A History of Global Pandemics
The coronavirus of 2019 put the world to a halt, making people curious as to what the history of global pandemics actually is.
With all countries issuing quarantine at different levels, one cannot help but wonder, what is going to happen next? And how did it all come to this?
Today, you will learn more about the history of global pandemics and how Coronavirus compares to the major ones that wiped out a huge number of the world’s population in the past.
We will start our journey from year zero after the birth of Christ, and move our way up to what we are dealing with today—the fearsome COVID-19.
The following infographic will provide a visual representation of the history of Pandemics.
Keep in mind that the actual numbers for some of these may not be entirely accurate due to the fact that the more we go back in history, the more estimates become less approximate.
As of the date of this article, being 12 October 2020, the current death toll of covid 19 has increased to 1.08m
The Antonine Plague – year 165 to 180
Death Toll: 5 million
This plague came to have its name through Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, as it has been associated with his family.
This disease leached on to Roman troops who were returning from war in the Near East.
How did it get to the Near East? Through the Silk Road where it most likely emerged in China.
Lucius Verus the co-regent of Marcus Aurelius died of this pandemic as well as 2000 other Romans a day.
Roman historian Dio Cassius noted in his historical volumes that the disease broke out again nine years later and at its height, the daily death toll reached 5,000 people a day.
Experts agree that both breakouts could have been a variant of measles or smallpox.
How does COVID-19 compare to the Antonine Plague
As this virus is slowly working its way up to its height, one can assume that it will be able to reach that of the Antonine Plague.
Plague of Justinian – 541 to 542
Death Toll: 30 to 50 million
Around 400 years later, the Roman Empire is again attacked by a new plague.
While the number of deaths is not certain, modern historians estimate it killed at least 5,000 per day in Constantinople which totals to 20-40% of the city inhabitants and 25% of the people residing in the Roman Empire.
During it’s two centuries of recurrence the impact of this plague was also being aggravated by the fact that Constantinople was a huge trading destination.
The Empire was on the verge of economic collapse when Justinian was demanding the same level of taxes that were instated before the plague.
Apart from this Justinian was only able to try and protect his subjects and complete a series of public works, including the building of the Hagia Sophia.
How does COVID-19 compare to the plague of Justinian
This plague is also problematic because it occurred in an age where accurate numbers are unavailable, and the span of the disease is within 200 years.
Many speculate that this plague was the most devastating one till then, but many challenge that idea as the main written source of the plague comes from Procopius a scholar who is known to exaggerate the numbers of this occurrence.
If we take his numbers into account we would have it that about 100 million people died as a consequence of this plague, and if this is true then Coronavirus would have to infect around 90% of today’s population in order to reach this death toll.
Black Death (Bubonic Plague) – 1347 to 1251
Death Toll: 200 million
This was the deadliest and was caused by the same bacteria as the Plague of Justinian.
One major reason why this time it did more damage is because cities were flourishing with inhabitants, and easy to use paths were established between them.
During that period it was thought that Miasma (foul smell) was the source of the disease, and not biting flees that came from infected rats.
Between 1 and 7 days after getting infected, the victim experiences flu-like symptoms, which gives the host enough time to infect somebody else.
The plague also causes lymph nodes (buboes) on the spot where the bacteria got in.
The bacteria could reproduce in the person’s blood and lungs, thus through complications cause death.
We recommend watching “The Great Plague” documentary as it covers the occurrences more extensively.
How does COVID-19 compare to the bubonic plague
It is said that the Black Death killed 30-60% of the world population, and in no way is it possible for Coronavirus to do the same.
This was possibly the most deadly virus included in our history of global pandemics.
What is scary about this plague is that people had no idea how it was spreading, and from where it came. Today we have the benefit of knowing how to weather the storm.
Similar to today everyone went into isolation to the point where doctors wouldn’t go to see the sick. It is from this action that we received the word quarantine, which means forty days.
Smallpox – 1520
Death Toll: 56 million
The death toll refers to the smallpox epidemic of the Americas which killed 85-90% of the native inhabitants, but it also takes into account all of the casualties until the cure for this disease was found.
The reason why this disease had a boom effect in 1520 is that the explorers of Europe transmitted this disease to a virgin population in the Americas that in the past never faced up against something like this.
Without this pandemic, the indigenous people might have been able to deal with the conquistadors, yet we all know what unfortunately happened to the Aztec Empire.
Smallpox didn’t end just there, it continued ravaging these parts of the world especially for the next 500 years until it’s official eradication in 1951.
How does COVID-19 compare to smallpox
Smallpox had a mortality rate of 25-30% which is much higher than the one of the Coronavirus.
As a novel virus COVID-19 has just entered the scene where Smallpox is believed to have it’s origins some 3000 years ago. It is unquestionable that this disease existed even before it’s major outbreak, and that is due to the fact that it migrated from Europe to the Americas where it broke through.
Spanish Flu – 1918 to 1919
Death Toll: 50 million
The Spanish flu or Influenza was an H1N1 virus that lasted for a year and was able to infect one third of the world’s population.
The virus is of avian origin, which means that it came from birds.
It started off normally as a seasonal flu but with time and mutations, it spread worldwide just as the then greatest war was ending.
It is unclear where it originated, but the trenches of WW1 where unsanitary conditions mix with the soldier’s low immunity seems to be the top contender.
The reason why it’s called the Spanish Flu is that the world got most of its press info on the virus through Spain who was heavily reporting the virus.
An estimate is that more than a third of the world’s population got infected—which translates to 500 million people contracting the virus, and 50 million dead.
How does COVID-19 compare to the Spanish flu
The biggest reason why we are able to keep the virus under this much control is because we learned from our history of global pandemics, and the biggest most recent lesson of them all was the Spanish Flu.
The unique feature this virus had was that it had a high mortality rate in healthy people between the ages of 20-40 years old. During this period social distancing was implemented, and we were able to learn the rules of it.
One big reason why it was so devastating is because of timing, unlike the Coronavirus that appeared during a time with relative stability in the world, the Influenza came right after WW1.
Apart from all of this COVID-19 seems to be dwarfed by all these other pandemics in the past and that is because we have been making major improvements in the field of virology.
Why do viruses mutate and why are they slow to grow?
As you can see from our timeline of a history of global pandemics, some plagues took hundreds of years in between them. However, we have noticed that in modern times, the span of the pandemics are shorter compared to 2,000 years ago.
Viruses need time to evolve. This is the very reason why some viruses, such as HIV, are resistant to drugs.
In some cases, two different strains of viruses may invade a single cell of the host at the same time, and these two viruses would fuse, giving birth to a new strain.
Viruses are living things. As such, they reproduce on the basis of natural selection.
If you look at the AIDS virus, it has the capacity to choose how and “who” to reproduce with and only pass on the “good” traits to their “offspring”.
Yes, viruses and bacteria have “sex”.
They mate, but the danger in their manner of mating is that they have sex to the DNA or RNA level.
And this is why recombination, or the combination of two different strains, is possible.
How fast do viruses mutate?
The HIV can mutate as fast as one day.
This virus has the capacity to mutate a day after it meets a new drug, and therefore, administration of multiple drugs is necessary.
Are we getting better at handling viruses?
Yes, if you look at the history of global pandemics, we are getting better at dealing with viruses.
As you take a look at the timeline of viruses, you can observe that the most massive death toll occurred in 1918 with the Spanish Flu, wiping out 50 million of the world’s population.
While we cannot stop viruses from mutating, we now have a massive database of viruses shared primarily by the World Health Organization.
The biggest death toll after the Spanish Flu, with the exception of HIV, was in 2009 with the Swine Flu, killing 200,000 people. We were able to isolate the strain in less than a year, and also had a vaccine.
In less than three years, the H1N1 vaccine was finalized, and it was effective for the treatment of Swine Flu and two other variants of the influenza viruses.
The World Health Organization came into existence in 1948.
Its main function is to coordinate health efforts, findings, and studies to the whole world. At that time, the priority of the WHO are diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis, and others.
While the WHO has no authority to police countries, it does have the resource to do research about bacteria, viruses, and plagues and share it to the world.
If you look at it, the most deadly viruses in existence today is HIV. The thing is, HIV is a kind of a controlled virus that is not easily transmitted.
It gets transmitted by blood and sex, so we can concur that most HIV-related deaths are due to the person’s behavior.
The COVID-19 is a type of coronavirus.
The coronavirus family is comprised of six types. They are covered in spikes, and they use those spikes to invade human cells. The spikes are what gave the name “corona” because corona means crown and crown has spikes.
COVID-19 is a novel coronavirus because as of 2019, we only knew of six types of coronavirus.
The COVID-19 is called novel because it is the seventh type of known coronavirus, which makes it “new”.
SARS and MERS are coronaviruses, they are both respiratory viruses because they attack our lungs. The COVID-19 works the same way.
It causes similar symptoms like SARS and MERS, and their symptoms are mild most of the time, and this is why many who get the disease do not go to a check-up. As such, we do not know the real number of infected people.
COVID-19 is dangerous because it gets transmitted from animal to person, or person to person. It gets transmitted by touching, or if someone sneezes or coughs.
There are other underlying reasons for why it is dangerous:
- It can incubate in your body for 24 days and not show any symptoms.
- As such, you can transmit the virus without knowing it
- It has no cure
- It causes pneumonia and attacks the lungs—preventing your from breathing
- 20% of people who contract COVID-19 would need hospitalization
No one really knows the mortality rate of the virus but all can agree on one thing: it can kill.
What we can learn from the history of global pandemics
This is not the first time in history that a global pandemic has happened.
While there are many people who are always critical about a pandemic, a new virus that spreads as rapidly as COVID-19 exposes them to the truth: that pandemics are real.
COVID-19 is a wake-up call to countries whose populations are stubborn—many people now from Italy and France start to become believers, realizing that their skepticism will not do them any good.
Many countries that got hit heavily with a pandemic before are now reacting faster, obliging to the call of science and not of politics. Even their own people are cooperative because they have seen the horrors that a pandemic can bring.
Viruses will continue to mutate whether we like it or not. What’s going to happen next is up to the population of the world—it is up to you.