Today we’ll be discussing the world’s unfortunate history with pandemics and plagues. We will not be discussing the Coronavirus today. There are plenty of podcasts dedicated to Covid-19 if that’s what you want to hear about. However, we are discussing pandemics from history.
Also, I’d like to start this article with a disclaimer. We had the idea to do this article months ago. But we eventually decided that doing the article at the beginning of the pandemic would either be in bad taste, or it would just be seen as a way to capitalise on the suffering. I think we’ve reached a point now where we can write this article without seeming like we’re taking advantage of the situation. Further to that, the topic has actually been requested by a reader, so suck it naysayers.
Plagues and pandemics have been an unfortunate staple of human history. The world has dealt with numerous outbreaks throughout all of time, with many being deadly and destroying significant populations. Today, we’ll touch on some of the more deadly ones.
The human immunodeficiency virus infection (HIV) and acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) is a collection of conditions caused by the HIV virus. This virus causes a deficiency in the victim’s immune system, causing them to become more susceptible to certain infections like tuberculosis.
Science has pretty much concluded that the virus originated in chimpanzees and was eventually able to jump the species barrier to humans. Now, some believe that this occurred because people were having sex with the chimpanzees. Which is a very lofty claim. However, it’s assumed that it made the jump when hunters ate meat of the infected chimpanzees.
As most know, the virus transfers from human to human primarily by unprotected sex. This includes oral or anal sex, so you should still be safe if you’re a little freaky.
Up to this point around 33 million people have died from the virus, with 76 million being infected.
We mentioned a moment ago that the virus causes immunodeficiency in its hosts, which leaves them open to opportunistic infections. Because of this, people rarely die from HIV itself, but rather the infections they receive because of their immunodeficiency.
The virus is still around, although it is more survivable now than in the 80s with the advent of multiple long-term treatment opportunities.
The Spanish Flu rocked the world in 1918, reaching nearly every country and infecting over 500,000,000 people (which was about a third of the world’s population at that time). This was an unusually deadly form of the influenza virus and it lasted for four waves.
Through the first wave of the pandemic, the Spanish flu caused flu-like symptoms very similar to typical flu symptoms. Most notably a sore throat, headache, and fever. However, the second wave of the pandemic was the truly deadly part. Those that had been exposed to the flu during the first wave were found to have developed an immunity, but those that had not yet been infected were hit very hard by the disease.
The second wave of the disease was often complicated by bacterial pneumonia. If this did not kill the victim, they would sometimes have to deal with heliotrope cyanosis. This condition caused the skin to first develop two mahogany spots over the cheekbones. These spots would spread over the course of a few hours until the entire face was blue. The extremities would then develop black coloration which would then spread to the limbs and torso. Once these stages had occurred, death would follow within hours or days caused by fluid build up in the lungs.
Other symptoms included spontaneous mouth and nosebleeds, miscarriages in pregnant women, a peculiar smell, teeth and hair falling out, delirium dizziness, insomnia, loss of hearing or smell, blurred vision, and impaired colour vision.
In total, over the course of the year, between 17 and 50 million, and possibly as high as 100 million, people had died from the Spanish Flu. Making it one of the deadliest pandemics in human history.
The Spanish Flu is actually the first of two pandemics caused by the H1N1 influenza virus. The second occurring in 2009 with the swine flu pandemic.
In 1874, Fiji was coming out of terrible inter-tribal wars. In a hope to make peace and to have a more prosperous future, the country ceded to the British Empire. In late 1874, Fijian chief Ratu Cakobau was persuaded to travel to Australia for an official state visit.
Unbeknownst to Cakobau, an outbreak of measles had begun in Sydney. He and his entourage caught the disease, although they were able to quickly recover with the use of attentive nursing care. However, when they returned to Fiji, they were found to still be contagious.
Within a week, the island was littered with corpses that were scavenged by wild animals. Entire villages had died and were burned down, sometimes with some of the sick still alive and trapped in the fires. In total, one-third of Fiji's population, a total of 40,000 people, died.
