The Boomerang

Understand history. Understand the world.

How Plagues Can Shift Power Between the Haves and the Have-Nots

On April 10, 2020, The Daily Beast published my latest piece for them. What does the Black Death, HIV/AIDS, the House of Lords, and the gentrification of New York City have in common? Read and find out.


How Plagues Can Shift the Power Between the Haves and the Have-Nots

brooklyn bridge seen in between brown buildings
Photo by Mario Cuadros on

Singapore, March 1999. I was backpacking in southeast Asia, and my friend and I had just arrived in Singapore from Borneo. While on Borneo, we heard about a disease spreading uncontrollably in the rest of Malaysia, but it wasn’t until we reached Singapore that we realized the severity of the situation. Our plan was to cross the border between Singapore and Malaysia the next day. The problem was that some of the places where we’d planned to go were now out of reach because they had been placed under quarantine and martial law. And we couldn’t stay in Singapore; the illness was rapidly heading there as well. We needed to make a decision.

The epidemic in Malaysia in the fall of 1998 and the spring of 1999 was originally declared an outbreak of Japanese Encephalitis, a deadly zoonotic disease that spreads from pigs to humans with mosquitoes as the vector. But as the Malaysian government fought back against the outbreak, it became evident that what they were dealing with was not JE. Today we know that the epidemic in Malaysia was caused by a brand new virus, the lethal novel Nipah virus, first found in local fruit bats from where it moved on to pigs and from pigs to humans.

The Nipah virus might have been a novel virus, but the havoc it wreaked on Malaysian society was anything but new. Whenever an epidemic hits, the dynamics of that society are forever altered. Sometimes the effects are known immediately. Sometimes they take decades to manifest, even centuries.

Please click here to read the article in its entirety.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

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