With news of the coronavirus making headlines everywhere, there has been mass hysteria and panic among many. The virus seems to be spreading like wildfire and deeply affecting people all around the world. However, this certainly is not the first time a pandemic outbreak has generated such distress. Throughout history, numerous disease outbreaks have wiped out populations and have instilled terror into entire continents. Two of the more well-known outbreaks are The Black Death (1346-1353) and the Spanish Flu (1918).
The Black Death, caused by the Bubonic Plague, affected Europe, Africa, and Asia with a death toll of between 75 to 200 million people. It was thought to have originated in Asia and most likely spread between continents via the fleas living on rats that frequently lived aboard merchant ships. The Black Death is seen as a particularly infamous outbreak because of its high death toll. At the time, there were many kinds of treatments that would allegedly cure the disease — such as rubbing onions, herbs, or even chopped up snakes onto boils — but nothing really stopped the death toll from escalating. Supposedly, the plague eventually stopped spreading thanks to the implementation of quarantines; the uninfected would stay home and would only leave if they absolutely had to. This is very much related to the coronavirus, as many experts are saying that social distancing is the best way to slow down the spread of the disease.
The Spanish Flu was another severe pandemic, but unlike The Black Death, it occurred more recently in history (1918). An estimated 500 million people were infected and 50 million were killed. Similar to intervention methods being used against the Coronavirus, the Spanish Flu called for isolation, good personal hygiene, and the limitation of public gatherings because of the lack of medical knowledge to develop vaccines and antibiotics at the time. However, the most unique feature of this pandemic was the impact it had on healthy, young individuals. The high mortality of those in the 20-40 year age group directly contrasts with how the coronavirus seems to mostly impact older individuals with preexisting health problems.
Although past plagues cannot give us the answer on how to solve new and existing problems, they allow us to make connections with the past and the future that may be helpful.
Graphic: Justin Lee