What a year it has been! For the greater part of 2020, the whole world has been held hostage by a microscopic pathogen that’s not even considered a living thing. As the coronavirus has rampaged, there have been times we have seemed powerless against the Covid-19 pandemic. Various reports indicate that a vaccine is finally on the cards, but medical experts continue to temper optimism for a panacea. Epidemics have plagued China since written records began 3.5 millennia ago. Historians calculate that there were around 290 serious epidemics in China between 243BC and 1911, averaging about one every seven years. Others went further back in time and identified 700 cases of supposedly widespread infectious diseases in the 2,700 years from the 7th century BC to the end of the 20th century. Despite the alarming numbers, most records contain scant details of the diseases, if any, focusing instead on their catastrophic effects. And how horrific those effects were! In AD312, northern and central China were devastated by a deadly contagion. In the region of present-day Shaanxi, only 1 to 2 per cent of the entire population survived. Eastern and central China were hit by an infectious disease in AD891. In Hubei, four out of every 10 people died. An extremely lethal epidemic in 1232 took 900,000 lives in just 50 days. The toll exacted by these and many other mass infections sometimes altered the course of history. Cao Cao’s defeat and retreat in the famous Battle of the Red Cliffs, whose outcome was the splitting of China into the Three Kingdoms (AD220-280), was due in part to infectious disease breaking out among his troops. The plague that broke out in the capital Beijing in 1643, which decimated the city’s population, was the final death knell of the Ming dynasty, which fell to armed rebels the following year. How traditional Chinese medicine is helping to fight Covid-19 With the frequency of such outbreaks, the Chinese had much experience in mitigating their effects. Isolating the sick as a means of stopping the spread was employed as early as the Qin dynasty (221-206BC), a practice that continues. The use of medicines derived from plants and minerals helped to relieve suffering and allowed stronger patients to recover, which was all that could be done before the advent of modern pharmaceuticals. In his treatise On Contagious Outbreaks , Ming-dynasty physician Wu Youke (1582-1652) postulated that an invisible and naturally occurring “malicious miasma”, which entered a person through their nose or mouth, was the cause of infectious diseases. But nothing was done to prove or disprove this theory. Apart from deploying physicians, dispensing medicines and providing isolation facilities, the government also took care of the dead, the quick disposal of bodies being essential to prevent the transmission of highly contagious diseases. To this end, the authorities subsidised funerals or buried unclaimed corpses. Before modern vaccinations and medication, many appealed to the supernatural as a first and sometimes only resort. Diseases were attributed to demons or deities and rituals were performed to symbolically send them away at specific times of the year. As recently as the late 19th century, a “fire dragon” was paraded through the alleyways of plague-stricken Tai Hang in Hong Kong, in the belief that it would rid the village of the disease. It probably did not, but the rowdy procession of a straw-filled dragon festooned with lit joss sticks has evolved into an annual festival. I’m not a superstitious person, preferring the logic of science and reason to deities, feng shui and other varieties of “woo woo”. Still, given the horrible year we’ve had, we need all the help we can get, even if it is from gods and dragons.