The COVID-19 (short for coronavirus diseases 2019) pandemic, which was first identified in December 2019 in Wuhan, China, has infected more than 180 million people across the globe as of June 2021. 

While it has been all over the news and around the world, a lot has been said about it. But have we fought a pandemic before in the history of mankind? What were those pandemics like? In this article, we are going to learn about the pandemics of the past in brief. Maybe there are some lessons we can learn from the past.

What is a Pandemic?

A pandemic is an epidemic that affects almost all the parts of the world. An epidemic is a contagious disease that affects a certain region. On March 11, 2020 it was declared that COVID-19 has become a pandemic.

Pandemics of the Past

1. The Bubonic Plague (1346-1353)

Caused by a bacterium called Yersinia pestis, the ‘Black Death’ took the lives of 25-50 million in Europe alone (wiped out half its population). It was spread by fleas that bit infected animals like rats, mice and prairie dogs and then bit humans. The infected had swollen lymph glands that formed ‘buboes’, or boils. It lasted for a good 7 years and resurfaced in 1665 again in London. There were 100 such resurgences of this plague until the 18th century. 

It was during this time that the word ‘quarantine’ as we know it began being used. When the ships coming into port cities were asked to stay anchored for forty days (forty days was called quaranta giorni in Italian), they were said to be in ‘quarantino’ — the English word ‘quarantine’ then derived from it.

2. Cholera (1817 – 1975)

Caused by a bacteria called Vibro cholerae, this pandemic began in Bengal India and kept erupting in different parts of the world, during different times until 1975. It transmitted when a person ate or drank food or water that was contaminated with the faeces of an infected person. It made the lining of a human’s intestines release too much fluid, leading to dehydration and electrolyte imbalance — leading to death in a matter of hours.

3. Influenza (1510 – 2010)

The Influenza pandemics or the flu pandemics started in 2010 and kept erupting in different forms from time to time. As the Russian or Asiatic Flu in 1889, the Spanish Flu in 1918, the Asian Flu in 1957, the Hong Kong Flu in 1968, the Swine Flu in 2009 and so on. Hippocrates described the ‘flue’ for the first time as early as 412 BC.

The virus and its subtypes (H3N8, H1N1, H3N2 etc.) spread through droplets of the infected person much like COVID-19 and showed respiratory symptoms.

What We Learnt

There were some things that were common to bring about the end of these pandemics:

  • Acting rapidly and effectively
  • Quarantine and isolation
  • Public health experts and medical officials working in sync
  • Timely medical treatment
  • Vaccination
  • A prepared, equipped health infrastructure
  • Having an adequate supply of medical necessities
  • Transparency in the communication of information

These are learnings of the past that can be incorporated into lessons for the future — or looking at the situation now, the present.

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