Appreciating How Pandemics Are a Part of World History

 Earth wears a Paper Face Mask to protect itself from Pandemic.

I was surprised and maybe even comforted, if that’s the right word, with all the research on the history of pandemics, and how much they have been a part of humankind. It turns out that epidemics that became pandemics (a pandemic occurs when an epidemic spreads beyond a country’s borders) have occurred since humankind made a shift from scattered and nomadic tribes that were primarily hunters and gatherers to the more communal, agrarian groups, some 10,000 years ago. 

According to the History Channel website, the earliest epidemics  included malaria, tuberculosis, leprosy, influenza and smallpox. 

Here is some data shared on this website: 

  • The earliest recorded pandemic occurred during the Peloponnesian war, passing through Libya, Ethiopia and Egypt and eventually landed in Athens in 430 BC. It was estimated that two thirds of the population became infected and died. 
  • In 160 A.D. Roman Empire experienced the Antonine Plague that lasted for 15 years.   
  • In 250 A. D. Ethiopia, Northern Africa, Rome and Egypt and eventually Britain experienced the Cyperian Plague which lasted for three centuries.   
  • In 541 A.D. the world was hit by the Justinian Plague that killed about 50 million people, which was 26% of the world population, with illnesses reoccurring over two centuries. It is believed this was the first significant appearance of the bubonic plague.  
  • In the 11th century, leprosy, grew into a pandemic in Europe. 
  • In 1350, The Black Death, started in Asia and then spread west into Europe. It was responsible for the deaths of one third of the world population. 
  • When Christopher Columbus arrived on the island of Hispaniola, the population of the Tainoppo was 60,000. By 1548 the population was less than 500 as a result of the infections carried to their country. 
  • In 1520, the Aztec empire was destroyed by smallpox, both through killing many and incapacitating others so that they could not resist Spanish colonizers. 
  • In 1665, the Great Plague of London led to the deaths of 20% of London’s population. In 1817 there was the first of seven cholera pandemics that occurred over the next 150 years. The infection originated in Russia were 1 million people died. It was passed along British soldiers who brought it to India where millions more died. It later spread to Spain, Africa, Indonesia, China, Japan, Italy, Germany and America where it killed 150,000 people. 
  • In 1855 the Third Bubonic Pandemic occurred, starting in China and moving to India and Hong Kong, claiming 15 million victims. The pandemic was considered active until 1960.  
  • In 1889, the first significant flu pandemic started in Siberia, traveled to Moscow and then reached into Finland and Poland where it moved into the rest of Europe. It eventually crossed the ocean into North America and Africa. By 1890, 360,000 had died.  
  • In 1918, the Spanish Flu first showed up in Europe, the United States and parts of Asia and eventually spread around the world. By October, hundreds of thousands of Americans had died. By the summer of 1919, the flu threat disappeared when most of those infected developed immunities or died.  
  • In 1957, the Asian flu started in Hong Kong, spread throughout China, became widespread in England and then came to the United States. It was estimated that there were a total of about 1.1 million deaths globally. A vaccine was developed which then contained the epidemic.  
  • In 1981, HIV/AIDS was first identified and became a pandemic as it spread from West Africa through Haiti and then into New York and San Francisco in the 1970s. 35 million people worldwide have died from AIDS 
  • In 2003, the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) pandemic started in China, followed by 26 other countries. The virus was contained apparently as a result of quarantine efforts. [The use of quarantining is believed to have prevented pandemics like H1N1, Ebola and Zika, keeping their spread under control.]  
  • On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization announced that Covid 19, first occurring in China, was officially declared a pandemic, having reached 114 countries in three months and infecting over 118,000 people. By December 20, 2020, that number had reached 20 million. As of February 2021, 75 million people have been infected with 1.6 million deaths. An average of 500,000 new cases are reported each day. And as we all know there are now deviants of the original Covid 19 with scientists predicting that unless we effectively stop the spread of the infections, more deviants will occur.  
close up/zoom of lots of people

So we can conclude that pandemics have been a part of world history since the beginning of recorded history. Various infections have swept across populations resulting in the deaths of vast numbers of people.  

Several things contain a pandemic where enough people survive so that their bodies build immunities. Quarantining helps prevent the spread of a particular infection. Vaccines provide protection by helping create immunities, preventing contracting the disease in the first place. In addition, we have discovered more effective ways to care for people infected by a disease, emphasizing the importance of cleanliness, use of sanitizers, drugs and treatments including ventilators that can keep a person alive while their body eventually develops immunities. We can thank people like Louis Pasteur and others for uncovering germ theory back in the mid-1800s and introducing ways to prevent and address infectious diseases based on their scientific research. 

I think most of us had little or no experience with pandemics. In many ways I think we have lived in a bubble believing that people will die mostly from things like accidents or health issues. But somehow the idea of infections sweeping through whole populations has not been on our radar. I don’t think most have considered we would ever experience a pandemic. 

Regardless, historic research shows that pandemics have been occurring since the beginning of recorded time and while we are more sophisticated in our understanding, preventing and protection of infections, maybe we should not assume a long life lived and death of natural causes. Dealing with Covid 19 and now its variants has made us feel perhaps like much of the world has felt since the beginning of recorded time, with the possibility that a pandemic can impact us all. We can use what has been learned historically to guide us through these tumultuous times.

Coronavirus text and models of virus over planet earth.

I am thankful for this information and comforted knowing we made a great deal of progress in learning how to respond to any given infection that has the potential to manifest into a pandemic. We have learned the value of washing our hands, wearing masks and social distancing. Perhaps we don’t have to feel like we are totally helpless like people have felt in previous generations. 

Invitation for Reflection 

  1. How did you respond as you read about the history of pandemics? How did it make you feel? What impressed you? What conclusions did you make? 
  2. What can you do to help inform others about these facts and trends?  
  3. What can we all do to contribute to ending the current pandemic? 

Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute