How pandemics have threatened humanity

5 Mins read

Covid-19 has clearly left a mark on our culture. We can’t live our lives the way we once did, something certainly alien for our time. With incredibly effective vaccines for mass killers like smallpox, there’s hope for a similar kind of vaccine for Covid-19.

Could this really be the case, that a vaccine for this virus is that effective? It’s worth taking a historical look into how we’ve dealt with past pandemics. Were they much different compared to how we’re dealing with the coronavirus now, or would we be looking back to a time completely alien to us, with little real resemblance to what we’re dealing with now?

The Black Death is a well-known pandemic that Europe dealt with during the 14th and 17th Centuries; Keith Vernon, a lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston, and Mitchell Hammond at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, both agree that this was one of the worst pandemics to have hit the world.

“There have been several pretty bad pandemics of that the worst of them was in the 14th Century. The Black Death we’re familiar with, mostly from European history. The first wave of that in the 1330s and 1340s up through the early 1350s it certainly killed lots of people, but I think what really put the Black Death and its aftermath in a class by itself is that people feared that disease for the next 300 years,” Hammond told us.

“I think historians probably agree that it was the black death in the 14th Century. Estimates of the death toll there were somewhere between 30 to 50% of the population of Europe,” Vernon adds.

The plague arrived in Europe in October 1347, when 12 ships from the Black Sea docked at the Sicilian port of Messina. Over the next five years, the Black Death would kill more than 20 million people in Europe.

Doctors refused to see patients; priests refused to administer last rites, and shopkeepers closed their stores. Many people fled the cities for the countryside, but even there they could not escape the disease: It affected cows, sheep, goats, pigs and chickens as well as people.

This sounds like an incredibly tragic ordeal for our ancestors, but how the disease was stopped is incredibly interesting. Officials in the Venetian-controlled port city of Ragusa were able to slow its spread by keeping arriving sailors in isolation until it was clear they were not carrying the disease— creating social distancing that relied on isolation to slow the spread of the disease.

These sailors were initially held on their ships for 30 days (a trentino), a period that was later increased to 40 days, or a quarantino, which is where we get the modern word from.                     

This is something we’re incredibly familiar with, albeit today it’s only 14 days. “Coronaviruses and influenza viruses pass from person to person. Particularly coronavirus and flu, can all linger in the air. Limiting contact between people and between people and goods it makes a lot of sense to do that because we have bodies and everything we’re not going to be able to get away from that in terms of the spread of things,” Hammond said.

“If you looked at accounts of the plague in the 17th Century, that’s what you did, you shut people away. You prevented people from mixing with others because it was perfectly well understood that it was through social interaction that this was how diseases spread.” What Vernon doesn’t say, however, is that Spanish Flu could also be considered to be a major pandemic in a similar class to the Black Death.

[pullquote align=”right”]It’s helpful to remember that these past pandemics were on another order of magnitude greater.[/pullquote]“In terms of a truly global pandemic this was only possible really when you came to the end of the early 19th and 20th Century with steamships and railroads. In terms of its global dissemination, the so-called Spanish flu of 1918-1919 had a short-term devastating impact,” Hammond said.

“The absolute numbers of people who died were greater. It’s thought that over the course of about two years some 50 million people died as a direct or indirect result of that flu. In terms of death in a short amount of time, when we consider what’s happened with the coronavirus now, I don’t want to minimise anything that people are going through now, around the world. Still, it’s helpful to remember that these past pandemics were on another order of magnitude greater.

“Where we’re at now with coronavirus deaths around the world it’s something like 1.2 million. This is obviously terrible for millions and millions of people. It’s not the same kind of thing yet. As was the case with Spanish Flu. Take the US, that was the order of 675,000 people who died in the United States from influenza, and now we’re looking at the order of 235,000 deaths from coronavirus.”

If we look at the coronavirus as a whole, at the end of November 2020 we have more than 48 million cases worldwide with more than 21 million cases in the Americas according to the World Health Organisation.

Elsewhere there are more than 12 million cases in Europe; over nine million in South-East Asia; more than three million in the Eastern Mediterranean; at least one million in Africa and another 700,000 in the Western pacific. What we can see is that the coronavirus has spread quickly, but it’s not that deadly.

So what are the similarities and differences when comparing past pandemics to modern-day Covid-19? “There’s a lot of similarities with influenza because by the time of the so-called Spanish Flu people hadn’t seen the virus yet because microscopes didn’t allow for that yet. Scientists widely believed at the time that a microbe caused it,” Hammond said.

“In fact, it was caused by a virus similar to the coronavirus, but a different kind of virus, because it was a respiratory infection and somewhat airborne, a lot of the measures, were somewhat similar and it spread in similar ways. So, the conversations around masks and debates, around the utility of masks, have gone on in some places. Those very same conversations would have been had in 1918-19.”

“Some of the differences like the response with lockdowns which probably relates to the level of communication governments can communicate directly and immediately with the population of a country. The role of the central government is much greater compared to the 17th and 19th Century epidemics,” Vernon adds.

Another major difference we have now is the development of medical technology. For example, we have the ability to develop vaccines efficiently. The BioNTech-Pfizier vaccine is in production and protects 90% of people from Covid-19. Furthermore, we have ventilator technologies and advanced treatments, meaning that severe cases are more likely to survive Covid-19.

So, what about the future? Is there a chance that coronavirus is just the beginning? Hammond feels that there are a lot of examples that suggest we may have to deal with further viruses in the future. He says that due to climate change, we now have situations where mosquitos are appearing in areas that they’ve never appeared before.

Furthermore, intensive farming of livestock could also lead to a virus jumping to humans due to the cramped conditions we keep our animals in. This is because there’s a lot of genetic swapping between the animals. Also, large cities with slums and poor sanitary systems are another place where a disease or virus could easily spread to humans.

It seems like there’s only a matter of time before another pandemic hits us. Let’s pray that it’s later rather than sooner.




Featured image by Sergio Santos via Flickr CC.
Edited by Jussi Grut and Susu Hagos.

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