History of Pandemics- Earlier Impacts and Dealings

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~ Bargavi Baradhwaj 

A pandemic is defined as “an epidemic occurring worldwide, or over a very wide area, crossing international boundaries and usually affecting a large number of people”. So what this essentially means is the worldwide spread of a certain disease that cannot be cured or controlled. While humans evolved, so did these infectious diseases thus making it something which cannot be avoided. On December 20th 2019, a shrimp seller in Wuhan was the first one to get infected with the Coronavirus and this didn’t take a lot of time to spread. Currently, 633 thousand victims have died due to this pandemic making it a serious issue. People all over the world have come to a stop and are staying at homes to avoid getting infected. The root cause of the origin of the virus was an infected bat Nevertheless, transmission of the same can occur via an intermediary animal. This might sound impossible but someday or the other the human civilization will overcome the virus. Throughout history, we have been through various pandemic and have emerged victorious, with some sacrifices. What has to be acknowledged about the human body is that it develops immunity and fights the disease. So when scientific advancement didn’t take a huge leap, people would solely rely on their immunity.


(1334- 1350)

Deaths- 30-50 million

Black death is regarded to be one of the deadliest pandemics history has ever seen. The disease was caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis which causes bubonic plague. Apart from health issues, the pandemic was accompanied by religious, social and economic constraints. This plague was transmitted because of the unhygienic conditions of the animals on the street and the spread was rampant in the poverty-stricken areas. The disease also had various recognizable diseases such as fevers, headaches, painful joints and the appearance of buboes. The worst part about the disease was that 80% of the people died within eight days of getting the disease. This gave a very minimal timeframe for the patients to heal and gain immunity towards the disease. Economically, the pandemic cleared many of the labourers, artisans and craftsmen creating a huge regression in the income of the working class. One positive impact of the Black Death was that it stirred the moment of renaissance which was a revolutionary period for Europe.

The main theory which explains the end of the pandemic was the implementation of quarantines. It also took certain improvements in personal hygiene to put a stop to the transmission of the disease.



Deaths- 10 million

The pandemic mainly revolved around the transmission of influenza due to the advanced transport infrastructure. Bukhara, a city in central Asia, was the first to record the disease and led to two-thirds of the Russian population dying. The flu spread further due to transport and trade hence making a world-wide impact of the same. The flu also infected 60% of Sweden, spread through Vienna, and killed up to 300 per day in Madrid. In a few days, it spread across the Northern Hemisphere giving the virus a huge geographic platform. Some of the symptoms included hot and cold flashes, constant body aches, fever and weakness. In many cases, it was pretty similar to the coronavirus making the analysis of this pandemic very important. Russian Influenza never ended completely. The reason for its decline was the exposure of so many people which led to the building of immunity to the virus.



Deaths- 50- 100 million

This influenza pandemic led to the death of one-third of the world’s population. Due to this, it is considered to be one of the deadliest modern pandemics. The pandemic occurred during the first world war which created a lack of media coverage. Since Spain had a free press and Kind Alfonso was one of the first people to get infected by this, it is often referred to as the “Spanish Flu”. The transmission of the virus was mainly due to the close proximity of the troops during the world war. One of the main reasons for the mass transmission was the lack of immunity of the troops due to starvation and stress. The government too didn’t take any action as it was in denial. The main symptoms involved fever with bacterial pneumonia and the formation of mahogany spots on the face. Soon, the person’s lungs were filled with fluids followed by his death. This was one of the first times in history where a public health management system was introduced where quarantines and social distancing were taken into consideration. Random assortments of medical doses were given as medical treatment and traditional medicine was given high importance. The pandemic ended in the summer of 1919 because of developed immunity.



Deaths- 200 thousand.

Swine flu is an infection common in pigs all over the world and even though the transmission of this from pigs to humans is not common, this occurred in 2009 making it the human flu. Some of the symptoms include fever, coughing, decreased appetite and lethargy. The symptoms are very similar to that of influenza. The flu is transmitted to farmers and poultry workers. Public health measures of vaccinating people in direct contact with zoonotic viruses were taken. There were three main preventive measures taken. First, contact with swine animals was decreased and highly regulated. Second social distancing measures were introduced and thirdly, the introduction of a vaccine led to mass healing.



Deaths- 11 thousand

The virus mainly impacted the western African countries where a Public Health Emergency of International Concern was declared. It was declared that a two-year-old boy in Guinea was the first one to suffer from this virus who died in the same village. The virus was initially transmitted due to its body fluids. It is commonly believed that bats were the host to this virus which eats half a fruit and drops the rest. Similarly, when it came to human transmission the root cause was body fluids. There was no formal evidence that sexual transmission was a cause of transmission but the WHO declared that this surely cannot be ruled out. One of the main reasons for the outbreak in Africa was the low functioning health facilities because of which, medical isolation and containment were proving to be difficult. Eventually, contact tracing helped in identifying the victims who could be diagnosed as soon as possible. Even community awareness played a huge role. Personal hygiene and washing of hands were given great importance and the citizens were constantly reminded of it. Another problem faced here was the underlying poverty. Some people didn’t have enough water to drink which made washing hands highly redundant for them. Travel restrictions and quarantines were also introduced to contain the disease. As such, there is no medical treatment for the deadly virus but as soon as the symptoms were noticed the person was quarantined. This either led to the death of the person or he gained immunity against the virus.


(1981- today)

Deaths- 32 million

HIV interferes with the immune system of a person making him prone to diseases such as tuberculosis and tumours. Initially, no symptoms are noticed but eventually, it leads to unintended weight loss and influenza-like illness. Transmission of this disease can occur through three main sources. The most common one is unprotected sexual intercourse. The virus also spreads from a mother to her child. Exposure to body fluids such as blood also leads to transmission. The biggest issue in a country like India when it comes to AIDS is the stigma in society. Social Boycott and rejection have a grave mental impact on the patient making his life even more vulnerable. Even after the level of medical advancement, there is no direct cure or vaccine for AIDS but there do exist some pills which help to overcome the problem.

It should be realised that reading the past helps us realise what we can do in the future and this is the logic which should be implemented right now. Human civilization has been through many pandemics and has overcome them. We as humans should not lose hope and believe in medical advancement as well as the government. The trend that can be established after going through various articles is that someday or the other humans will develop immunity to the virus. Even if there is no vaccine, efficient lockdowns and social distancing can do the magic. According to the Darwin theory of evolution, civilization will adapt and evolve according to the surrounding conditions. That’s the only way to move forward. Soon, Coronavirus too will be on the list of past pandemics and until then all we can do is learn, wait and hope.

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