A medical staffer works at the department of infectious diseases in Wuhan Union Hospital. Picture: AFP/Xinhua/Xiao Yijiu
A medical staffer works at the department of infectious diseases in Wuhan Union Hospital. Picture: AFP/Xinhua/Xiao Yijiu

In the 14th century, a bubonic plague that we know as the Black Death spread like wildfire across the so-called civilised world. The global pandemic, which killed between 75-million and 200-million people, was allegedly spread by fleas living on rats.

It’s the Year of the Rat in the Chinese calendar and what tragic irony, then, to kick off the lunar new year with another plague whose ground zero is Wuhan in China.

Wuhan (population 11-million), a tech and transport hub and capital of Hubei province, is under lockdown following an outbreak of the flu-like coronavirus that by Tuesday had infected 4,581 people worldwide and killed 106 of them.

China has imposed drastic travel restrictions in a belated attempt to contain the outbreak, which erupted just as people were about to begin celebrating the new year.

Public transport to and from Wuhan has been stopped and residents have been ordered to stay inside. Ride-hailing services as far away as Beijing have been heavily curtailed.

The first cases of the Black Death in the 14th century were spread by sailors and merchants trekking up the Silk Road. The plague took time to develop. But coronavirus cases have already appeared in France, Germany, North America and across Southeast Asia and Australia.

A Bloomberg graph indicates that those most at risk tend to be elderly — though the youngest victim was a 36-year-old man.

As with the severe respiratory syndrome (SARS) virus epidemic before it, the coronavirus outbreak should be quickly contained — unlike the accompanying stock market panic, the new handmaiden of any global outbreak of plague.