We are nearly halfway through 2020, the year of COVID-19. Those of you who know me or regularly read my columns will know how much I turn to history for knowledge, wisdom and perspective and to take overall comfort in the resilience of the human race.
As we begin to emerge into a “new normal” and start to resume our lives – with a careful eye on the infection statistics – I have been reflecting on how pandemics have influenced history through the centuries. I am not underestimating or minimizing the impact or severity of the current pandemic, especially on those in our society that are most vulnerable. However, today we are statistically far more likely to die from non-communicable diseases like cancer, heart disease or Alzheimer’s than from a contagious disease, especially in the developed world and even in the time of the coronavirus.
It is sobering to reflect that throughout history nothing has killed more human beings than infectious disease. While natural disasters, such as earthquakes, hurricanes or volcanic eruptions, are contained within a local area, viruses, bacterial infections and parasitic diseases can spread far and fast, are often poorly understood and have been much more deadly throughout human history.
Even in war, up until the 20th century, more soldiers died of disease than of wounds sustained in battle.
For example, malaria is a parasitic disease transmitted by mosquitoes, which still kills nearly half a million people every year, according to the World Health Organization. Tuberculosis is a bacterial infection, which infected 10 million people and killed 1.5 million last year.
Smallpox, a viral disease, may have killed as many as 300 million people in the 20th century alone, even though an effective vaccine – the world’s first – had been available since 1796.
The spread of COVID-19 in today’s global world has been swift, but so have the response and the sharing of scientific and medical knowledge.
Vaccine trials are underway in record time, hospitals have more capacity and equipment to treat people hospitalized with the coronavirus, and the virus’s transmission is better understood.
Of course, we are not out of the woods yet, but over the millennia, epidemics have been mass killers on a scale we can’t begin to imagine today – even in this time of the coronavirus. Currently, nearly 8 million people have tested positive for COVID-19 and over 430,000 people have died. Compare this to the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-19, which infected an estimated 500 million people worldwide – about one-third of the planet’s population at that time – and killed between 20-50 million people (we do not have more precise statistics). Going back a bit further in history to the Middle Ages, all epidemics were described as “plagues.” The Black Death of the 14th century may have killed up to 200 million people and decimated Europe as an estimated one-third of the population is believed to have died. Today, researchers believe that the Black Death was most likely a plague in a pneumonic form, infecting the lungs and spreading from person to person through sneezing or coughing.
Alternatively, lice or fleas on people (not on rats as was commonly believed until recent years) carried the infection. At the onset of the plague, people were affected by swellings called “boils” followed by black spots on the body – hence the description Black Death.
The Black Death epidemic had mostly run its course by the early 1350s, but the plague continues even today – centuries later – to reappear every few generations.
Modern sanitation and public-health practices have greatly mitigated the impact of the disease but have not yet eliminated it. While antibiotics are available to treat the Black Death, the World Health Organization believes there are still up to 3,000 cases of plague every year.
There is a lot more information at www.history. com.
I will leave you with a quote by the Second World War’s first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, which I think is very relevant to us in 2020: “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’” God bless America. Stay safe, stay well and stay positive.