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COVID-19: Parallels with past pandemics

Sarah Lloyd compares the COVID-19 pandemic with other notorious pandemics from across history.

Is it possible to think of COVID-19 and not think of the word ‘unprecedented’? The phrase has been adopted by journalists, politicians, and the public alike to describe recent times. In reality, humanity has faced numerous pandemics throughout history. Although our medical knowledge has expanded considerably since the dark ages, there are striking similarities between the current pandemic and these plagues of the past. Furthermore, human nature in response to unknown disease remains constant. Can looking into these past pandemics provide insight into our very own?

Pandemics are inevitable in an interconnected world, ft. The Antonine Plague:

Recent advances in transportation make it easier than ever before for humans to travel across the world, but unfortunately this also extends to the microbes we carry. Thanks to air travel, COVID-19 was able to spread to all corners of the globe in less than 6 months.

In the past, rapid advances in international travel have led to outbreaks of disease. The Roman Empire is remembered primarily for its successes: a large army, an extensive empire, and the establishment of populous cities and trade routes around the world. However, in 165–180 AD, these global conquests contributed to its downfall with the onset of the Antonine Plague.

A legion of Roman soldiers encountered what experts now believe to be smallpox as they returned from conquering Parthia (modern-day Iran). Unknowingly, they brought the disease back to Rome. From there, it spread to all areas of the empire via the extensive network of Roman roads and trade routes. The Mediterranean coast was hit particularly hard as the residents bore no natural immunity to the pathogen. Overall, an estimated 60-70 million people died. One could argue that the interconnectivity that led to the success of the Roman Empire was in fact a double-edged sword. This impressive transport system was vital in bringing the deadly disease to Europe.

Border closures and travel restrictions have been introduced in a bid to slow down the spread of COVID-19. However, these changes are not sustainable for our nations’ infrastructure such as crucial aspects like the global travel of goods and people. Does this mean that further pandemics are inevitable?

Fear prompts desperate attempts for cures, ft. The Black Death:

The Black Death (1346–1353 AD) was an outbreak of the bubonic plague (pathogen:Yersinia pestis) that spread across Eurasia and Africa, believed to have been carried by infected fleas. It was devastating, killing an estimated 75–200 million people.

No one knew what caused the disease. However, people were desperate and turned to anything that might offer them protection. Supposed treatments included bloodletting, potions, and urine baths, there were even reports of people rubbing live chickens onto their wounds!

Although these ‘cures’ sound superstitious—and ridiculous—to a 21st century audience, let us consider what measures some have taken to combat COVID-19. Homemade potions are still going strong: despite no scientific backing, the Western Indian state of Gujarat distributed the homeopathic drug Arsenicum Album-30 to over half of its residents. Similarly, a Community Church in South Korea believed administering salt water would ‘kill’ COVID-19. Ironically, the same spray bottle was used on all participants without proper sterilisation and, subsequently, 46 devotees contracted the virus. Let’s not forget amulets: in the U.S. alone, ‘Virus Shut Out Protection’ pendants, ‘anti-coronavirus mattresses’ and ‘5G BioShields’ all claim to protect users from the effects of the disease.

As for animal cures? Peruvian governor Elmer Caceres Llica suggested that eating llama meat cures COVID-19. In the Middle East, self-proclaimed ‘Islamic medicine specialist’ Mehdi Sabili claimed that camel urine should be consumed to the same effect. Indian politician Swami Chakrapani maintained that a person should drink cow urine to be cured of COVID-19. But only if the cows were Indian.

We live in a technological revolution, with all the latest information readily available at our fingertips. Yet despite this advance in medical knowledge, superstition and lucky charms remain to this day.

Take-home message:

Life in the 21st century is undeniably different to that of our ancestors. Our understanding of disease transmission and treatment has drastically improved. Nowadays, you are more likely to die from a non-communicable illness such as heart disease than from a pathogenic plague. However, viruses and bacteria continue to mutate, creating novel strains that pose a threat to modern society. In early 2020, humanity saw the rise of one such pathogen. But there are some clear consistencies between COVID-19 and infamous pandemics from the distant past. One thing is for certain: COVID-19 is most definitely not ‘unprecedented’.

From COVID-19 mini issue, 2020

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