What the history of pandemics tells us about coronavirus
We defeated earlier epidemics — smallpox, Black Death, Spanish Flu and cholera — and came out stronger. The coronavirus will be no different
One of the good things about studying history is that no matter how bad things get, you can almost always find something from the past that was worse. This is also true about the coronavirus disease (Covid-19), which has now engulfed the world.
Perhaps the most comparable pandemic is the Spanish Flu, which lasted from January 1918 to December 1920. It infected some 500 million people and killed 50 million. To put this into perspective, the entire population of India, as per Census 1921, was about 250 million.
The Spanish Flu took place almost exactly a century ago but it had several similarities with Covid-19. But this was not the only pandemic to have similarities with Covid-19.
The three cholera pandemics of 1817-1824, 1826-1837 and 1846-1860 claimed more lives than any other disease outbreak in the 19th century. Originally starting in India and Central and Southeast Asia, cholera spread to China, from where it reached Europe through trade routes and Russian soldiers. It spread to Poland through Russian troops, who were brought in from various parts of the Tsar’s empire to suppress uprisings. It then spread from Poland to East Prussia, forcing the Prussian authorities to close their borders to Russian transport. By 1831, the situation was so severe that the British government issued quarantine orders for any Russian ships sailing to British ports. But it was too late. The pandemic had already spread to Britain, France and most of Europe and Asia. Hundreds of thousands died. More than a million died in the Russian Empire during the third pandemic alone, and at least a 100,000 in most affected nations with each successive wave. Thus, we can safely say that the death toll went into millions.
The cholera pandemics of the 19th century had the most similarities with the coronavirus pandemic today. They both started in Asia, and spread to other parts of the world, deeply affecting specific nations (Russia for cholera, Italy and the United States for the coronavirus so far). They both also spread to other parts of the world through these specific nations and the affected populations were, unlike the global population that got Spanish influenza, not weakened by any major war — at least not on the industrial scale of World War I.
The cholera pandemics, just like Covid-19, also called for ship quarantine measures and spread primarily through the people who had gone abroad and brought it back to their nations. These pandemics required social distancing to prevent the spread of the infection. Like Covid-19, the cholera pandemics brought with them large economic losses — not only could ships not enter many ports, bringing maritime trade to a standstill, overland trade was also greatly affected. The Silk Route and other Central Asian trade routes, which counted for the majority of overland trade, could not be used due to both the threat of getting the disease and the anti-cholera steps taken by the Russian Empire, which controlled most of Central Asia at that time. Large financial losses were incurred, especially by the British and the Russians, the two most affected parties in terms of trade. Both relied on their far-flung empires for resources and wealth.
India can learn from the cholera pandemic, as it started here, and within months, hundreds of thousands were either infected or dead. At least 100,000 Indians and 10,000 British troops died in the first pandemic (1817-1824). This was partly because of not practising proper social distancing, which requires active participation from the people. Both an active government push, and deep citizen engagement and support, is clearly needed for social distancing and other public health measures.
In Russia, the incompetence of Tsar Nicholas I’s regime in handling the pandemic across the massive rural expanses and the population of his vast empire led to more than a million deaths. While he ordered anti-cholera measures eventually, the damage had already been done. The delay in responding, and the vulnerability of large countries, with a substantial rural and floating population, must be factored into any response.
To end on a positive note, no matter how bad they were, how many millions they killed, or how much they disrupted the economy, all of these pandemics were beaten, with the human race coming out stronger than ever. There was once a time when smallpox terrorised the world, but now it is all but eradicated. The Black Death was beaten. The Spanish Flu was beaten. The cholera epidemic was beaten. We have recovered and come out stronger than ever from all these diseases. I am sure that we will be able to defeat the coronavirus too.
Shiv Malik is a student of Class 9, Vasant Valley School, New Delhi
The views expressed are personal