🤒Pandemics That Changed History

Hello! Happy April, we made it to a new month. Welcome to another edition of Inside The Newsroom where we’ll explore the pandemics that changed history. The latest coronavirus outbreak has exposed just how vulnerable today’s society is to a pandemic. Too few medical supplies, too few economic safety nets, too much connection. But as we’ll learn from previous pandemics below, overcrowded cities and mass globalization didn’t appear overnight. Rather, the world we live in is a symptom of thousands of years of advancing civilizations, and humans have and will continue to fight pandemics for as long as we live, making the same mistakes along the way. Well, unless climate change wipes us out completely. Jokes aside, COVID-19 is unfortunately the price of doing business. Right let’s get into it. Enjoy ✊

Pandemic: An outbreak of a disease that occurs over a wide geographic area and affects an exceptionally high proportion of the population

430 B.C. — First Pandemic Recorded

The Great Plague of Athens is the earliest recorded pandemic around 2,500 years ago in the second year of the Peloponnesian War between the Athenians and Spartans. After sweeping through parts of northern Africa and across the Mediterranean Sea, the disease made its way into Athens and wiped out large numbers of its soldiers, arguably leading Sparta to victory 26 years later. Symptoms included fever, thirst, bloody throat and tongue, red skin and lesions, largely believed by modern scholars to be either typhus or typhoid. Experts think that between one- and two-thirds of the population — thought to be around 300,000 people — were wiped out across Ancient Greece.

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165 A.D. — Antonine Plague

The Antonine Plague — also known as the Plague of Galen — was first detected at the height of the Roman Empire’s power throughout the Mediterranean and lasted 15 years. The Huns — “nomadic warriors” that invaded Europe and originated in either China or Kazakhstan or elsewhere in Asia 🤷‍♂️ — were first infected, who later passed it to the Germans, who then gifted it to the Romans. The disease would return in 251 A.D. for another 15 years. Common symptoms included the fever, vomiting, thirstiness, swollen throat, coughing and “blackish” diarrhea. I should probably get checked out. The Antonine Plague is thought to the be one of the diseases responsible for the decline and eventual collapse of the Roman Empire.

250 A.D. — Cyprian Plague

Starting in Ethiopia, the Cyprian Plague is named after its first victim: St. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage. It took between several months and a year to reach Rome, before spreading to Greece and further east to Syria. Lasting almost two decades, the disease killed up to 5,000 people per day in Rome — for context, around 800 people have died per day in Italy over the past seven days from COVID-19, and that’s with 21st century science and technology. People living in cities fled to the country to escape infection but instead spread the disease further. Ring any bells?


541 A.D. — Justinian Plague

One of the deadliest outbreaks on record, the Justinian Plague started in Egypt, spread to neighbouring Palestine and then to the Byzantine Empire — the eastern half of the Roman Empire that survived despite the west’s collapse — and throughout the Mediterranean. It was the first significant appearance of the bubonic plague, which returned repeatedly over the next 225 years and ended up killing between 30-50 million people in total, between a quarter and a half of the world’s population. It’s especially important because once the pandemic eventually ended, people throughout the rest of the Empire turned to Christianity as a way of dealing with the grief, ultimately the final nail in the coffin for the Romans.

11th Century — Leprosy

Leprosy, or Hansen’s Disease, is caused by slow-moving bacteria that affects nerves, skin, eyes and lining of the nose. It had existed well before it became a pandemic in the Middle/Dark Ages — the medieval period between the fall of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the Renaissance — and still exists today. Today, there are around 200,000 leprosy cases globally, down from 5.2 million in the 1980s. Like with most pandemics, what was once highly contagious, Leprosy’s lethalness has been severely reduced due to the creation of antibiotics in 1928.

1350 — The Black Death

The second large outbreak of the bubonic plague, the Black Death wiped out one-third of the 370 million global population, including about 50 million or 60 percent of Europe. The plague originated in China and spread along trade routes to Europe and northern Africa. Cities couldn’t cope with the amount of dead bodies, with many left to rot in the street. England and France, then partaking in the latest episode of The Hundred Years’ War, lost so many people that the two countries called a temporary truce. The Black Death is regarded by some as the greatest catastrophe ever.

1492 — The Columbian Exchange

Like most things European explorers touched back in the day, public health rapidly declined as part of the Columbian Exchange, a period traversing the 15th and 16th centuries that saw Europeans transport livestock to the Americas, bringing with them deadly diseases. Immunity to smallpox, the flu and other diseases were not yet available, and it’s estimated between 80 and 95 percent of the Native American population died within the first 100 to 150 years of the exchange.

