Haunting Humanity – A Chronic History of Pandemics

“Isn’t it sad that so often it takes facing death to appreciate life and each other fully ?” – Esther Earl

Located in the far North Atlantic Ocean, the Faroe Islands are small volcanic outcroppings. Even though they are located in a remote part of Europe, they were deemed one of the healthiest places on the planet in 1846. However, a local carpenter who was originally from the island returned to the mainland with a terrible cough that same year. Measles had infected him. The virus had been nonexistent from the Faroe Islands for a little more than 60 years, and prior to the availability of a measles vaccine, few of the island’s inhabitants had immunity to the disease. Within next 5 months, 6,100 of the island’s 7,900 residents were ill. More than a hundred people lost their lives.

Numerous people, not just history buffs, will be intrigued by the medical conundrum of virus-causing pandemics. Infectious illnesses with the potential to become pandemic have appeared and spread repeatedly throughout history. Many major outbreak and pandemics have already struck humanity, such as the plague, flu, cholera, coronaviruses etc. COVID-19 is a newcomer to the continuous roster, yet history is repeating itself right before our eyes.

Many ancient cultures had the belief that spirits and gods wreaked havoc on the lives of those who garnered it. Due to this irrational and unfounded assumption, many people took drastic measures that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands, if not millions. Procopius of Caesarea, a Byzantine historian, tracked down the roots of Justinian’s plague  to China and northeast India, via land and sea trade networks to Egypt, in which it entered the Byzantine Empire via Mediterranean ports. Despite Procopius’ apparent understanding of the role geography and trade played in the outbreak’s spread, he blamed the Emperor Justinian, branding him either a devil or calling on God’s wrath for his sins. Historians speculated that this episode may have thwarted Emperor Justinian’s plans to combine the Roman provinces in the West and the East and ushered in the Dark Ages. However gradual and incomplete, progress has been made in our understanding of the origins of disease, and this has resulted in a substantial improvement in our ability to respond to modern pandemics.

Quarantine began in the 14th century as a means of protecting coastal cities from plague epidemics. Ships arriving in Venice from contaminated harbours were obliged to remain at anchor for 40 days before attempting to land, giving rise to the term quarantine, which derives from the Italian “quaranta giorni,” or 40 days. Once during outbreak of cholera in London in the mid-19th century, geography and statistical analysis were used for the first time. In 1854, Dr. John Snow came to the realization that cholera was spread through tainted water and decided to show local death data on a map immediately. Trade and urban life have a major impact, but the virulence of specific diseases also helps predict the spread of a pandemic.

Let’s review well-documented pandemics that occurred during the Common Era.

The first recorded Pandemic was the Antonine Plague in 165 CE. According to the physician Galen’s extant notes, this was considered to be a sickness similar to Small Pox or Measles. Approximately 5-10 million Romans, Gauls, and Germans were said to have perished. Soldiers returning from Egypt and Turkey carried the disease into the Roman Empire. Galen was the first to mention the sickness while he was sabotaging the Mesopotamian city of Seleucia.
It wasn’t long after that the Romans had carried it across the Rhine Valley and into Gaul ( France). Many villages were decimated by the illness, which also nearly wiped out the Roman troops.

Despite its short duration, the Japanese Smallpox Epidemic (735 CE) proved to be extremely lethal for those infected. Even though the epidemic only lasted two years, it is estimated that a third of the people in Japan at the time died as a result. This strain of Smallpox was thought to have been brought back to the island nation by a group of Korean fishermen. Peasants and aristocrats alike were decimated by the plague, which claimed the lives of entire families in many of Europe’s most influential families. As a result of the epidemic’s devastation, rice farming was disrupted for the next two decades.

The Bubonic Plague outbreak that caused the Black Death (1347 CE) was the world’s bloodiest epidemic. This sickness may have claimed the lives of up to 200 million people. Historians often refer to the Bubonic Plague as The Second Plague. This disease spread throughout Europe and Northern and Central Africa. Rats carrying disease-carrying fleas then move across Europe, wreaking devastation wherever they go.

The Spanish arrived in South America in 1520 CE and brought Smallpox with them when they arrived. Due to the lack of previous exposure, this pandemic benefited the Spanish in conquering this region. According to historical accounts, Smallpox killed approximately 40% of the Aztec population in a single year. 200,000 people in Huayna Capac’s realm died as a result of this epidemic, including the ruler himself.

Cholera Pandemics (1817 CE) began in a small town outside of Calcutta (now Kolkata) before spreading throughout India, Asia, East Africa, and as far north as the Mediterranean. It was the first epidemic to hit virtually all of Asia. This pandemic’s death toll is unknowable due to a lack of documentation at the time. Many people feel that India’s official death toll from the pandemic was overstated by as much as 9 million. The island of Java, which has a population of over a million people, was one of the hardest hit.

During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a Yellow Fever pandemic ravaged the United States and Caribbean. Originally thought to have originated in Central Africa, the disease wreaked havoc in the Caribbean before making its way to North America. Philadelphia was the first city to be affected by the epidemic, and over the course of seven years, about 20 percent of the population (10,000 people) died. In addition to Haiti, Georgia, Bermuda, New Orleans, Virginia, Texas, and the Panama Canal, the disease has spread throughout the United States and the Caribbean as well as the Caribbean itself. It’s difficult to estimate the entire number of deaths caused by this disease in the Americas due to a lack of records, but the number could be well over 1 million.

Since its inception in 1981, the HIV/AIDS pandemic has killed millions. Over 38 million people are still infected with HIV today. And the virus continues to kill nearly a million people each year. HIV is transmitted in 3 ways: sexual interaction, bodily fluids, and mother to baby. There is still no cure for HIV, nor is there a vaccine that is effective.

The H1N1 influenza virus outbreak that included the swine flu was the third and most severe (the first being Russian Flu and the second Spanish Flu). The disease was dubbed Mexican Flu because it originally appeared in Mexican pig farms before spreading to humans in the United States.

Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone were the most severely hit countries in the Ebola outbreak that swept over West Africa. It was the most severe case of Ebola in history. Before it was finally brought under control, the pandemic had raged for three years. Nigerian and Malian cases of Ebola have been found as well.

The current COVID-19 has widespread effects that are well known and it has changed the course of humanity forever. But here’s the thing there will be more pandemics in the future. Epidemic of infectious diseases will have far-reaching consequences for the world’s population. Because of what we’ve learned from past epidemics such as cholera, influenza, and the current  COVID-19, we’ll be better prepared to deal with future ones and so should we be. The historical context on pandemics helps to explain how panic, linked with societal stigma and prejudice, hampered efforts of public health to control the spread of disease. During plague and cholera epidemics, the poorest social groups and minorities fled damaged regions for fear of prejudice and obligatory quarantine and seclusion, which contributed to the virus spreading farther and quicker, as was routinely the case in towns affected by lethal disease outbreaks. Fright, terror, and panic can now spread farther and quicker than ever before thanks to the worldwide media, making them more important than ever before in today’s globalised world.

– Uttara Jantwal

Picture: Helpers from Red Cross headquarters deliver baskets with blankets and other supplies for the sick during the Spanish flu in Beverly, Mass., in 1918 (Credits – Library of Congress)

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