Pandemics of the past - COVID-19

No matter where you look – news channels, social media, or even your favourite meme account – Covid-19 has taken over everything quite completely. This talk includes sharing ideas on how to spend time at home during the endless lockdown, how to mentally cope with the quarantine, discussing our government’s role in effectively containing the pandemic, and marvelling over the few (many, to be honest) who are bent on disregarding the lockdown which is meant to keep them and others around them safe. This week we want to talk about something different, but still similar: pandemics of the past.           – Roshni


Epidemic vs Pandemic

Among all the technical jargon that you might have heard being thrown around, the terms epidemic and pandemic are definitely among them. But what are they and how does one differentiate between the two?

An outbreak takes place when there is a sudden and unexpected growth in the number of cases of a particular disease. When the outbreak spreads quickly and affects a great number of people at the same time, it’s called an epidemic. It can either manifest in a community, a particular geographical area or many countries, and can grow out of control. A couple of well-known outbreaks that can be classified as epidemics include the 2014-2016 Ebola virus and the 1981-1991 measles outbreak.

When an epidemic spreads over a significant geographical area and affects an even higher percentage of the population, the outbreak is then called a pandemic. Affecting the whole country or the world, a pandemic is basically an epidemic on a national or global level.

The Current Scenario

It was roughly around the end of 2019 when this living nightmare was set into motion. Someone was infected with a virus from an animal in Wuhan, capital of the Hubei province in China. From that very first group of infected people, Covid-19 spread across the globe in a couple of months.

A recent report by Graham Readfearn at The Guardian stated that there is a certain level of uncertainty about several details of Covid-19’s origin, especially which species was responsible for passing it to humans. This is key to understanding how the virus started, how it was passed to humans and, more importantly, how the next one can be avoided.

As of May 13, 2020, the World Health Organisation has reported more than 4 million confirmed cases over time, across the globe.
The latest update by India’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare reported 47,480 active cases, 2,415 deaths and 24,385 cured/discharged in the country.

There’s no denying that the rising numbers represent a bleak reality, more so for people from impoverished communities. However, it’s also clear that humankind has been through a significant number of epidemics and pandemics in the past, and barring a few, we’ve overcome every single one of them. Here are a few of the worst that people have dealt with throughout history.

The Black Death (1346-1353

The Black Death or the Bubonic Plague originated in rats and spread to humans via infected fleas. A number of reports state that it might have begun in Central Asia decades earlier, before sweeping through the Middle East and Europe. Historian Ole Jørgen Benedictow estimated that the plague claimed the lives of around 50-60% of the European population. However, the final death toll was said to be around 200 million, as the plague returned every 10 to 20 years to the Middle East, Europe and a number of other places for the following four centuries. The plague of Marseilles, France (1720-1721) was reportedly the last major outbreak in Western Europe. According to an article appearing in All About History, several vital developments took place in the history of medicine and health during the plague. This includes the rebirth of dissection, discovery of blood circulation and development of public health measures.

Spanish Flu (1918-1919)

Echoing the current situation, no consensus was reached on this pandemic’s origin. It was first reported in Spain before it spread to Europe, the United States, parts of Asia and then the rest of the world. It infected an estimated 500 million people, claiming 50 million lives. Although it infected the young, old and sick alike, it had a high fatality rate among healthy young adults. Years away from developing a flu vaccine and antibiotics, governments worked towards adopting strategies of disinfecting, isolation and quarantine. But as the flu began spreading at the end of World War 1, the movement of troops across the globe crippled containment efforts. Threat of the flu disappeared around 1919 when most of those who were infected either developed immunities or died.

HIV/AIDS (1981-Present)

Reported for the first time in the United States as a rare form of pneumonia, Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) develops at the most advanced stage of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). It is known to destroy the body’s ability to fight infections and other serious illnesses. The disease is known to spread through certain bodily fluids and is said to have developed from a chimpanzee virus from West Africa in the 1920s. From Haiti in the 1960s, the virus moved to New York and San Francisco in the 1970s. In the US, AIDS became one of the leading causes of death in men between the ages of 25-44 in the early 1990s. To this day at least 40 million people have died from it. Deemed even now as an incurable disease, there are millions who live with HIV/AIDS, having reduced it to a chronic but manageable condition. On a brighter note, in March 2020 a man hailing from London was reported to be the second person ever to have been cured of HIV. While researchers have yet to develop a definitive cure, they are nonetheless on the right track.

Swine Flu (2009-2010)

Originating in Mexico, the H1N1 swine flu was caused by a new strain of the same virus that caused the Spanish Flu. Named after its link to the flu viruses that circulate in pigs, the virus infected around 1.4 billion people across the globe and killed more than 500,000. Primarily affecting children and young adults, 80% of the deaths were in people younger than the age of 65 as the older community seemed to have already built up an immunity to fight the virus. While the symptoms are similar to other types of the common flu, the vaccine against H1N1 has now become a part of the regular seasonal flu shot.

When will this end?

This list doesn’t even cover a fraction of what the world has been through in terms of suffering –  through long, drawn-out illnesses and unexpected strains of infections. But we do know that they do come to an end, which is what the medical staff and scientists across the globe are working towards. Speaking with Gina Kolata at The New York Times, Harvard historian Allan Brandt shared that, “As we have seen in the debate about opening the economy, many questions about the so-called end are determined not by medical and public health data but socio political processes.” In other words, will this end because we overcame the disease or because we grew tired of panicking, and learned to live with the disease?

Meanwhile in India, the leader of the world’s largest democracy recently announced a special Rs 20 lakh crore economic package targeting the coronavirus pandemic. The specific allocation of the package, which aims to make India self-reliant, will be announced by the Finance Minister shortly. One can only hope now that we learn from our past, endeavour to maintain the rules of the lockdown, and make peace with the new normal of social distancing for as long as it takes to overcome this pandemic.