1665 — The Great Plague of London

The disease that wiped out nearly a quarter of London’s population was the last major outbreak of the bubonic plague in Britain killing around 200,000 people, about 7,000 people per week at its peak. Diarist Samuel Pepys, who chronicled many of London’s darkest moments, wrote

“in my way seeing a coffin with a dead body therein, dead of the plague, lying in [a field] belonging to Coome farme, which was carried out last night, and the parish have not appointed any body to bury it, but only set a watch there day and night, that nobody should go thither or come thence, which is a most cruel thing”

The worst of the Great Plague fell off in the fall of 1666, around the same time the Great Fire of London set the city ablaze. London back then was a cramped city with narrow streets and most if not all of its buildings were made from wood. A previous drought meant that London was a kindling box waiting to breathe, and the fire destroyed much of the city.

The Great Plague of 1665 to 1666 graph

1817 — First Cholera Outbreak

The first of seven outbreaks over the next 150 years, Cholera is thought to have originated from the Ganges Delta in India stemming from contaminated rice. The disease was largely transferred to the rest of the world by British soldiers (sorry!) whose empire stretched to most parts of the world. It’s thought that a total of one million people died over the next century, sometimes within hours of contracting the disease. Today, Cholera infects about 1.3 million people annually, and kills up to 143,000 people.

1855 — The Third Plague

The bubonic plague — that yucky disease spread mainly by fleas — reappeared in China, before spreading to nearby Hong Kong and India. Advanced transport links allowed the disease to spread easily to ports in the likes of Cape Town, Pensacola and San Francisco, and ultimately killed around 12 million people. Its historical significance cannot be underplayed. India already faced brutal British occupation, and the repressive policies only became more harsh as the pandemic spread. The Indians finally had enough and began to revolt against British rule, assassinating many soldiers. India would finally gain its independence in 1947.

1875 — Fiji Measles

Another outbreak that can be blamed on the British, sigh, the Fiji Measles pandemic was once again spread by soldiers traversing its grand empire. After the Fijians surrendered to the Empire at the end of 1874, a group of Fijians visited Australia, then also under British rule. They caught the disease after visiting Sydney, and once they returned to their island, the measles ravaged around 40,000 locals. On November 7, 2019, another measles outbreak was declared in Fiji, and mass gatherings were banned until January 10, 2020.

1889 — Russian Flu

The first significant outbreak of the influenza, the Russian Flu began in Siberia and Kazakhstan, before spreading largely along railway lines to Finland and Poland and the rest of Europe, something that hadn’t existed during the last plague in the mid-1800s. The pandemic then crossed the Atlantic and Mediterranean Oceans into North America and Africa, respectively, killing around one million people in total.

1918 — Spanish Flu

The most devastating pandemic of modern times, the Spanish Flu ripped through all parts of the world, infecting an estimated 500 million people, and thought to have killed between 50 and 100 million. The flu did not originate in Spain, but the Spanish were awarded the title as their neutrality in World War One meant they weren’t subject to the same news censorship many other European countries were. The Spanish were free to report as they wished, which meant they were labelled with the name of the deadliest pandemic on record. Most victims died within hours or days of contracting the disease, with their skin turning blue and lungs filling with fluid that ultimately suffocated them. In just one year, 1918, the average life expectancy in America plummeted by a dozen years. Around 40 percent of the U.S. Navy and Army fell ill, which eventually killed more soldiers than were killed in the line of battle.

1957 — Asian Flu

Not long after the Spanish Flu died out, another strand of the influenza broke out, this time starting in Hong Kong before spreading throughout China and eventually to most parts of the world. Estimates have the global death toll at between one and two million people, which is considered the least severe of the three flu pandemics of the 20th century, the other known as the Hong Kong flu in 1968. The 1957 outbreak was another chance for researchers to develop a vaccine, which has largely kept the flu in check to this day.

1981 — HIV/AIDS

Since they first emerged, HIV and AIDS have killed up to 35 million globally. The two diseases are directly linked: HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) damages cells in the immune system, while AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) describes several life-threatening infections when the immune system has been damaged by HIV. While AIDS can’t be transmitted from one person to another, HIV can. There’s still no absolute cure for the diseases, but powerful drugs allow most victims to still live a normalish lifespan. Still, around 770,000 people died from the viruses in 2018.

2003 — SARS

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome was first detected in the Guangdong province in Southern China, and is thought to have originated from bats, which then spread to other animals and eventually to humans. Poor bats. SARS spread to 26 countries, yet around only 8,000 cases were found, killing 774 people. SARS is regarded as a major breakthrough in our ability to halt a pandemic, and subsequently reduced the number of deaths from the Ebola and Zika outbreaks. However, it doesn’t appear the SARS wake-up call was heard by enough countries…

2019 — COVID-19

Which brings us to today. We’ve written relentlessly about the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, a family of viruses that range from the common cold to the deadly pneumonia we’re currently seeing. As of this morning, there are now 862,234 confirmed global cases, including 42,404 deaths.

Credit: Pablo Gutiérrez 👇

Next up

James Spann to talk about how the coronavirus might affect tornado preparations as the U.S. season starts…

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