Pandemics have occurred throughout history and spread as people lived in communities and connected with others through commerce, war and travel.
History’s pandemics can teach lessons today
As long as humans have lived among one another in communities, disease has been a part of the human condition. Cities became connected by roads as citizens traded with one another and made war against each other, all of which contributed to the spread of disease.
With the COVID-19 pandemic currently coloring nearly all aspects of society, it can sometimes be hard to remember a time that people did not talk about the disease.
Of course, COVID-19 is not the first pandemic humans have experienced and will not likely be the last. The bubonic plague that struck Europe and Asia in the 14th century and the 1918 influenza pandemic are just two of many examples of contagious illnesses shaping history and causing social changes as people tried to prevent the devastation from happening again.
Black Death disrupts Europe
The menacing bubonic plague pandemic that ravaged Europe and Asia in the middle of the 14th century came to be known as the Black Death. Five years after its arrival in Europe, almost one-third of the continent’s population was killed by the plague, more than 20 million people in all.
England and France lost so many to the Black Death that the countries called a temporary halt in their war with each other.
According to a history.com article, the Black Death reached Europe in 1347, when 12 ships from the Black Sea docked in Sicily.
Many of the sailors on the ship were already dead, and those who were still alive were covered in the boils that were telltale signs of the plague.
The Black Death was notoriously contagious. It was spread person to person through the air as well as from bites from infected rats and fleas, both of which were plentiful in Europe at the time. Rats and fleas were also frequent uninvited passengers on ships, allowing the plague to spread more easily.
Medieval doctors tried to combat the plague by employing techniques such as lancing boils and bloodletting, but these were not effective. At this time, doctors also wore plague masks, which had a large beak-like structure in the front part of it.
Many people at this time believed the miasma theory, which claimed that bad-smelling air was caused by disease that polluted the air. The long beak part of the mask could be filled with herbs and other items that produced pleasant smells in an attempt to protect the doctor from the foul air. Additionally, these long beaks also created physical distance between doctor and patient.
The labor shortage that the bubonic plague caused helped to lay the foundation for the removal of the serf system used in Europe at the time. Workers were able to ask for better pay and working conditions, and sanitation in the cities improved.
The plague reappeared every few generations for many centuries, and there are still cases around the world each year, though these can typically be easily treated with antibiotics and standard preventative measures, according to the World Health Organization.
Influenza and world war take 1918 by storm
Sometimes called a forgotten pandemic since it coincided with the end of World War I, the influenza pandemic of 1918 killed 20 million to 50 million people worldwide. It is thought to have infected an estimated 500 million people, which was about one-third of the world population at the time.
It is often called the “Spanish flu,” which is a misnomer. While it did not originate in Spain, the country was one of the first to cover the disease in its news media.
In response to the pandemic, schools and businesses were closed and people asked to wear masks to slow the spread of the disease. Some communities ordered quarantines. People were advised to stop shaking hands, and regulations were passed banning spitting.
Those who were ill experienced typical flu symptoms such as fever, fatigue and chills. The first wave in the spring of 1918 resulted in generally mild symptoms and a low number of reported deaths.
The second wave appeared in the fall of that same year, and people began dying within days or even hours of developing symptoms, greatly increasing the death count.
The 1918 flu was unusual in that it killed many people who were young and otherwise healthy, many of whom were between 20-40 years old. This meant that children sometimes lost both parents to the disease.
Troops in World War I who were traveling the world in ships and trains helped spread the disease, and about 45,000 U.S. soldiers died of the flu by the end of 1918. An estimated total of 675,000 Americans died of influenza in 1918, which would be equivalent to over two million deaths in today’s population.
The deadly pandemic finally came to an end by the summer of 1919, and researchers feel that this was due to the fact that those who had been infected had either died or developed immunity.
After the 1918 flu pandemic, many governments and scientists across the world studied the conditions that promote illness for insight into ways to prevent it rather than just reacting to a disease’s symptoms.
Governments began to look into housing situations and pass laws regarding overcrowding, and many saw these laws as a direct attempt to counteract the spreading of the disease that occurs when many people are in close quarters.
Humans have come through plagues and pandemics before, and their similarities to and differences from the current pandemic can be instructive on how to overcome these sad chapters and build an even stronger and better future.