Updated: Apr 7, 2021
In the realm of infectious diseases, a pandemic is a worst-case scenario. When an epidemic spreads beyond a country’s borders, that’s when the disease officially becomes a pandemic.
Communicable diseases existed during humankind’s hunter-gatherer days, but the shift to agrarian life 10,000 years ago created communities that made epidemics more possible. Malaria, tuberculosis, leprosy, influenza smallpox, and others first appeared during this period.
The more civilized humans became, building cities and forging trade routes to connect with other cities, and waging wars with them, the more likely pandemics became. See a timeline below of pandemics that, in ravaging human populations, changed history.
#1 Plague of Justinian
The Plague of Justinian arrived in Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, in 541 CE. plague-ridden fleas hitched a ride on the black rats that snacked on the grain. The plague decimated Constantinople and spread like wildfire across Europe, Asia, North Africa, and Arabia killing an estimated 30 to 50 million people, perhaps half of the world’s population.
#2 Black Death
The plague never really went away, and when it returned 800 years later, it killed with reckless abandon. The Black Death, which hit Europe in 1347, claimed an astonishing 200 million lives in just four years. As for how to stop the disease, people still had no scientific understanding of contagion. forward-thinking officials in the Venetian-controlled port city of Ragusa decided to keep newly arrived sailors in isolation until they could prove they weren’t sick. At first, sailors were held on their ships for 30 days, which became known in Venetian law as a Trentino. As time went on, the Venetians increased the forced isolation to 40 days or quarantine, the origin of the word Quarantine, and the start of its practice in the Western world.
#3 The great plague of London
The plague resurfaced roughly every 10 years from 1348 to 1665. By the early 1500s, England imposed the first laws to separate and isolate the sick. Homes stricken by the plague were marked with a bale of hay strung to a pole outside. If you had infected family members, you had to carry a white pole when you went out in public. Cats and dogs were believed to carry the disease, so there was a wholesale massacre of hundreds of thousands of animals. The Great Plague of 1665 was the last and one of the worst of the centuries-long outbreaks, killing 100,000 Londoners in just seven months. All public entertainment was banned and victims were forcibly shut into their homes to prevent the spread of the disease. Red crosses were painted on their doors along with a plea for forgiveness: “Lord have mercy upon us.”
Smallpox was endemic to Europe, Asia, and Arabia for centuries, a persistent menace that killed three out of ten people it infected and left the rest with pockmarked scars. The indigenous peoples of modern-day Mexico and the United States had zero natural immunity to smallpox and the virus cut them down by the tens of millions. Centuries later, smallpox became the first virus epidemic to be ended by a vaccine. In the late 18th-century, a British doctor named Edward Jenner discovered that milkmaids infected with a milder virus called cowpox seemed immune to smallpox.
In the early- to mid-19th century, cholera tore through England, killing tens of thousands. The prevailing scientific theory of the day said that the disease was spread by foul air known as a “miasma.” But a British doctor named John Snow suspected that the mysterious disease, which killed its victims within days of the first symptoms, lurked in London’s drinking water. While cholera has largely been eradicated in developed countries, it’s still a persistent killer in third-world countries lacking adequate sewage treatment and access to clean drinking water. While cholera has largely been eradicated in developed countries, it’s still a persistent killer in third-world countries lacking adequate sewage treatment and access to clean drinking water.
Presently, On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization announced that the COVID-19 virus was officially a pandemic after barreling through 114 countries in three months and infecting over 118,000 people. And the spread wasn’t anywhere near finished.
Without a vaccine available, the virus spread beyond Chinese borders and by mid-March, it had spread globally to more than 163 countries. On February 11, the infection was officially christened COVID-19.
The past plagues and pandemics are evidence to us that this too shall pass like the others. The last few months have been a tough time for all of us. But we have fought our ways throughout this pandemic to keep us and our loved ones safe from being infected, and this is proof that we are going to win the fight and be an inspiration to the coming generations.