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The Story of Pandemics throughout Human History

As long as humans have lived in communities, diseases have followed.  Diseases fall among the top killers of human beings,  ranking above any other natural disaster or war. There has been evidence of plagues and outbreaks of disease even before writing was invented. 

About 5,000 years ago, a village in China was destroyed by an epidemic, and the bodies of the dead, which included people of all ages, were stuffed inside a house that was later burned down. This site is called "Hamin Mangha", and the area was not inhabited again. Another mass burial nearby, which occurred around the same time, was found at a site called Miaozigou and gives strength to the assumption of an epidemic.

The Plague of Justinian in 541 was another well documented historic plague that killed over 50 million people at the time. This was a devastating number, perhaps close to half of the world’s population, and it likely halted the consolidation of the Roman Empire at the time and accelerated its decline. 

However, the worst documented plague in human history was the Black Death of 1347, which killed over 200 million people in Europe in just four years. People were clueless as to how exactly diseases spread and hence were unable to take concrete measures to protect themselves. However, some of the earliest known disease prevention strategies were adopted then, such as the practice taken up by Venetian ports wherein incoming ships had to be held in isolation until the crew could prove they were healthy. In fact, this isolation, called trentino, evolved to last for 40 days, hence coming to be called a quarantino. This is where the word quarantine originated!

 The devastation wrought by the Black Plague never really let up on Europe, and the plague kept resurfacing every two decades. This lasted for 300 years until the Great Plague of 1665, which killed 100,000 people in 7 months. This caused officials to take the decision to confine sick people within their own homes. The affected families painted their doors with a red cross to indicate that the plague had entered their home; such drastic measures were ultimately able to bring the epidemic to a pause. 

However, around the same time, smallpox was ravaging the New World now known as North America and this killed over 90% of the indigenous population at the time. Smallpox was the first virus epidemic to be ended by a vaccine in the late 18th century. A British doctor, Edward Jenner, noticed that milkmaids who had recovered from cowpox were immune to smallpox. He then infected a nine-year-old boy with cowpox, followed by smallpox, and the boy survived. This discovery ended the smallpox epidemic in Europe, and in 1980 the WHO announced that smallpox had been eradicated completely. 

There are many diseases that have afflicted the modern era as well. Foremost among those is the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which has killed close to 35 million people, yet still doesn’t have a cure. However, on an optimistic note, a man in London was recently the second person to be officially cured of AIDS, a fact which shows promise for the future. 

A number of respiratory-related coronaviruses have been popping up in recent years, including MERS and SARS, and there had been predictions of a rapidly spreading respiratory epidemic to soon hit us, which brings us to the situation we are in today. 

Some people believe that the end of the world is upon us, while others believe that the world will go back to exactly the way it was within a few months. Whatever the reality turns out to be, this epidemic has definitely disfigured a few months of our lives. Regardless, we as a society have evolved in an unprecedented way, and have access to medical technology and knowledge that has changed the way we deal with diseases and other natural crises. 

Relative to the scale previous epidemics and pandemics that humans have dealt with, COVID-19 exhibits barely a fraction of that danger. We as a species have fought through and prevailed over so many situations that were seemingly impossible to overcome, and while the virus may change the way society functions in a few ways, I am certain that we shall emerge from this stronger and smarter than ever.

 

References: 

https://www.history.com/news/pandemics-end-plague-cholera-black-death-smallpox https://www.visualcapitalist.com/history-of-pandemics-deadliest/ https://www.livescience.com/worst-epidemics-and-pandemics-in-history.html  

Maithili is a twenty year old girl who believes she is of limited body, but unlimited mind. She spends her time reading, writing, dancing, and keeping up her angsty young adult act. She started writing when she was thirteen, and tries to use poetry to express common things in uncommon ways. She currently resides in Manipal, India.
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