March 20, 2020

Plagues, pandemics and coronavirus


One of the most common Ukrainian expletives is “kholiera” – in English “cholera.” Another swear word is “zaraza” – in English pestilence/disease. Comprehensive dictionaries of the Ukrainian language fail to provide the etymology of those expletives, although it’s not hard to figure out.

Cholera is a horrific disease: a highly contagious bacterial infection of the small intestine that rapidly depletes bodily fluids through severe diarrhea. Spreading through contaminated water, foods, flies and people-to-people contact, cholera can quickly reach epidemic proportions with half or more of the infected dying within the first two days if left untreated.

According to the Encyclopedia of Ukraine, cholera was little known in Europe before 1817. Originating in Asia, it was introduced in the wake of British colonization of India. Since then, there have been six major cholera epidemics in Ukraine. The first was in the 1820s, followed by others throughout the 19th century, the first world war and immediate years after. Cholera was often exacerbated by military conflict. when soldiers living in close, unsanitary quarters would get the disease and then spread it to civilians in occupation zones or to refugees. Untold numbers died.

There have been major outbreaks of cholera more recently – in Haiti in 2010 following the earthquake. Brought to the island by United Nations-deployed Nepalese troops, the epidemic infected nearly 800,000 Haitians and claimed 10,000 lives. The war-fueled cholera outbreak in Yemen in (2016-2020) has claimed more than a million victims.

Cholera also perniciously factors into Russia’s war against Ukraine, where disinformation specialists in Moscow and St. Petersburg routinely manufacture claims of disease outbreaks and impending nuclear disasters to paint Ukraine as a threat to its neighbors and the world. Hence the allegation in 2018 that cholera was found near Mariupol, the Ukrainian port on the Azov Sea, a cynical calculation that the expletive “kholiera” would resonate among a gullible sector of the population. in Kyiv, which monitors Russian disinformation, cites a World Health Organization July 2018 report debunking that lie.

What about the expletive “zaraza” – pestilence? That probably has a much older provenance, going back to the Bubonic Plague (the Black Death), which epidemiologists believe originated in Central and/or East Asia in the mid-14th century, traveling the Silk Road to Ukraine and then on Genoese merchant ships in Crimea, bringing the disease via rats and fleas to the rest of Europe. Tens of millions died. In one of the grimmest of many grim poems, Taras Shevchenko in “Chuma” (1848), taps into collective memory to describe a village where people like “scared lambs” hide in their houses from a plague (“chuma”) only to die, with gravediggers dragging their bodies to an unmarked pit, only for themselves to then succumb. Coincidence that a cholera epidemic in Ukraine began in Odesa in 1847 a year before Shevchenko’s poem?

History records multiple pandemics. English author Samuel Pepys is renowned for his diary recounting the 1665 plague in London. Sixty years later, Daniel Defoe, author of “Robinson Crusoe,” published “A Journal of the Plague Year” about the same horrific event.

Closer to home and closer in time, the main building at the Ukrainian Museum-Archives (UMA) in Cleveland was an orphanage a century ago when Ss. Peter and Paul Ukrainian Catholic parish took in children who lost their parents to the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic that claimed tens of millions of lives globally.

These reflections on history and language, of course, are brought on by thoughts about the coronavirus, which the World Health Organization has officially designated a pandemic, affecting every inhabited continent. More than 100 countries are coping with the outbreak, including Ukraine. America, along with scores of other countries, has been shutting down as a result, closing schools, museums, libraries, restaurants; cancelling concerts, festivals, basketball tournaments, NASCAR; delaying the start of the major league baseball season; absolving faithful from attending church services. As I write this, Wall Street has fallen more than 20 percent, airports are in chaos, elections are postponed, travel is cancelled or restricted – you name it.

Deciding to cancel our vacation last week, and therefore knowing we’d be home instead, my wife, Chrystia, went shopping to replenish our diminished pantry. She sent me an Instagram photo of the last can of beans on the shelf at our local supermarket as long lines of customers were panic buying. Chrystia bought the beans, of course. We needed it for the big pot of chili we planned as part of our menu for the expected weeks of austerity to come.

I’m old enough to remember other epidemics – I had public school classmates in the 1950s and ‘60s on crutches who succumbed to polio. We all took time off from school for measles, chicken pox, mumps, etc.

There have also been cures: as 8-year-olds, my classmates and I lined up in trepidation, shuddering before the mass needle inoculations for the polio vaccine. We survived, and today I thank God for the national and international effort to eliminate that scourge. I also have a tiny scar on my left arm from the small pox vaccination. Today, there are also vaccines against measles, the flu, etc.

And now there’s the coronavirus pandemic. My mentor, John Carroll University professor Dr. Michael Pap, often cited a universal truth: “This too shall pass.” “Ecclesiastes” in the Bible, Shevchenko in “Haidamaky,” George Harrison on his 1970 album and countless others said the same. I’m confident the coronavirus will be contained and ultimately confined to history books. But before that comes to pass, there’s the reality that things will become worse before they get better. Health-care professionals and responsible political leaders have dismissed as a delusion Pollyannaish assertions that the pandemic will miraculously disappear with warmer weather. This is serious. So let’s trust the scientists and health-care professionals to intelligently and professionally cope with the crisis and ultimately resolve it, hopefully sooner rather than later.

“Kholiera” is a common Ukrainian expletive. “Dai Bozhe” is a common prayer: “God grant.” Indeed, may we soon enjoy health, happiness and prosperity. In the meantime, be careful and wash your hands.


Andrew Fedynsky’s e-mail address is