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ue to the way we have evolved as a human species, we have also given way to the spread of various diseases and plagues that have been the major cause of death in the history of humanity. Throughout history, different beliefs from traditions, religions, and cultures made us think that such events have been brought down by the Gods with certain reasoning such as teaching humanity a lesson.

  • Nevertheless, all major pandemics have in some way or another come to an end, but the question we have to ask is how?
  • Has medicine been improved enough to integrate the word hygiene into the world?
  • Was it that most of those who were infected died?

Maybe the awakening realization that this isn’t something orchestrated by divine power, but a natural phenomenon that can be controlled by humanity. In order to get a better understanding, let’s have a look at some major pandemics from history to see how they have been stopped and what sort of changes have these pandemics brought to the behavior of human beings in such catastrophic times.

Plague of Justinian (541–549AD)

The Plague of Justinian, as it came to be known after Emperor Justinian I who held the throne of Byzantium, is found to have transmitted through black rats that traveled on the grain ships and carts sent to Constantinople. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Plague of Justinian was one of the worst pandemics to ever take place in Europe. This was the first time the world was hit by a major pandemic with the death count raking up to millions. This exact pandemic was caused by a bacteria called Yersinia pestis which was not necessarily transmitted from person to person but by rats. This pandemic apparently started in Egypt and was shipped to the Byzantine empire in the monthly grain transports. In less than a year the pandemic had spread worldwide, covering most of Europe, Asia, North Africa, and the far East.

It is estimated that around fifty million people died due to this specific pandemic. Although, due to how old this pandemic is and how devastating it really was, it is very difficult to accurately say a more exact number of deaths. However, historians and researchers estimate that the plague of Justinian killed 50% of the world’s population!

Due to the lack of medical knowledge and technological advancements, people at the time did not understand how this plague was spreading, therefore they weren’t able to take any measures to stop the spread. The only precautionary measure they learned to take was to stay away from those who were sick!

After nine long and painful years, the plague dispersed and people thought that they would never experience such an event…

Black Death/Bubonic Plague (1347–1351)

The Triumph of Death by Pieter Bruegel the Elder shows a devastated landscape where death is taking people indiscriminately as it appeared to during a wave of plague. (Source: Museo del Prado)

The second and most devastating pandemic that humanity lived through is the Black Death, also known as the Bubonic Plague. It is approximated that over 200 million people died during a period of only four years. It is said that the Bubonic Plague was brought to Sicily from a small colony in Crimea. From there onwards, the plague took over Europe and, after a year, the rest of the world.

Even so, for many years, humanity still didn’t quite understand what was going on, therefore they didn’t know how to protect themselves from this disease. Many still believed that it was another sign from a divine power due to the number of wars provoked by humanity.

However, in 1348 the state of Venice came up with quarantine! Every sailor that came into the port of Venice during the Black Death pandemic was forced to be quarantined for thirty days to show that they do not manifest any sort of sickness. Just to make sure, this period was made even longer (forty days) to ensure that anyone coming into Venice was not affected by the Bubonic Plague.

This new system named by Venice as Quarantino was implemented in most of Europe in 1350, which gives us the chance to argue that quarantine was the reason for the end of the Bubonic Plague, even if we are looking at the highest death count to date.

The 17th Century Great Plagues

The Great Plague (1665) (Source: Tudors and Stuarts)

Even if the Great Plague is considered a smaller pandemic due to a low death count of only 100,000 it is still worth mentioning as in this specific pandemic we have a new innovation. Due to England being an island, they knew that if the plague was to enter their region it would be devastating, so they had to come up with something that would prevent that.

They predicted that they were not able to stop the plague from entering the country, but maybe if they detected those who had the plague, and sent them into a secluded place, they could save the rest. The problem with this plague is that (just like others) it was easily transmitted from animals. Therefore, the authorities in London were forced to kill all the dogs and cats within the city or other animals within the region.

Furthermore, the London authorities made sure that all events were shut down so that most people would sit inside their houses, therefore there was a low potential of spreading the plague. However, they knew that this wasn’t enough, so they came up with isolation! They did this by taking all the sick people into the countryside and leaving them there either to die or until they would be healed by a miracle.

In the houses in which there were infected people, a red cross was drawn so they knew that no one was allowed to enter, nor allowed to come out of the building. At night time, caravans would go around the city to pick up dead bodies in order to keep the plague away from those who were still alive.

In this pandemic we can see that people really started to fight against this natural chaos, and that is the reason why this pandemic only lasted for eighteen months.

Cholera (1817–1923)

Patients at the center street hospital in New York (Source: NYPL Digital Collections)

This pandemic ravaged the world once again. This bacteria affected the intestines and usually, the transmission of this bacteria was done through contaminated water or produce contaminated with fecal matter. The reason I mention this pandemic is because this was the first time in human history were mankind found out the source of a pandemic.

In 1854, British medic John Snow managed to identify the source of Cholera which was mainly contaminated wells around the world with dead animals, bacteria, or simply feces. This is when people started to find ways to purify their source of water, or at least boil the water before use.

The discovery that John Snow made was due to the increased political publicity in the medical sector. That is because people started to acknowledge that pandemics are becoming a trend, which means that humanity will always be challenged by them.

Sadly, this bacteria is still present in third-world countries.

Smallpox (18th century — 19th century)

An artistic rendering of Edward Jenner vaccinating eight-year-old James Phipps in 1796. (Source: Pan American Health Organization)

This was more of an ongoing disease rather than a pandemic, but it did, just like many others start as a pandemic. It is assumed that Smallpox came from India in the late 18th century and it very easily spread throughout the whole world as a lot of export was coming from India at the time.

The severity of this virus was within how contagious it was, as well as scary looking due to its effects such as small pimples all around the body. This is where Edward Jenner stepped in and created the first vaccine with antibodies to combat this disease. This is considered the most major breakthrough in combating pandemics in pre-modern medicine.

It is estimated that Smallpox had taken over 250 million lives, most of them in the 18th century.

I hope that from this the world will learn that the Covid-19 pandemic isn’t the last pandemic that we are going to face. As well as considering that denying the existence of a virus in the first place will assure a second wave in the year 2021, if not much sooner. We need to learn from history, not deny it.

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