By Natalie Taylor
Communicable diseases have been with us for a long time—even hunter-gatherers were affected by infections. But with farming, communities grew, and close proximity to other people and animals provided fertile ground for disease. Trading, moved illness into a global scale. Throughout history, there have been many pandemics. How does the Covid-19 outbreak compare to them?
The Plague of Justinian: In 541 CE, ships arrived in Constantinople carrying Egyptian grain as tribute to the Byzantine Emperor. On board, plague-ridden fleas rode on the backs of black rats. The ensuing plague decimated Constantinople and spread like wildfire across Europe, Asia, and North Africa, killing an estimated 30 to 50 million people, perhaps half of the world’s population. The disease stopped when enough people had immunity, and there was no one left to die.
The Bubonic Plague: In 1347 illness swept through Europe killing off the population with reckless abandon. Blackening lymph nodes may have been the reason for its other name—the Black Death—and it claimed 200 million lives in four years. People did not understand the mode of contagion, but they knew it was passed from one person to another. When a ship arrived in Ragusa, Italy, the city officials decided to keep the sailors in isolation on board for forty days—quarantina in Italian—origin of our current term quarantine.
Smallpox: This deadly disease was endemic to Europe and Asia, leaving survivors with grotesque pockmarks. But when it was brought to the New World in the 1500s, it found a population of indigenous people who had no immunity to it whatsoever. It wiped out close to 95 percent of America’s natives. Mexico’s indigenous population went from about 11 million people pre-conquest, to one million 200 years later.
Spanish Flu: Incorrectly named, this pandemic did not start in Spain, instead, it may have started at a Kansas military base. As World War I was coming to an end in 1918, an invisible killer began to attack the world. The lethal spread of the virus was facilitated by the cramped conditions of soldiers and poor overall nutrition, and it killed its victims with stiletto-like precision. The final number of dead around the world is estimated at 20 to 50 million people.
Other Pandemics: In the 20th and 21st century we have had numerous infectious illnesses such as the Avian flu (1 million deaths), Swine Flu (half a million), HIV (35 million—over a 30 year period), Zika, SARS, and Ebola. None of these have come close to the devastation of the other historic pandemics
COVID-19: The 750,000 global deaths thus far, do not approximate the highest numbers. However, previous historic contagions ran their deadly courses unchecked because people did not understand their how and why. Current science has advanced sufficiently to explain how it’s spread and the means to prevent it. A great percentage of Covid related deaths may have been avoided if the proper health measures recommended by scientists had been instituted early.