What is required, overall, is a new paradigm in the way people think about disease.
Laurie Garrett, author of The Coming Plague
Swamped with daily detail on the COVID-19 pandemic, I thought it would be interesting to explore the history of plagues. Sometimes the long view can be kind of comforting.
I’ll begin with the statistics of the moment so that they can be compared with those of the past. The figures on COVID-19 are continuously updated in Wikipedia.
Those numbers will be an important point of reference as I begin the brief survey of the disease crises that have afflicted humanity throughout history–or as much of history as can be traced.
THE HISTORY OF PANDEMICS
My primary resource for this post is a timeline on History.com titled Pandemics that Changed History. I’m going to skim the content, but through the links within, readers can burrow deep into detail.
A pandemic is defined as a disease that has spread very widely, as across multiple countries and even worldwide. The most common pandemic is “the bubonic plague” or simply “the plague.” It is caused by the Yersinia pestis bacteria. The site above covers 17 pandemics, ending with COVID-19, which is caused by a coronavirus. The common cold is sometimes caused by a coronavirus, but the one behind COVID-19 is termed the “novel” coronavirus.
The alarm over COVID-19 is intense, even as there is evidence, so far, that it does tend to peak and then abate, hopefully totally to disappear. This is not always the case with pandemics, however. For example, there were 15 years of recurring infections in the Antonine Plague (possibly smallpox) that appeared among the Huns in AD 165. Then beginning in AD 250, there were 300 years of outbreaks of the Cyprian Plague, a bubonic plague.
The symptoms of these illnesses were typically visually horrifying compared with the fever, cough, and difficulty in breathing caused by COVID-19. These symptoms included hemorrhaging from nose, mouth, and rectum and under the skin that would turn black; sores oozing with pus all over the body; rotting hands, feet, and nose; and swollen and blackened lymph nodes.
Vivid art work captured the suffering from pandemics in cities that were severely overpopulated. There were so many deaths that bodies could not be buried, and the air was filled with the stench of decay. The times must have been hellish.
Our current numbers for COVID-19 pale by comparison to the losses of historic plagues. I don’t know how historians come up with the figures for early deaths, but the Justinian Plague (bubonic) that struck probably in Ethiopia in AD 541 killed an estimated 50 million people or about 26% of the world population.
The figure for the Black Death, which began in Asia AD 1350, is about the same but over about three to seven years, not 200. The figure of 50 million deaths worldwide comes up again with the the Spanish Flu (caused by the H1N1 virus) that erupted during World War I and lasted only about a year.
The figures for pandemics since then have not reached the same level, but there is a different kind of example in what is called the Columbian Exchange. This began in AD 1492 with the arrival of Spaniards in the Caribbean under Christopher Columbus. In this case, the problem was not one specific disease but a host of them that natives of South America had never been exposed to. Their unconditioned immune systems were devastated by smallpox, measles, and the bubonic plague, and an estimated 90 percent of indigenous people died.
So when one looks at the figures in the millions of people who died from earlier pandemics, the current figure of 146,291 deaths to date from COVID-19, seems modest. As I mentioned at the outset, this contrast can be calming, and seems to ratify the rigorous restrictions imposed in certain states in the US.
Under Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, New Mexico has been a leader in such initiatives. And “sheltering in place” regulations have given us the time to think–not only about COVID-19 but also about the conditions in our world that have created it. In the quiet, some may be considering the need to do more than just get back to normal. After all, in our globalized world, pandemics are more likely than ever before, and now we have the opportunity to think ahead.
I accessed this opportunity back in 1994 with the purchase of a book titled The Coming Plague by health and science writer Laurie Garrett. At over 620 pages, it goes over humanity’s struggles with diseases during the previous 50 years, giving a gripping and comprehensive view of the ongoing and rising danger humanity faces. Here are some important points:
- Microbes are our foremost predator, and they infinitely outnumber us.
- They are perfectly capable of mutating to survive and exploit a new host.
- They can outwit the human immune system.
- They are evolving far more rapidly than Homo sapiens.
And if there is a microbe consciousness that wishes to conquer the world, we have become its foremost ally. This is due to the way we concentrate populations often without sanitation, clean water, food, and healthcare to combat our innate vulnerability to disease. I’m thinking of not only cities but also the burgeoning temporary confinements in war zones, refugee camps, and border areas incarcerating immigrants.
In such zones, a malignant and even more dangerous microbe than the novel coronavirus could take off and devastate our globalized civilization in the matter of just months. Garrett built a brilliant case for this possibility in her book 26 years ago, and it began with a proposal to fend it off. It was presented in the preface by Jonathan M. Mann, MD, MPH, Professor of Epidemiology and International Health at Harvard School of Public Health. He proposed “a global early-warning system capable of detecting and responding to new emerging infectious disease threats to health.”
In 2000, the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network was established to work with the World Health Organization. However, we have just recently observed the country of origin’s tendency to hide an outbreak, the lagging response in others, and also the tendency to flip into denial. There is clearly no organization empowered now to respond comprehensively and no commitment among international leaders to collaborate on preparation and response.
So there we are. And as I suggested earlier, this rather quiet time with COVID-19 may prove a blessing. This gives us time to think about the larger issues mentioned above, even as we may relax over progress made so far in containing the novel coronavirus. After all, its symptoms are gentler, the individuals at greatest risk much fewer than in the case of the historic plagues listed above that killed millions of every age worldwide. As of this moment, COVID-19 hasn’t racked up even 140,000 deaths in a world population of 7.8 billion. (Of course, the statistics gathered so far may not be accurate, and any day the numbers could balloon for some reason.)
This pandemic may ultimately have provided us with a priceless opportunity to rethink our way of being on Planet Earth. We may begin, one step at a time, to make significant changes before this pandemic is–inevitably perhaps–succeeded by one infinitely more dangerous. In this case, we can remember that red dappled sphere departing with a message: “You have been warned.”