How Has Pandemics of the Past Helped Us in 2020

Debbie Walker

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Every day, we are bombarded with information about the pandemic of COVID-19. It is on T.V., my phone, and the laptop. New information is gathered all the time and I wonder what will be the result? How much will we know about COVID-19 in the future?

Then I think about this new vaccine. Will it eradicate the virus? How were vaccines administered in the past? However, I have seen little about the pandemics of the past, what we have learned from them, and what practices were put into place.

Also, I wonder what new innovations may come after this scourge is over. Therefore, I took a deep breath, put on my research hat, and started pecking away on the keyboard.

The Antonine Plague

In 164 A.D., Marcus Aurelius is emperor, and all is good in Rome. When the victorious Eastern army returned, they brought back a hidden enemy — smallpox. With no immunity among the population, the disease spread like wildfire.

A Greek physician, Galen c.129–216 C.E., witnessed the outbreak, described the symptoms, and recorded how it moved throughout the populace. He also documented the length of the illness for affected individuals and those with no immunity.

It is estimated 2,000 to 5,000 people died every day (depending on your source), about 1 in 3 people. The plague decimated the Roman army and created the inability to defend the empire’s borders. All building projects ground to a halt.

The land was left uncultivated which led to food shortages, fewer products were made, and tax revenue declined. Smallpox became a significant factor in the fall of the Roman empire.

However, because of Galen’s notes, the medical community could identify future smallpox outbreaks. His contribution yielded the hypothesis that mortality rates are highest when the population has no immunity.

The Bubonic Plague

The worst pandemic in recorded history is the Bubonic Plague or the Black Death of 1347–1351, which killed 200 million people worldwide.

Scientists believe the Black Death rode on rat-infested ships from China entering the ports along the coast of Italy. Ships who supposed they were infected hung a black flag indicating death among the crew.

The city-state of Venice called for a 40-day quarantine of ships believed to be carrying the plague. Why 40 days? Some purport the officials drew from the Biblical accounts of 40 days i.e. Moses’ 40-days on the mountain, Israel wandering 40 years in the wilderness, and Jesus’ 40 days fast.

Despite their initial efforts, (too little, too late) the plague swept like a black wave across Europe. In some areas, the deaths numbered higher than the surviving population.

Crusaders returning from the Holy Land brought the Jewish and Islamic concept of hospitals and religious orders dedicated to healing the body and the soul. Victims of the plague were secluded and cared for, facilitating the healing process.

The physicians also secluded themselves in protective gear. I recall images of the plague doctor wearing long robes, gloves, and masks with beaks to filter the air. What would they think about the eerily similar sight of our doctors and first responders wearing hazmat suits and masks with respiratory filters?

The Bubonic Plague forced communities to rethink sanitary measures and responses to the outbreaks. Community health laws were enacted and public awareness changed the concept of disease transmission and quarantines. This would eventually lead to the formation of international boards of health and pro-active health measures of quarantine.

The 1918 Spanish Flu

Over 100 years ago, an unknown virus pummeled the earth leaving 50–100 million dead in its wake. World War I was raging in trenches and battlefields across Europe. The virus originated in pig herds which were fed to the troops fighting the war.

Poor sanitation, close quarters, and movements of the military accelerated the transmission and mutation of the virus. Troops coming back from overseas carried the flu to the U.S.

The first documented case of the disease was in Kansas at Fort Riley, a military training facility. From there it spread over the country in a matter of weeks and months. Physicians began reporting deaths within 24 hours.

The hardest hit were young adults who are considered to be the healthiest members of society. The unusual symptoms created cytokine storms attacking healthy immune systems. The tremendous loss of life the U. S. experienced in a 9-month period decreased the life expectancy of the average adult by 12 years.

In 1918, the medical community had not yet discovered the flu virus, so there were no vaccines or treatment other than home therapies, isolation, and good hygiene. In the years following, scientists developed flu vaccines, antiviral drugs to treat the disease, and created the World Health Organization that monitors flu activity worldwide.


Since the onset of COVID-19 this year, we have learned some valuable lessons. We have much more to learn. Scientists and health officials are amassing a vast body of knowledge that is changing as the virus progresses.

However, the following are a few statements that many agree upon:

  • Aerosol virus transmission — “The scientific evidence isn’t 100 percent clear on aerosol transmission,” Blumberg said. “The primary transmission is droplets, but if it were only droplets, then wearing a mask and social distancing would be effective 100 percent of the time, and we know that doesn’t work 100 percent. However, focusing on droplets is still by far the most effective action.”
  • COVID-19 has many symptoms. Most patients with COVID present with either a fever, cough, or shortness of breath. However, many also have other symptoms including headache, fatigue, gastrointestinal complaints, rashes, and more. In children, there can be an inflammatory syndrome that resembles Kawasaki disease. It's important to be alert for these other symptoms. Too often the diagnosis of COVID has been delayed because the symptoms weren't typical. Of importance, the sudden loss of taste or smell in an otherwise healthy person is very concerning for the diagnosis of COVID.

Today, despite the early warnings of medical professionals, crying like voices in the wilderness of a coming pandemic, our society and government chose to ignore the pleas. Currently, we are still in unknown territory.

At this point, we do know that immediate implementation of information gathering, identifying, secluding, and cooperation is necessary. Trust between the government and its citizens needs to be established. That way the people can accept that the messages of public health authorities are reliable and sound.

Society at large can follow protocol and act upon the instructions given by health administrators. For example, (hypothetically) if Dr. Fauci indicates that we should wear a mask, it would be safe to say that the American people listens and follows his instructions.

I have faith our current crisis will also yield valuable insight into prevention, treatment, and preparedness for COVID-19, and any pandemics that may present in the future.

Maybe, then, we will hear and act.

*This in no way attempts to diagnose or treat any disease.*

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She writes honest and authentic articles to inform, encourage, inspire, and empower others to lead fulfilled lives. She is a writer, editor, and podcaster.


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