Past Perspectives on Pandemics

People in the press describing the COVID-19 pandemic often use the word "unprecedented." Whether it is an intentional attempt at deception, an exaggeration, or pure ignorance, this choice of words is inaccurate. While the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is new, less than a year old, the pandemic is not unprecedented. There have been others throughout history. We have records dating back nearly 2,000 years describing pandemics, and they probably happened before that even though they have been lost to history.

The existence of multiple past pandemics does not make the current one any less horrific. However, because there have been pandemics in the past, those who are wise can look back on the past and learn valuable lessons in how to respond effectively, avoiding what doesn't work and adopting what does.

1. Information Is an Important Tool

One of your best defenses against the spread of infectious disease is knowledge about how it spreads so that you can make prudent decisions about activities and prevention. Carefully evaluate all health information from news articles to blogs, from anecdotes to le-vel thrive reviews, to be sure that they come from reputable sources and offer useful information.

Trustworthy information comes from experts in the medical field and is consistent with both recent reports and established scientific principles. Misinformation on social media is not a new problem, but the impact of misinformation during a pandemic can imaginably escalate the problem.

2. Pandemics Don't Last Forever

One of the most devastating pandemics in history was the Black Death, which occurred during the Middle Ages and involved a bacterial infection called the bubonic plague. It gained its European foothold from traders docking at their home port of Genoa, Italy. Eventually, it swept through the entire continent, killing off one-third of the population, approximately 25 million people. Nevertheless, the entire pandemic only lasted a few years, from 1347 to 1351.

The most recent pandemic comparable to COVID-19 was the influenza pandemic of 1918, and that only lasted approximately a year. There was a long history behind our current quarantine measures, which started in 430 BC, the first true flu pandemic. And from each pandemic that occurs, we must remain diligent and patient. It seems long when you are in it, but when it seems to be endless, remind yourself that this, too, shall pass.

3. It's Not Over Until It's Over

You have probably seen news stories and commentary attempting to compare COVID-19 to past pandemics and gauge whether this one is more or less serious. For now, this is a pointless task. The COVID-19 pandemic is not over yet, and until it is, comparing it to other pandemics is an impossibility.

The most recent event to have an impact on daily life that COVID-19 has had happened over 100 years ago and involved another virus causing influenza. By some accounts, the 1918 flu pandemic was history's worst medical disaster. It killed 675,000 people in the United States alone and an estimated 50 million people worldwide. If the death toll of the Black Plague was recorded accurately, the flu pandemic was even more deadly.

Some experts do not believe that COVID-19 will reach the same levels of devastation that the 1918 flu pandemic wreaked. The source was identified early on, and researchers were able to get started right away developing vaccines, several of which show potential. The ultimate outcome of the current pandemic depends to a significant degree on whether people observe caution and follow the advice of experts in infectious disease to slow the spread. In any case, no one will be able to say definitively how bad it is until it is over.

4. Sick People Are Not To Blame

For reasons that are disputed, the 1918 flu pandemic was erroneously referred to as the Spanish Flu. While identifying the source of the disease is important, scapegoating people from that area or community is counterproductive. In the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, people called it the "Chinese virus" and discriminated against people appearing Asian, who were no more susceptible than anyone else. The AIDS pandemic started nearly 50 years ago and has affected every type of community on the planet, yet members of the LGBT+ community face discrimination on account of it to this very day.

By definition, a pandemic affects every country and community in the world. The way to beat it is by collaborating with one another, not by acting secretive and pointing fingers of blame. Viruses don't discriminate, and neither should we.


Examination of past pandemics will give us some cautionary points and advice, but also confidence that we will emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. Every experience in a pandemic will better prepare us to cope with pandemics in the future and even help prevent it from happening.

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