COVID-19 has claimed more than 5 million lives, but as it turns out, estimates are now showing that the pandemic hit a much bigger death toll of 17 million people. Whichever might be true, this definitely secures COVID-19’s position as one of history’s deadliest plagues.
In early 2020, when COVID-19 was turning into the horrific event that changed the course of our lives, Nobel Prize-winning economist and psychologist Daniel Kahneman, a scholar of the way we make judgments, discussed the matter on a New Yorker podcast.
7As he stated, this was an exponential event. It made us wonder how many times in the past it happened and just how serious it was. Well, in this article, we’re going to discuss just that.
Black Death: 75-200M (1334-1353)
The second pandemic of the bubonic plague was initiated in north-eastern China. It killed around five million, and quite fast. Then, it moves west, through India, Syria, and Mesopotamia.
In 1346, it struck a trading port known as Kaffa in the Black Sea. Ships that were departing from there carried trade goods and rats that also carried fleas, which had Yersinia pestis.
It sounds like a long chain of unuseful information, but trust me, it makes sense. In October 1347, 12 of these ships docked at Messina in Sicily, and they were full of dead or dying sailors.
By the time harbor authorities actually had the chance to understand what the ships brought, it was way too late. In the following five years, the Black Death killed half of Europe.
Panic stirred a fervor for scapegoating, and anti-Semitic groups feared the rapid advance of the epidemic. Some towns, like Marseilles, gained reputations as safe havens.
For a short period of time, wars halted and trade stopped altogether. Cropland went to seed. Wages rose with increasing demand for labor, and chinks of opportunity for real social change opened up.
1918 flu: 50–100 million (1918–1920)
Five days after the pandemic influenza of 1918 arrived in Brevig Mission, a remote village in Alaska, 90% of the community was already dead. In Philadelphia, for instance, priests collected corpses in horse-drawn carts.
In some parts of India, the devastation was so immense that bodies were left out for the jackals to pick at. It eventually arrived in Bombay in June 1918 on troop ships bringing soldiers back from the battlegrounds of World War I.
By the year’s end, they had claimed as many as 18.5 million lives in South Asia. Freetown, Sierra Leone, lost no less than four percent of its population in only three weeks.
Persia might have lost as many as 22 percent of its entire population. 50 to 100 million people from all over the world died before rising immunity blunted the virus’s threat.
New World Smallpox: 25–56 million (1520–early 1600s)
Smallpox had been a famous scourge in many parts of the world for centuries in a row, but it all started when the first Europeans arrived on American shores. 60% of infected people died.
The survivors emerged immune. However, the pre-Columbian indigenous people in America were immunologically compromised by the variola virus that landed aboard a Spanish ship in present-day Veracruz, Mexico, back in April 1520.
The ship was hiding the body of an infected, enslaved African man. The continent was extremely vulnerable. The outbreak seeded by first contact was, as you can imagine, catastrophic, but it was only the first round.
Waves of infection broke out on the continent for many decades. In fact, anyone who didn’t die of smallpox was then killed by the imported influenza that followed the smallpox or measles epidemic.
A mind-blowing 90 percent of the indigenous population died. What’s even worse is that great civilizations and their cultures perished altogether, clearing the path for European colonization.
Plague of Justinian: 30–50 million people (541–549)
The disease, which is now known as the bubonic plague, arrived in Constantinople, the capital of the Late Roman or Byzantine Empire, in 541 AD. Soon enough, it killed 10,000 people a day.
Corpses littered public spaces and were kept like produce indoors. It was the first big outbreak of bubonic plague the world has ever seen, and the records show that it extended across many continents, reaching Roman Egypt, the Mediterranean, Northern Europe, and even the Arabian Peninsula.
Recent scholarship analyzing scientific findings with textual records points to the possibility that it might have left an even bigger imprint on the early medieval world than it was previously acknowledged.
HIV/AIDS: 27.2-47.8 million (1981-current)
The HIV virus might have first crossed over from chimpanzees to humans in the Democratic Republic of the Congo via blood contact somewhere around 1920.
Until 1981, it spread undetected, when a sudden virulent pneumonia and rare cancer known as Kaposi’s sarcoma made casualties among queer men in the United States.
By the end of the year, there were 270 reported cases, out of which 121 had already died. However, it is possible that by 1980, HIV was already on five continents.
It presumably infected between 100,000 and 300,000 people. By 1987, when the WHO launched the Global Program on Aids, an estimated 5–10 million people all over the world were suffering from HIV.
Nowadays, despite the massive advances in treatment methods and management of HIV, it’s still incurable. The number of people infected stands at 38 million, with more than two-thirds of them living in sub-Saharan Africa.
UNAIDS estimated that 36.3 million people died of AIDS-related illnesses. On the bright side, with improved medicines and equitable access to those drugs, annual AIDS-related fatalities have declined by 47% since 2010.
COVID-19: 5–17 million (2020-current)
This one might hit close to home, but anyway. In December 2019, a series of unusual pneumonia cases cropped up in Wuhan, China. Initially, health officials offered some sort of reassurance: the new coronavirus wasn’t passed from human to human.
Well, that proved to be false in a matter of DAYS. In late January 2020, the WHO declared COVID-19 a global health emergency. By March, there were cases in 114 countries.
Nations from all over the world cascaded into lockdown. A year and a half later, 17 million people were estimated to have died. Many survivors still suffer from lingering symptoms.
The risks of the pandemic, but also of the social and economic disruptions, the psychological toll on healthcare workers from all over the world, and the deepening class inequality are only some of the issues that resurfaced with this virus.
The Third Plague: 12 million (1855–1959)
While it never really went away, the bubonic plague resurged quite violently in 1855. It started in Yunnan, China, and rapidly spread over the port cities of Guangzhou and Hong Kong by 1894.
Outbound ships seeded burgeoning clusters in Bombay, Calcutta, Cape Town, and San Francisco by the turn of the century. However, it didn’t stop there: before 1959, 12 million people from all over the world, half of them living in India, died.
But science was catching up quite rapidly, meaning that this was the final pandemic of the bubonic plague. The causative bacteria that we mentioned above, Yersinia pestis, was identified in 1894 in Hong Kong.
The observation that a litter of dead rats in the streets preceded an outbreak ultimately convinced scientists that rat fleas were the carriers. Rat-proofing measures and insecticides helped for a while. The discovery of effective treatments would ultimately tame the deadliest epidemic disease the world has ever known.
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