This plague was actually the last major epidemic of the bubonic plague in England. Well, the bubonic plague had never really left. The Great Plague of London occurred during the Second Pandemic which was a period of intermittent bubonic plague epidemics that lasted for centuries. Because Britain had already had a lot of experience with the plague, they had prevention strategies in place.
One particular strategy that they used was the quarantining of incoming ships. Which is pretty crazy. They actually quarantine anyone coming into the country. It’s almost like the country was better equipment for a pandemic during the 1660s. The amount of time the ships had to wait was originally referred to as a trentine (a period of 30 days). However, this was upped to a quarantine (a period of 40 days). There’s some slight etymology for you readers.
Unfortunately, the quarantining of ships failed (imagine that) and the disease began to spread around the city. When you contract the bubonic plague you were in for a pretty terrible experience. Firstly, you’d get fever and chills, along with extreme weakness. Further to that, you’d also have one or more swollen, tender, and painful lymph nodes (referred to as buboes). This is where the bubonic part of the disease comes from. More etymology. The buboes would grow to around the size of a chicken egg and many people would develop multiple on their bodies.
The bacterium that causes bubonic plague, Yersinia pestis, then kills by cutting off a cell’s ability to communicate with other immune system cells needed to fight off the bacterial invasion. This is why it targets your lymph nodes, as they are a big part of your immune system keeping out microbial intruders. Eventually, the bacterium multiplies and finds its way to your bloodstream. Your body will finally see that something is wrong and your immune system goes into overdrive, which then causes septic shock. This then eventually leads to organ failure. All in all, a pretty terrible way to go.
Well, a large portion of London started to contract the disease, many being the lower class. Because of this, the upper class began to leave the city. In an attempt to stop the spread, hundreds of thousands of cats and dogs were slaughtered as the possible cause of the disease. This did not help.
Eventually, mass graves appeared. One particular account said that the drivers of the dead-carts had to collect so many victims that it was an around the clock service. A great hole was dug near the churchyard in Aldgate, fifty feet long and twenty feet wide. While the dead-cart drivers were dumping bodies into one side of the hole, laborers continued extending it on the opposite side. There was eventually no more room for extension, so it was then dug deeper until it reached ground water twenty feet down. When the hole was finally covered it housed 1,114 dead bodies.
By the end of the pandemic, the 20% of London’s total population was killed. The outbreak finally tapered off in 1666 just in time for London to go through another destructive event, the Great Fire of London, which we’ll cover in another article.
For the sake of clarity, I’d like to mention that there are further forms of plague: septicemic plague and pneumonic plague. Septicemic plague occurs when the bacteria enter the bloodstream directly. However, if left untreated, as we just mentioned, bubonic plague will make its way to the bloodstream. So, bubonic plague and pneumonic plague can both become septicemic plague. It just means that the bacterium leads to septic shock.
Now, there are actually further symptoms to the plague when it progresses to septicemic plague. Along with fever, chills and extreme weakness, you also develop abdominal pain, vomiting, and diarrhea. You also may bleed from your mouth, nose, and or rectum, or under your skin. Finally, you’ll also experience blackening and death of tissue in your extremities, most commonly in your fingers, toes, and nose. Basically, your extremities die.
Now, please let me make this clear: we did not make this article to scare you readers. We put this article together to give you a bit of a taster on what humans have already lived through. We’ve already made it through so much. Pandemics have happened, and pandemics will happen. As the world becomes more populated, we will continue seeing a higher chance of pandemics in the future.
We should all look to the future and try our best to make sure we work with the Earth, we should also make sure our leaders are working with the Earth. No matter what political party you belong to, I do not care, we need to make sure that the party leaders understand that the destruction of forests and other wildlife habitats are a direct cause of pandemics now, they have been in the past, and they will continue to be in the future. Further to that, pandemics will likely be even more regular in the future if we’re not careful now. And let’s just agree that THAT would be truly unfortunate.
Plagues in World History (Exploring World History) by John Aberth
Buy in the US - BOOKSHOP.ORG
Buy in the UK - BOOKSHOP.ORG