Pandemics and history

March 29, 2020

As the world panics, let’s not forget that humanity overcame many pandemics through science and research

At the moment almost all of Pakistan, and indeed a large part of the world, is in a lockdown due to the coronavirus. There is a lot of panic about the spread and mortality rate of the disease. Certainly, the virus has spread far and wide very quickly and in just a couple of months the whole world has been infected, and the death rate, especially among the elderly and infirm, is high. But if we take the long view, the coronavirus is just one among many pandemics the world has witnessed in human history. Millions have died in the past from numerous epidemic diseases, and yet humanity has learnt to survive them all, and still forge ahead.

The fact that the coronavirus is the first pandemic which has literally spread to all corners of the world has made it a special case, but similar pandemics have hit large parts of the world in the recent past too. The most well-known among these one was the so-called Swine flu (H1N1) pandemic which hit the world in 2009-10. It is estimated that anywhere between 700 million to over a billion people were affected by it and anywhere between 20,000 to over 200,000 people died as a result of it. But we do not remember it much because the global reach of social media had just begun and the world-wide recession was the main topic of the time. But it did happen, affected and killed a number people, and yet we survived.

Similarly, ever since the coronavirus has hit the news, information about the 1918 so-called Spanish flu (‘so-called’ because it most probably originated in the US rather than Spain), has also taken to the news. Then, in just about two years, anywhere between 30 and 50 million people had died from the virus, more than those killed in both the World Wars put together. In our own South Asia, over 13 million people died of the pandemic, but historical memory is such that until the recent coronavirus pandemic, not many knew the details of the Spanish flu.

But history is not just replete with diseases erupting and infecting and killing millions. It is also a record of how we have been able to effectively control and even eradicate life threatening viruses. Humanity has indeed progressed enough that it is possible not only to contain, but given time and effort, also to eradicate a virus altogether.

The best case of eradication has been the small pox virus, which was effectively wiped out from the face of the earth by the end of the 1970s. One of the oldest diseases of the world, small pox had been mentioned in ancient Indian and Chinese texts several millennia ago. At least seven deities have been identified with the prevention and cure of small pox from West Africa to South East Asia, exhibiting the power and potency of the disease. The disease was so widespread that by the 18th century, small pox was killing approximately 400,000 people in Europe yearly, and countless more across the world.

It is said that by the sixteenth century, the Chinese had developed a method where by small pox could be prevented through inoculation. The method was that powdered small pox scabs were blown up a person’s nose, leading to a mild case of the disease, and thereafter development of immunity against it. This method had a death rate of nearly 2 percent but it was still much lower than the usual 30 percent mortality rate of the disease. This method of inoculation travelled to London by 1700. Later, several European countries also picked it.

By the 1800s a vaccine had been developed which then quickly spread throughout the world. In 1813, the United States passed the Vaccine Act, whereas by an Act of Parliament in 1853 small pox vaccination became compulsory in the United Kingdom. The result of these efforts was that small pox had been eradicated in most of northern Europe by 1900 and very few industrialised countries had a significant number of cases. The global effort to eradicate small pox was, however, taken only in 1959 by the World Health Assembly. Subsequently, strong and targeted vaccination drives were undertaken throughout the world, leading to a rapid reduction in the instance of the disease. Thus, the disease which affected over fifty million people yearly by the 1950s and was the main cause of death for nearly two million people world-wide, was declared as eradicated from the world in just under two decades of concerted efforts. The last European case was one in the former Yugoslavia in 1972, while the last recorded case of the deadlier strain of the virus was of two-year-old Rahima Banu in Bangladesh in 1975, and of the minor strain in Somalia in 1977. Thus the World Health Assembly in May 1980 gleefully noted: “Having considered the development and results of the global program on smallpox eradication initiated by WHO in 1958 and intensified since 1967 … Declares solemnly that the world and its peoples have won freedom from smallpox, which was a most devastating disease sweeping in epidemic form through many countries since earliest time, leaving death, blindness and disfigurement in its wake and which only a decade ago was rampant in Africa, Asia and South America.”

At a time the whole world is in panic mode due to the coronavirus, it is important to remember that in the long arc of history, we have suffered many pandemics and have—in most cases, overcome these crises, through social as well as medical development and research. Hopefully years down the line, just like the small pox, we shall look at coronavirus as one of the pandemics we fought and overcame.

The writer teaches at the IT University in Lahore. He is the author of A Princely Affair: The Accession and Integration of the Princely States of Pakistan, 1947-55 . He tweets at @BangashYK.

Global pandemics and their history