by 80% by 2030.

In essence, life is incessantly perilous so much so some would even refer to it as paper-thin. As we can easily fathom, natural disasters have to happen because they are “natural”. Still, why should these smallest organisms which are biological be induced and how or why were they created. So perhaps these lend credence to the notion that God is non-interfering and that he is helpless and unsure at times – or perhaps he is purposefully confounding us.

Author: J. Sam Barr

Greetings from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

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