There’s no question that the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a huge toll on the lives and livelihoods of people around the world. Like those who endured the pandemics of the past, we grieve and struggle to navigate such massive loss and disruption to our lives.
Here, we take a look at some of the notable outbreaks in history, to see what good may spring up from the depths of tragedy.
Throughout history, humans have transmitted diseases to one another. Some of these outbreak events have changed the course of history as well as future pandemics.
The Black Death (bubonic plague) broke out in Europe in 1347. It’s estimated that it killed in the order of 200 million people.
“By the time the pandemic had burned out by the early 1350s, a distinctly modern world emerged – one defined by free labor, technological innovation and a growing middle class.” So says Professor Andrew Latham, who teaches the course “Plagues, Pandemics and Politics” at Macalester College in Minnesota.
Around this time the practice of quarantine also began. The word comes from the Italian words quaranta giorni, meaning 40 days. Ships arriving in Venice sat at anchor for 40 days before landing. This meant that any disease aboard would run its course, allowing only the healthy onshore.
During an outbreak of cholera in London, Dr John Snow tracked and traced cases of the disease to a particular area of London. He posited that the disease was not transmitted by the London ‘miasma’ but likely stemmed from a tainted water source. And he was right. He disabled a suspect water pump and the disease was contained.
Dr Snow’s discovery also led to improvements in the water and waste systems of London and other cities. Even today, improving access to safe water and waste systems in developing countries plays a key role in any health program.
Smallpox emerged in the 1520s and persisted for more than four centuries. In the late 18th century, English physician Edward Jenner noticed that milkmaids exposed to cowpox did not get smallpox.
Injecting test subjects with cowpox, Dr Jenner discovered that the cowpox virus could prevent them getting smallpox. From that point, the use of this first vaccine gradually wiped out the disease. Smallpox was declared completely eradicated in the 1980s.
The discovery of a smallpox vaccine also led to the development of hundreds of different vaccines for different contagions.
The main way that viral pandemics end is when enough people develop immunity, either by exposure to the virus or a vaccine.
When the novel coronavirus arrived in late 2019, not one human had any inbuilt immunity to it. With high exposure numbers, some people suggest that herd immunity may help. But most people are putting their hope in the development of an effective and safe vaccine.
There are at least two very promising vaccines in the final phase of development, as a result of a ‘warp-speed’ development program. Governments around the world are hoping for success and a quick roll-out of vaccination programs globally.
Even so, the history of pandemics suggests that it may take a long time to eliminate COVID-19. And perhaps it will never happen. Smallpox remains the first and only contagious disease to be fully eradicated. This will make the containment programs (track and trace), as well as basic hygiene measures, hugely important for a long time to come.
While the impact of COVID-19 still unfolds, there are likely to be some positive changes with time. Some clues that better days are coming are indicated by:
Professor Latham asserts: “The implications of this and related economic developments may prove as profoundly transformative as those triggered by the Black Death in 1347.”
And it’s worth noting that there is one consistent trend when looking at the history of pandemics: the death rates are decreasing. And what we learn today will help curb the impact of any future disease outbreaks.