Bob Van Hee, professor emeritus in medical history of the University of Antwerp made a statement in an interview on the website of Flemish public broadcaster VRT that made some people frown: ‘History seems to be repeating itself: in the Middle Ages, the Plague also entered Europe via Italy, just as COVID-19’. The claim turns out to be mostly false.
The Coronavirus is still very present in our society. At the end of February, Mr. Van Hee claimed that the problem in Europe, like the Plague, started in Italy.
Did COVID-19 enter Europe through Italy?
On the website of the World Health Organization (WHO), we found that the first European case of COVID-19 was actually found in France, not Italy. France announced their first and second cases on the 24th of January, both of them being travelers from China who passed through Wuhan. Germany followed France as the second infected European country. On the 29th of January both Italy and Finland reported their first cases. According to those data, Mr. Van Hee’s statement can already be discredited, since the virus did not enter Europe through Italy first.
Although, on the website of Think Global Health we do see that 21 countries, in- and outside of Europe, got their first cases due to travelers who came from Italy. If Mr. Van Hee were to say that the Coronavirus had mostly spread through Europe because of travelers from Italy, then we could have mostly agreed with him. There are, of course, also other European countries that did not get the virus through Italy, as there are many ways of spreading it.
The path of the plague to Europe
In contrast to the Coronavirus, the Plague did break out further across Europe via Italy. From China, the Mongolian high plateau, the Plague reached Italy via shipping along Kaffa. Kaffa (Feodosia) is a port city and urban rayon on the Crimea. At that time it was in the hands of the Italian city of Genoa. In this way the disease hit via rats and shipping the hardest in what we now call Italy. Mr Van Hee is right about that. After the Plague landed in Genoa, the spread continued via shipping to Marseille and Barcelona. In this way the spread finally went throughout Europe.
Due to our findings, we can say that the Plague entered Europe via Italy, but that’s not the case for COVID-19. Both cases are similar because we see that Italy did play a big role in spreading both viruses. But at least for the Coronavirus they were not the first European countries to report cases. That is why we conclude that this claim is ‘mostly false’.
RESEARCH | ARTICLE © Noa Bayer, Hannah Erpels, Seppe Meul. AP University College, Antwerp, Belgium
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