A History of Pandemics: From the Black Death to Covid-19


What has changed? For one, major leaps in protective gear when compared with the Doctors during the Black Death. (courtesy of The Daily Beast and WordPress.com)

Sally Brown, Content Editor

A global crisis is at hand. Though this is far from the first and last time an “invisible enemy” will tear its way across the world economically, socially, and politically. Each time a pandemic has passed more information and innovation is gained from a virus’s path of destruction. From the dust cloud of fear, prejudice, and death, society often steps into its future stronger than ever before. Well, that is if the world decides to learn from its past. With the ever-growing threat of the crowned “queen from the east” to quote Nostradamus (a 1500s physician and famed seer) has medical experts, political leaders, and the populace learned from the wins and defeats of their ancestors? Or will COVID-19 only die out when there was no one left to infect? 


Has Medicine Evolved?

Medically speaking, COVID-19 has been an uphill battle. It has caused many to question the current alert measures we currently have in place. With epidemiology being widely studied as well as labs devoted to tracking the development of Viral Diseases, and their vaccines, before an outbreak, it shocked many how wrong our trusted medical experts were in the early months of COVID-19. The early cover-up of the severity of the virus’s spread may have begun at the top with Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO). When the virus began to sweep across Taiwan, little was announced, and few sirens were raised. To those familiar with the Spanish Flu in 1918, they may also be familiar with the mass censorship of said virus by Politicians on all sides of the Struggle between the Great Powers. Though done to preserve what minute amount of moral was left among each country and be able to continue overflowing the barracks with incoming soldiers, this neglect led to the immediate and wider spread of the disease through transportation. Failing to raise the alarm caused the deaths of twice the amount lost in World War I. This seemingly happened once again causing the deaths of many close relatives. 


Spanish Flu on the left (courtesy of Daily Mail) and Covid-19 Virus on the right (courtesy of bioworld.com)


With each month comes a new theory on how to stave off COVID-19. Some as outrageous and facetious as the Snake Oil “Remedies” commonly sold during the early 19th Century. Briana Berry, a writer for the SAC paper commented on the following when reporting on Donald Trump’s ‘drinking bleach’ scandal. In her article she remarks that these may be foolish measures, but they are “deadly, like drop dead”. It is interesting to see how trusting people are of miracle cures throughout time, for example, early men believed consuming a human brain would grant one wisdom. People are similarly willing to jump at the opportunity of using Hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19 though medical trials and political officials are preventing by demanding additional trials. Recent reports tell of United States President Donald Trump using such medication, and yet the willing public is often denied this treatment for additional testing. One could suggest that this caution stems from the ineffectualness of the first round of Spanish Flu vaccines, however, these vaccines did not harm the patients. Therefore, caution may be extremely uncalled for.  


The Red Masquerade of Politics

Politicians soliciting censorship is oddly common throughout pandemics, as referred to above, as well as inadequate funds for relief in the past. For example, the Irish Potato Famine of 1848. The epidemic, creating a spike in starvation rates, triggering revolution, and mass emigration throughout the European continent, was managed by the English Parliament. As the Irish peasantry begged for food, parliament provided financial aid in the form of Civil projects as opposed to proper relief. Thankfully, governments have learned from this mistake, in fact Ireland is now a leader in international feeding programs. Nationally, though cutting funding for WHO, President Trump provided a greater number of defibrillators than needed. One could assume that a lesson has been learned and proper funding for medical supplies and relief will be provided for current and future pandemics.


1800s New York City compared to modern NYC depicts little spatial changes between buildings. Courtesy of monroewvhistory.com and WordPress.com


Understanding the spread of viruses, as well as its breeding grounds, is an important detail in the prevention. By correlation and causation, failure in urban planning and border control often aids in the rapid spread of the virus. Urban planning and development have evolved over the years, however, the proximity of the people within cities due to mass urbanization creates a perfect massive petri dish. New York City is a prime example. Throughout the Cholera and Typhoid epidemics of the 1800s heavily effected city centers like New York City and London. The problem was so deeply embedded in cities that it began affecting the upper classes, even suspected of causing Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert. Similar occurrences are appearing throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. New York has a death toll of 23,488 and climbing. The poor Urban Planning in this compact concrete jungle is not a recent problem, one dating back to its early establishment only made worse by becoming mass port of immigration throughout the decades and the economic center of the world. The proper precautions to prevent the spread of the disease has been approached with adequate disposal systems. However, nothing has been done about the crowded streets, though maintaining the six feet apart policy may prevent the spread of future viruses.


Recently President Trump shut transportation between the U.S. and Brazil, who currently have a death toll of 23,606 and rapid spread of cases. Though in the early weeks of a pandemic such a decision would have been met with accusations of racism, this act will prevent the further spread of the virus. This is evident through history, one stunning example occurring in 1918, American Samoa. The Governor, hearing reports of the pandemic and its spread to New Zealand immediately closed their ports and remain one of the very few places where the virus would not affect. In comparison, their neighbor, Western Samoa would lose 22% of their population to the pandemic. There is a precedent for such practices further back in history, like quarantining the sick during the Black Plague. There is little room to question it’s shocking effectiveness, even if it means closing off to the outside world.   


Pandemics and the Populace

The actions of the political and medical officials trickle down to the Populace in horrendous ways. The censorship of the Newspapers on reports of viral spread during The Great War could not deceive the public for long. The ever-growing list of obituaries in the paper describing death by the Spanish Flu began to capture people’s attention, as well as their imaginations. This gave birth to numerous rumors some of which were deeply prejudiced, especially towards the Asian and Japanese communities. The same sadly applies to modern times. One Somerset Academy Canyons Student had expressed her discontent and fears of prejudice spreading in the U.S. over Snapchat. Many American Asians share similar sentiments, rushing to Gun Stores across America to protect themselves. Ethnic and Religious prejudice and prosecution seem to have not faded with the centuries. Similar forms of persecution throughout a Pandemic dates as far back as the 1300s during the Black Death and the growing prejudice surrounding the Jews.


Pedestrians in mask during the Spanish Flu. Courtesy of hagerstownmagzine.com


Small pockets of the country may be showing their disgusting prejudiced colors, however, nationally ignorance among the citizenry is not being bred. This is thanks to the screen you are using to read this very article and attend your online classes. Countless books and fact sheets are at your fingertips. The ability to remain informed and continue one’s studies is simple and there is currently more time to do so. Following the Black Death there was the Arts and Sciences suffered deeply with a dramatic drop in literacy rates, therefore leading historians to label the period as the Dark Ages. A full recovery would not be seen until the Renaissance Period over a century later. This massive “brain drain” will hopefully be staved off by the continuation of school online. With literacy rates once again dropping among Middle Schoolers throughout Florida, it will be vital in the months to come that teachers continuing educating their students throughout COVID-19.


Looking Past the Mask

“I had a bird named Enza, I opened the window and in-flew-Enza” a popular nursery rhyme created during the Spanish Flu.  People must avoid opening their windows to the outside. COVID-19 initiatives like staying home are helping to slow the virus. However, locking your doors and windows will not prevent the world’s economy from a disease of economic depression. Its symptoms being a dropping stock market prices and en masse job loss. It is forcing society to pick between its physical and financial health. These conditions may lead to a depression worse than The Great Depression following the Stock Market Crash of 1929. The future holds many uncertainties, for now proper hygiene, staying in orders, and supporting our heroic first aid community will be paramount in the months to come.