Is COVID-19 the Worst Pandemic Ever?
COVID-19 has changed life for everyone since it blasted into our news and our consciousness in the spring of 2020. The US and much of the world shut down for weeks and months. COVID-19 has caused enormous pain, suffering, and debilitation, and the death toll is devastating. The magazine, The Economist, estimates the economic cost at over $10 trillion. But is COVID-19 the worst pandemic ever?
No, there have been several horrific pandemics in history. Many consider the plague known as the Black Death, which afflicted Europe, was much worse. As of this writing on July 4th, 2022, COVID-19 has infected over 550 million people globally (88 million in the US). It also caused over 6 million deaths globally (over 1 million in the US). The Black Plague, however, killed over 200 million people, which was about 60% of the population of Europe at the time.
The Black Death is a bubonic plague caused by the Yersina pestis bacterium and carried by fleas. These fleas live on rats, which were everywhere in cities, and especially on ships. According to History.com, the Black Death arrived in Europe in 1347 when 12 trading ships from the Black Sea docked in the Sicilian port of Messina. This wave of the bubonic plague spread widely along the trade routes between Europe and Asia. However, the pathogens causing the plague have been around Europe since 3000 BCE or earlier. To the horror of those greeting the ships that fateful day, almost everyone aboard was dead, and those that survived were covered with black boils that seeped blood and pus. Port authorities quickly order the ships back out to sea, but it was too late to prevent the spread of the plague. The Black Death is highly contagious and even brief contact with infected people can spread the disease. Its onset is also very rapid and, paraphrasing Thomas Hobbes, the life of the victim is “nasty, brutish, and short.”
Infected people got swellings, sometimes as big as an egg or an apple, called “buboes.” These swellings were in their armpits or groin since the disease particularly affected the lymph system. Symptoms included fever, chills, aches, pains, vomiting, and diarrhea. Death generally followed soon after. It is said that people could go to bed at night healthy and be dead by the morning.
Naturally, this catastrophe scared people and they didn’t know what to do. People tried to avoid each other—the precursor to “social distancing.” No one wanted to touch anything that had come into contact with infected people. Cities often buried dead bodies in mass graves.
The bites of these fleas infected people, but just touching the secretions or infected clothing of a sick person could also transmit the disease. We also now know that the bacterium could travel through the air and spread that way as well. The poor sanitation practices at the time also contributed to the havoc. Also, doctors of the time had not yet learned of the germ theory of disease, later proven by Louis Pasteur.
People could easily see, however, that close contact with the sick helped spread the disease. Infected sailors often spread the plague. Port officials in Reguso in Italy required sailors to spend forty days on their ships before coming to land. This forty-day isolation became known as a “quarantine” after the Italian word for forty, quaranta. Quarantining the sick helped bring the plague under control, though it never totally disappeared. Every few generations brought a successive wave of plague.
One such wave, called the Third Plague, originated in China in 1855 and spread to port cities on the Pacific Rim, including Hong Kong and San Francisco. Today, the WHO estimates that there are still 1000 to 3000 cases annually in the world, though we can now treat the plague effectively with antibiotics. These cases occur in Asia, Africa, South America, and the Southwestern United States. We still caution travelers to the southwest desert areas to avoid wild rodents who can still carry the disease-bearing fleas. So bubonic plague is still with us. Will the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19, and all its seemingly endless variants persist in the same way?