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COVID-19: World survived previous pandemics

Isolation measures used to slow Black Death, Spanish Flu

Barry Ellsworth   | 09.04.2020
COVID-19: World survived previous pandemics

TRENTON, Canada 

The coronavirus has gripped the world in its deadly tentacles and millions are hunkered down in isolation in their homes. 

As of April 8, there are almost 1.5 million cases with nearly 87,000 deaths globally.

Some countries have fared better than others. Canada has 17,897 cases and 381 fatalities, while the United States is a hot spot for COVI-19, with more than 400,000 infections and greater than 14,200 deaths.

But no one has immunity and people can be forgiven if they believe the very symbol of death, the Grim Reaper – the black-robed skeleton wielding a scythe, is now harvesting humans in a despairing world.

But this time, some comfort can be found in the realization that mankind has suffered through deadly pandemics before and survived. 

The Plague of Justinian (541-750) 

No doubt there were pandemics before but the Plague of Justinian, named because Justinian was the Emperor of Byzantine, is the first to be statistically catalogued.

Rats carrying inflected fleas, the cause of so much disease through the centuries, rode on merchant ships and spread what was to become known as the bubonic plague. Between 30 and 50 million died in all parts of the known world. 

The Black Death (1347-1353)  

A close cousin of the bubonic plague, once again it was the combination of rats, infected by fleas and riding on ships, spreading the disease. It killed entire villages and towns. People died horrible, painful deaths, with skins turning black from gangrene, bleeding, and boils.

For the first time, isolation with people staying in their homes and going out only when absolutely necessary was used -- the same tactic employed currently to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The isolation measure eventually worked. Still, half the population of Europe succumbed in the six years of the Black Death. 

Smallpox (15th to 17th century)  

When Europeans arrived in the New World they had been living in close proximity to germ-and disease-carrying livestock for centuries. That and having lived through the Black Death gave them a certain immunity to disease such as smallpox, but they were carriers. The natives of the New World had no such immunity and 95%, as many as 20 million, died. Smallpox is still around today but medical advancement has kept it under control. 

-Spanish flu (1918-1919)  

A cruel virus that struck at a weary world as the First World War headed toward conclusion in November 1918, the Spanish Flu pandemic reared its ugly head in the spring of 1918.

The name implies the flu, which caused between 20 and 50 million deaths, began in Spain, but that is erroneous.

Western allies in the war forbade newspapers from printing articles about the devastation of the flu because they feared demoralizing troops.

Spain did not participate in the war, so media there was free to publicize the frightening developments caused by the flu.

It was the most deadly in history and 500 million were infected. It most likely was incubated in the trenches of the war, where soldiers walled in dirty conditions and close proximity to each other. There were no effective drugs and like today, citizens were ordered to wear masks and schools, movie theatres and businesses were closed, other parallels with COVID-19.

About 43,000 soldiers were among the flu’s victims. The Spanish Flu is used as an illustration as to why people should get an annual flu vaccination.

Researchers have studied the remains of pandemic victims but they are still stumped as to why this flu was so virulent.

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