Here we have a look at some of the most devastating pandemics that have ravaged humankind over the centuries
Mankind has been ravaged by infectious diseases since the earliest days. However, it was only when communities started evolving and agrarian practices started enabling people to lead more stable lives in groups that led to a rampant increase in the scale and spread of these diseases.
Before people began voyaging to different places across the world, pandemics were not a common occurrence. It was only with the development of larger cities and as more and more interaction of people across continents took place that the likelihood of pandemics occurring increased exponentially. Let’s have a look at some of the worst pandemics we have come across:
Plage of Justinian: (541–542 C.E)
The Plage of Justinian emerged in 541 C.E. It arrived in the city of Constantinople and from there was carried over to Egypt via the Mediterranean sea. Caused by a single bacterium known as Yersinia pestis, it is estimated that around 30 to 50 million people died from this plague. Some researches indicate that the total death toll could be much higher than that and in fact, it could have potentially wiped out half of the world’s population. With the absence of any medical assistance or a vaccine, it was impossible to get rid of the plague other than avoiding getting in touch with a person afflicted with the disease.
Black Death: (1347–1351)
The Black Death, also known as the bubonic plague is considered an extension of the previous plague by many. It hit Europe in 1347 and claimed at least 200 million lives in the four years it pervaded the world. Affecting countless lives in Asia, Africa, and Europe, the plague jumped continents via fleas living on rats that inhabited merchant ships that sailed across the seas. It took more than 200 years for Europe’s population to recover from the plague. The plague changed the course of Europe’s history. Due to the devastating effects of Black Death, severe actions were taken to curb the spread. It was only during that time that the concept of quarantine became popular. People afflicted with the plague were put in isolation and in ports across cities, new sailors coming in were kept under observation away from the city.
The great plague of London: (1348–1665)
Black Death never really vanished entirely from Britain and it kept resurfacing every 20 years or so from 1348 to 1665. With each reemergence, the plague claimed 20 percent of the entire population in the country. Due to its reoccurrence, England had to impose laws, restricting people within their homes and imposing isolation and separation on the sick. Houses with patients were marked and family members had to carry a white pole with them when they ventured outside. A large number of domesticated animals were massacred for the fear of being hosts to the plague. All public spheres were sealed off in order to prevent the spread and it may have been the only way to bring an end to the outbreak.
Smallpox: (16th-18th century)
Smallpox had been persisting in Europe, Asia, and Arabia for centuries. It took 3 lives out of every 10 people it infected and was considered to be a major problem in its initial period of devastation. Smallpox had rampaged populations across centuries but it was only in the modern period that it became a devastating force. The people in North America and Mexico, who had virtually no immunity against smallpox fell like flies when it reached the continent through European travelers in the 15th century. The population of Mexico went from 11 million before being introduced to smallpox to 1 million.
It was only in the 18th century when a doctor called Edward Jenner discovered that those afflicted with a slightly milder disease called cowpox seemed immune to smallpox. Upon further testing, his discovery came to be true and Jenner was able to invent the first-ever vaccine in the world for a disease. With Jenner’s vaccine, the true end to smallpox came to be but it took almost two centuries and it was only in 1980 when smallpox was eradicated from the face of the earth.
It was in the early 19th century when cholera tore through the streets of England, taking countless lives in its wake. During those times, due to heavy industrialization, medical supervisors wrongly assumed that the ‘bad air’ of England had something to do with the pandemic. However, a medical practitioner, by the name of John Snow discovered that the disease actually came from the London’s drinking water.
Snow researched extensively and highlighted certain parts of the city where Cholera cases were on the rise and found that the area surrounding a certain Broad Street pump had the most number of cases. A series of discussions with the officials led to the removal of the pump and lo and behold, the number of cases dropped significantly. Eventually, this episode led to a global effort in improving sanitary conditions and sewage treatment and access to cleaner drinking water in several parts of the world. While Cholera is largely absent in developed countries, it still features as a looming threat in developing nations.
These are some of the worst plagues that have emerged ever since the dawn of civilization. In present times we are dealing with a similar situation with COVID-19. As researchers and medical practitioners across the world are tackling the issue by conducting tests and figuring out a vaccine for the virus, we as humans need to be constantly reminded that these kinds of situations are not alien to humankind, and every century has witnessed some form of an epidemic.
What we need to remember is to not lose hope and ensure that we follow all possible safety and hygiene protocols to sustain ourselves and our loved ones. For we are in this together and it’s only through constant efforts that we’d be able to overcome this.