Covid-19 marks the return of a very old – and familiar – nemesis. All through history, nothing has been deadlier for human beings than the disease causing viruses, bacteria and parasites. Not natural disasters like volcanoes and earthquakes. And war – not even close.
The Black Death (1346-1353)
From the year 1346 to 1353 an outbreak known as the Plague ravaged Europe, Africa, and Asia. It had an estimated death toll of between 75 and 200 million people. It was believed to have originated in Asia, and it most likely jumped continents via the fleas living on the rats that were so frequently found in merchant ships. The ports being major urban centers at the time, which made for the perfect breeding ground for the rats and fleas, and thus the insidious bacterium thrived, leaving three continents devastated in its aftermath.
Spanish Flu: 1918-1920
Roughly 500 million people from the South Seas to the North Pole suffered due to Spanish Flu. A fifth of those people died, with some indigenous communities reaching almost to the brink of extinction. The spread of the flu and its lethality were increased by the cramped conditions of soldiers and poor wartime nutrition that many people had to live with during World War I.
Despite its name Spanish Flu, there is no evidence that the disease originated in Spain. Spain was a neutral nation during the war and therefore had no strict censorship of its press, so they were the only ones freely publishing early accounts of the illness. As a result, people falsely believed the illness was only happening in Spain, and the name Spanish Flu was coined.
AIDS: 1981-present day
AIDS became a global pandemic in the 1980s and has since then continued to be an epidemic in certain parts of the world.
There has been an estimated 35 million deaths since AIDS was first identified. HIV, the virus responsible for AIDS, was probably developed from a chimpanzee virus that transferred to humans in West Africa in the 1920s. The virus travelled around the world, and by the late 20th century, AIDS was a pandemic.
Now, around 64% of the estimated 40 million living with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) are residents of sub-Saharan Africa.
For decades, there was no cure to this disease, but medication developed in the 1990s now allows people with the disease to live for a normal life span with regular treatment. And the best news is, two people have been cured of HIV as of early 2020.
H1N1 Swine Flu pandemic: 2009-2010
The 2009 swine flu pandemic was the result of a new strain of H1N1 that originated in Mexico in 2009. After which it spread to the rest of the world.
The worst affected of the 2009 flu pandemic were children and young adults, and 80% of the deaths were of those younger than 65. This was very unusual, considering that most flu virus strains, including those that result in seasonal flu, causing the highest percentage of deaths in those aged 65 and older. But in case of the swine flu, older people had built up enough immunity to the group of viruses that H1N1 belongs to, so they weren’t really affected. Thankfully, a vaccine for the H1N1 virus is now included in the annual flu vaccine.
West African Ebola epidemic: 2014-2016
Ebola devastated West Africa between 2014 and 2016, with 28,600 reported cases and 11,325 deaths. The first case of Ebola was reported in Guinea in December 2013, before the disease quickly spread to Liberia and Sierra Leone. The majority of the cases and deaths happened in these three countries. A smaller number of cases were also reported in Nigeria, Mali, Senegal, the United States and Europe.
As of now, Ebola has no cure, although there are ongoing efforts at finding a vaccine. The first known Ebola case occurred in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1976, and the virus is said to have originated in bats.
Although there are huge differences between the above listed pandemics and COVID-19, there are some lessons to be learnt from history.
Firstly, the importance of surveillance — we need to know who is affected and who was affected. Indeed, testing is the main source of understanding COVID-19 and slowing its progress.
Another important lesson is that physical distancing and quarantine measures work.
Where a pandemic occurs, both geographically and historically, makes a difference. Would the Black Death have been so terrifying had the people of the time had modern medical treatments, a knowledge on how germs spread, and improved nutrition? Probably not.
It may not be hugely comforting, but it might help some of us, psychologically, to know that we are not the only humans to go through such trials and tribulations — and we will not be the last.
It is also important to know that all pandemics have an end, and that modern science and medicine can be amazing forces for good. This is not the Dark Ages; we are better learned today than we have ever been.
Stay safe, stay healthy, stay home 🙂