Quarantivities & Stories #2: A brief history of (other) pandemics

Sneha Cheenath, Editor in Chief

We are living through the catastrophe of the generation. As more news releases come out about COVID-19 every day, the future becomes increasingly unclear. To discern our next steps and understand the present, we have to look at our past. The current times are unfamiliar but not unprecedented. Below, I will be taking a look at three of the world’s most significant historic pandemics, how they ended and their relation to the current COVID-19 pandemic. 


  1. The Spanish Flu

The Spanish Flu was a pandemic that took place in the early 1900s. It was more deadly than most influenza viruses and was very infectious, eventually reaching about a quarter of the world’s population. Its death toll is unknown and difficult to calculate, because most of the deaths were caused by overcrowding in medical facilities and malnourishment. 

The term “Spanish Flu” is a bit of a misnomer, because it did not originate in Spain. Rather, in many countries, censorship kept journalists from reporting on the horrors of the virus, so that nations could maintain their reputations in The Great War. Spain had no such rule, as they were not involved in the war, and this led people to believe that the country had worse conditions. 

Interestingly, historians do not know exactly how the influenza ended. In 1918, there was an influx of cases, but after that, the number of infected people sharply declined. 

However, what is clear from the Spanish Flu is that social distancing is key to lowering infection. As the National Geographic notes, cities that implemented restrictions on gathering strictly and quickly had the lowest death tolls. Further, those that did not prematurely lift those regulations never had to face a second wave. 

It should also be noted that censorship complicated efforts to self-isolate, as the general population did not know the realities of the virus. It also made the historical record of the time incomplete. 

What we can learn from the Spanish Flu is that however deadly the virus, lack of infrastructure is more fatal. The best way to limit deaths is to flatten the curve, and proper social distancing is the best way to do that. 


      2. Ebola

Ebola is an extremely fatal disease that had a fairly recent outbreak in West Africa. It is quite rare, but it has a very high death rate, and in its recent outbreak it led to thousands of deaths. But in many countries, the handling of the ebola virus has been a success story and a fantastic lesson in how the novel coronavirus should be dealt with. 

In particular, Nigeria did have the virus introduced to the country, but it didn’t have an emergency because its government acted quickly and closely monitored each confirmed case. The country neared one thousand cases but was diligent in tracking down every case and attempting to avoid any new cases. The federal government was also able to assemble a task force and develop a plan immediately after the first patient was diagnosed. The Nigerian government’s expediency and thoroughness resulted in almost completely avoiding a deadly pandemic. 

Unfortunately, the coronavirus in America has transcended the state of ebola in Nigeria, meaning our process of eradicating COVID-19 will not be as smooth. The American federal government often struggles to make decisions quickly, but luckily, local governments hold immense power and have taken important steps to limit the spread of the virus. 


       3. The Black Death

The 14th century plague was a near-global catastrophe that killed millions and left a lasting impression on the world. It killed a significant percent of the world’s population, particularly in Europe. Historians are still unsure of how the plague ended, but most agree that quarantine played a large role in reducing its spread. 

The plague also gives us a look into how tragedy affects art and culture. It was the catalyst for the Italian renaissance and launched a new era of secular painting. It also led to a widespread questioning of the status quo that contributed to new philosophical thought. Art was pessimistic and melancholy, but artists seeking or providing solace through paintings were also plentiful. 

The bubonic plague clues us into possible cultural changes, unlike other pandemics. We will likely see massive improvements because of effective social distancing. Art takes many different forms in the modern world, but it will almost certainly be changed to reflect current times. Most of all, the plague teaches us that humanity has pushed through terrible events before and that we will again.