COVID-19 vs. History: Who Will Come Out Victorious?

Dating all the way back to circa 430 B.C., there have been many deadly epidemics and pandemics that have noticeably impacted our experience and understanding of epidemiology. As the unpredictable COVID-19 pandemic continues its reign of terror through the human population, both historians and scientists alike have turned to history to learn what to do next. Looking back at epidemics is one of the many ways to predict what the nature of coronavirus will shape out to be. However, the numerous trends that connect coronavirus to past diseases lead us to critical questions: How have past epidemics and pandemics shaped how we are treating COVID-19? Have our responses to these crises differed or stayed the same? While history itself cannot put an end to coronavirus or diseases in general, they generate significant advice for society’s attempt to stop future infectious diseases. 

The earliest recorded pandemic reigned during the Peloponnesian war between Athens and Sparta. Dubbed “The Plague at Athens”, this pandemic destroyed two-thirds of the population, including Pericles, the city’s leader, and played a significant role in the Spartan’s victory. Due to the loss of many leaders, morale, and resources, Athens fell into a hole of political and military despair, shattering its democracy along the way (Horgan 2016). Similar to other pandemics of that time period, the effect of them usually centered around economic and military failure, which is similar to what we’re experiencing now as our GDP dropped 39.2% during the second quarter of the coronavirus pandemic (Cox 2020). 

Figure 1: The Triumph of Death by Pieter Bruegel that illustrates the severity and turmoil of the plagues in medieval times.

Another one of the most significant pandemics in history is the black plague, otherwise known as the bubonic plague, which infected Europe and Asia in the 1300s. The extreme mismanagement of both the infection rate and public hysteria of the black plague has served as a strong cautionary tale to epidemiologists today. Medical professionals, shopkeepers, and many others stopped showing up to work in fear of contracting the plague, leaving the affected areas in turmoil. In turn, many began to blame the bubonic plague on religion. They sought to believe that the disease was God’s punishment toward sinful and disobedient individuals. Ultimately, the black plague ended when port officials discovered that isolating sailors led to a slower increase of cases, coining the term quarantine that we’ve gotten so familiar with today (Ishak, 2020). Although we live in a world with enough global disease outbreaks to think that we are prepared for the next one, we still see them coming in modern-day culture.

A more recent example of a prominent epidemic is the swine flu, also called the H1N1 virus. This 2009 pandemic led to a relatively different government response compared to our reaction to COVID-19, yet it is the most similar to our current situation. When the first death of H1N1 occurred in the US, President Obama immediately called a public health emergency and pushed for the closing of schools that were speculated to be exposed to the swine flu (Holmes 2009). Although the termination of the swine flu epidemic was helped with natural immunity, the containment, vaccine, and social-control protocols used to ease the spread of H1N1 eventually led to the limited severity of the disease (Denworth, 2020).

Figure 2: Compares the number of cases, deaths, fatality rates, and number of countries exposed to differing viruses from 1967 to 2020. 

While it is evident that we’ve adopted some of the precautions developed in the past, such as quarantining and social distancing, we can also observe the effect of public perception on pandemics . When the first case of COVID-19 hit the United States, President Trump said,“We’ve already handled it very well…  we have it totally under control”. Even as cases rose across the country, Trump told the public to “just stay calm” (Watson, 2020). The lack of U.S. government response in the early onset of COVID-19 was noticeable, and the language propagated by our current President has shaped citizen’s perspective on the epidemic as well. Like the black plague and their blame on religiously sinful citizens, our society continues to push guilt on groups of people and unfortunately, China got the blame for the coronavirus.

We have seen pandemics similar to the coronavirus in the past. It is not the first time that a novel disease has originated from China, and it is not the first time that the government has attempted to stifle warnings early on (Jones, 2020). Doctors, nurses, and other frontline workers are risking their lives every day to suppress this global pandemic. However, it is not just up to them – the government needs to pull their weight too and set proper examples for the public. The future of COVID-19 remains unclear to all of us but past occurrences can offer small pieces of advice to more effectively end this pandemic. 

Edited by: Luisa Taverna

References:

Cox, J. (2020, July 30). Second-quarter GDP plunged by worst-ever 32.9% amid virus-induced shutdown. CNBC. https://www.cnbc.com/2020/07/30/us-gdp-q2-2020-first-reading.html

Denworth, L. (2020, June 01). How the COVID-19 Pandemic Could End. Retrieved October 12, 2020, from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-the-covid-19-pandemic-could-end1/

Holmes, C. (2009, April 29). Swine Flu Prompts A World Of Different Reactions. Retrieved October 12, 2020, from https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=103614016

Horgan, J. (2016, August 24). The Plague at Athens, 430-427 BCE. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.ancient.eu/article/939/

Ishak, N. (2020, April 08). The Bubonic Plague Was The Worst Pandemic In Human History, So How Did It Finally End? Retrieved October 12, 2020, from https://allthatsinteresting.com/how-did-the-black-plague-end

Jones D. S. (2020). History in a Crisis – Lessons for Covid-19. The New England journal of medicine, 382(18), 1681–1683. https://doi.org/10.1056/NEJMp2004361

Watson, K. (2020, April 3). A timeline of what Trump has said on coronavirus. Retrieved October 12, 2020, from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/timeline-president-donald-trump-changing-statements-on-coronavirus/

Image References: 

Bruegel, P. (1562). The Triumph of Death [Illustration]. In the Museo del Prado.

Business Insider, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, & World Health Organization. (2020, February 8). How this coronavirus compares to recent history [Graph]. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.https://www.post-gazette.com/news/health/2020/02/08/Pitt-professor-disease-outbreaks-oronavirus-lessons-china/stories/202002060110

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