Black Death to Covid-19: A look at the history of pandemics that ravaged the planet

May 06, 2021 11:36 AM

In the context of the current pandemic crisis (Covid 19) that has gripped the world, here are 5 of the worst pandemics and epidemics, dating from prehistoric to modern times.

Plagues, epidemics , Black deathClose to 25 million people are believed to have been wiped out by the early 1950s, which was approximately one-third of the European continent. (Source- Wikimedia Commons)

By Monidipa Dey

Throughout the course of world history intermittent outbreaks of infectious diseases (known as pandemics and epidemics) have ravaged human societies causing deep and lasting effects often lasting for centuries, which in turn have often changed the very course of history. These outbreaks have given rise to incidents that have had the power to alter and re-shape socioeconomic, political, religious, and cultural aspects of human civilization. Pandemics and epidemics have also helped to shape some of the basics of modern medicine, which includes creating frameworks for the study of epidemiology, disease prevention, and vaccination. In the context of the current pandemic crisis (Covid 19) that has gripped the world, here are 5 of the worst pandemics and epidemics, dating from prehistoric to modern times.

1. Hamin Mangha, 3000 BCE – The current Covid-19 pandemic that originated from Wuhan in China is not the first disease outbreak to have originated from this country. There are a couple of prehistoric sites in China that speak of epidemics, but the oldest is a 5000-year-old village which shows archaeological evidence of epidemic related deaths. In Inner Mongolia between 2011 and 2015, multiple archaeological excavations on a particular Neolithic site led to a remarkable discovery – the presence of a small prehistoric village that held only 29 houses, where the archaeologists found 100 charred skeletons stuffed inside a 200 sq feet hut. The archaeological site is among the best preserved ones in north eastern China, is known as “Hamin Mangha.” In a 2018 archaeological paper it has been said that anthropological studies from this site have indicated that an epidemic spread very fast leaving no time for proper burials, and the survivors left after piling up the bodies and burning them, while the site remained uninhabited after that. Another prehistoric mass burial owing to epidemics, of more or less the same time, is at a site called Miaozigou, also in northeastern China. Both the two sites together suggest that 5000 years back an epidemic had ravaged the entire region.

2. The Athenian plague, 430 BCE – The Athenian plague (plague as a Greek term can refer to all kinds of sickness) occurred in 430 -26 BCE at the time of the Peloponnesian War, which was fought between Athens and Sparta. This epidemic was documented by Thucydides, a plague survivor, who gave detailed descriptions of the plague in his History of the Peloponnesian War. The plague originated in Ethiopia, and quickly spread to Egypt and Greece. The early symptoms were headaches, conjunctivitis, rashes, fetid breath, and fever; followed by coughing up blood, painful stomach cramps, vomiting, and “ineffectual retching,” as the disease advanced in its victims. An infected person would be dead in most cases by the 7th-8th day; while those that somehow survived suffered from permanent amnesia, partial paralysis, or blindness. The frontline caregivers, such as doctors and nurses, were affected the most and would often die as they tried healing the patients. Owing to the ongoing war, Athens was overcrowded and the disease spread like wildfire, killing almost 100000, including Pericles, the beloved leader of Athens. With a complete breakdown in civic laws and duties, Athens saw an increase in religious superstition during this epidemic. What this disease actually was has long been a topic of debate; and while typhoid fever is seen as a strong possibility, in a recent theory by some epidemiologists it has been suggested that it could have been the Ebola virus hemorrhagic fever.

3. The Antonine Plague 165-180 CE– recorded by a physician named Galen, this plague is also known as the Plague of Galen, and is believed to have been an epidemic of smallpox. It was carried into the Roman Empire by soldiers coming back from Seleucia, and unlike the plague of Athens it spread rapidly over the closely knit Roman Empire, affecting a large geographical area which included Egypt, Asia Minor, Italy and Greece. The plague killed almost one-third of the population in many parts of the empire, finished off the Roman army, and killed Marcus Aurelius. This epidemic had a severe impact on the Roman Empire by weakening its economic and army supremacy. It also had a strong impact on ancient Roman religion and traditions with rising religiousness, while it also created the grounds for spreading of a new religion, Christianity. This pandemic is believed to have created the conditions that set in motion the fall of the great Roman Empire. However, the final end of the Byzantine Empire (eastern Roman empire) which took place in the 5th century CE, was brought about by another epidemic caused by the bubonic plague, also historically known as the Justinian plague (541-542 CE). The Justinian plague brought Christianity into the limelight, where the plague was shown as a “punishment for sins” in order to convince people to convert.

4. The Black Death 1343 to 1356 CE – “The Black Death” or simply “The Plague” was a pandemic of unprecedented scale caused by the bubonic plague that originated in China in 1334, which spread through central Asia, entered northern India, and finally arrived in Europe (Sicily) in 1347, through the famous Silk Trade route. Within 5 years, the plague conquered almost the entire European continent, further spreading into Russia and the Middle East. While its impact was severe from 1343 to 1356, it continued in a milder form well into the 1400s, and reduced the global population from 450 million to below 300 million. According to historians Black Death killed 60% of the European population at that time. Besides the terrifying nature of the disease and its refusal to die down, the epidemic also had some negative impacts on the mental health of the common people. With a rising sense of religiousness, again the Christian interpretation used during the Justinian plague era which promoted the disease as a “punishment for sins,” was set rolling, which brought in the concept of heretics, leading to the infamous “witch hunting” that caused the violent deaths of many women, non -Catholics, and Jews. Besides changing the socio-political and religious courses in Europe, the Black Death also created a new social group, which is now known as the middle class. Owing to lack of laborers because of the plague deaths, this pandemic also ushered in an era of innovation that created many labor-saving technologies.

5. Spanish Flu Pandemic 1918-1920 – The Spanish flu pandemic, which took place in the middle of World War I, was the first pandemic that took place in the arena of modern medicine, yet had devastating effects across the world. It was caused by the H1N1 strain of the influenza virus, and despite the later advancement in epidemiology and public health, the true origin of Spanish flu still remains unknown, and among the possible sites of origin listed are the USA, China, Spain, France, and Austria. The deadly H1N1 strain of influenza virus rapidly spread to all parts of the world, and besides severely affecting Europe where large-scale military movements and large crowds helped in its spread, this pandemic affected Africa, Asia, USA, and the Pacific Islands. The death toll was immense, with almost 100 million dead in one year. Some historians believe that the Spanish flu may have decided the outcome of World War I, as armies of Germany and its allies were more affected than the armies of the Allied forces.

Besides the above named pandemics and epidemics that stand out for their power in having changed entire courses of sociopolitical and religious narratives in global history, there are other pandemics and epidemics that have also taken the lives of innumerable people across the globe, such as the HIV pandemic, SARS, Swine flu, etc. As the world now finds itself again in the grip of the new Covid19 pandemic, one can only look back at history and hope that lessons were learnt. What is most required now is a sense of responsibility among all civilians to take all necessary precautions, sensitive medical care, timely action by the governments, an infrastructure to handle emergency, a united front to tackle the disease, and empathy to help the ones that are needier at the moment.

(The author is a well-known travel, heritage and history writer. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online.)

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